Here is an argument that has gone on since the dawn of man, "How many ads can I fit amongst my content without alienating more than x% of my visitors?"
Well, maybe not since the dawn of man... but at least since the dawn of publishing. Did Luther think of including ads in his Bible? Then again, maybe the whole thing was his ad. I digress.
The war may be between Content and Crap, however the carnage is inflicted upon the average users. Most savvy users have figured out by now how to have the Browser filter the crap out of a web page, but that still leaves a large majority dealing with the insane advertising techniques that unscrupulous websites pro-offer. This has led to an adaptation of the average web surfer, an adaptation that fits very well into normal human nature - Selective Scanning
Web users have become very good at tuning out peripheral non-content items on a web page. Here is a study on the eye movements of web surfers as they view a page. The part about users scanning is near the bottom. The most applicable thing I found was that ads on the right side of the page were the worst performers and ads embedded in the content were the best. Interestingly enough, performance seems to be inversely related to the annoyance factor; though the study certainly didn't put it that way. When embedding ads in content it becomes difficult to distinguish the two. Score one for ad revenue, minus one for usability. Embedded ads are like telemarketers, they want to sell you something NOW, no matter what it takes. If you don't buy the item now, they are not going to get the sale.
Contrary to websites that take this mentality, a website is really more like a Brick and Mortar store. Almost all websites rely on repeat customers; especially if the website does not sell a product. An exception would be a site with static content and only ads, but I am talking about real web businesses. A web business needs repeat users to keep reading the content, to continue purchasing the main product (if there is one), and to keep clicking the ads. What else does repeat traffic do? It increases the overall traffic organically, which gives a site better bargaining power with potential advertisers.
I am not saying that ads absolutely, positively, cannot be placed with content. Not at all. However, ads placed in content should:
- Add value for your users, keep it relevant
- Integrate with your site design
- Not distract from the content
Websites have taken many ideas from B&M advertising (product placement, packaging, etc) without adapting them correctly to a web site model. With limited space and time to impress a user, the web equivalent of placing the eggs and milk in the back can send users flying out the door.
Who wants to look at the on-line equivalent of Billboards and Telemarketer calls when changing to a different web site is so easy! Eventually users will not be content to simply scan over useless dross. They will take there viewing time elsewhere. This does already occur, but not to the degree that it will in the future.
There are a few critical events that are necessary to truly change the advertising model in place. Some of these are already starting to happen.
Reduced costs of web presence
I understand that it is incredibly cheap (or free) for Joe Blow to go start JoeBlowsAtBloging, however I am referring more to the medium and high traffic website environment. A multiserver web farm environment that is expensive to maintain because of hardware, software, personnel, and even power consumption. The cost of running a website at this scale must be significantly reigned in. Fortunately this is already happening. Many free services are already available to host content off of your internal network... if you care to rely on them (read: risk your data with them).
Simplified website writing/content delivery
Once again, I do not mean simplifying the process for Joe Blow Blogger. I mean simplifying the process for a small to medium sized Internet company. I think the reasoning here should be pretty obvious - reducing manpower. It will "never" be possible for one or two guys sitting in their moms basement to make a company truly profitable. They simply do not have the manpower to deal with the necessary items of programming alone; much less customer support, advertising (in a respectable manner), administration, etc. When a company is still in the small to medium size, administrative/executive costs should be minimal and generally unavoidable (if the business is having trouble with this it may not make it no matter what). Other than the costs associated with maintaining hardware, see above, the next big ticket item is the cost of software engineers. I am not saying that a company should overstretch it's employees, rather that the programming tools to create content rich web application with today's advanced features need to continue improving in order to reduce this part of the budget.
Higher availability of content specific advertising
Adsense is easy. Maybe too easy. Unfortunately Adsense shows what it wants, and you don't know what that is. It also does not allow you, understandably, to do much formatting to fit the ads in with your site schema.
Amazon has gone a step in the right direction by providing a very rich set of APIs. These allow a web site to format the advertisement in any way they want. Amazon has the luxury of being able to pay per conversion rather than per click. That can be a great advertising model for both parties. But only if the web site can be sure the advertiser is not having problems making conversions. Why should my revenue suffer because my advertising partner's website is terrible?
Direct partnership advertising is usually the best route, however the site/product must already be established. This method of advertising allows you to pick advertisers that will have products most suited to your users. After all, the advertisements need to provide value to your users. They are not there just to make money!
If these wishes would come true, it would be much easier to turn a profit without the clutter of advertising. Throw in increased competition due to lower margins and sites will be forced to better the advertising model from the customers perspective, or watch their traffic dwindle.
- Careerbuilder - Bad: Popups. Ads blend with the site in a way that makes them hard to distinguish rather than fit with the schema. Good: Not many ads
- ESPN - Bad: Popups. Video starts automatically. Ads everywhere, more ads than content. Good: Not sure.
- Digg - Bad: Ads don't really fit the schema. Good: Not many ads. Ads are distinguishable from content, kept separate.
And to be fair I should rate my current project:
The Second Supper News - Bad: Ads don't fit schema. Not targeted well enough. Good: Not many ads. Ads are distinguishable from content, kept separate.
Don't worry I am working on practicing what I preach. The site is only a month or so old and will be transitioning to Amazon ads which will be targeted to the readership and articles as well as integrate better than a box on the side.