The Challenges Facing Online Advertising

on August 13, 2018

I’m fortunate that Tim and Ben provide the opportunity to write about anything technology on this forum. In this column, I want to address two different subjects.

Online Ads
We’ve been convinced that online advertising provides some of the most effective means to sell products. Moreover, based on the success of Google, Facebook and others, we’ve all accepted that premise. We see ads hundreds of time a day as we read the news, visit websites, each tailored to our specific profile and interests based on our browsing habits and other online activities. However, based on my own experience and many of those I’ve talked with, whatever algorithms or rules are being used to figure what ads to show us, are seriously flawed and could be much better.

Two years ago, I visited Harry’s website to read about their razors and blades being sold online. I purchased a starter set and a few months later subscribed. I rarely ever returned other than to check on a shipment. Ever since – for two years running – I see Harry’s ads on my computer, phone, and tablet, morning noon and night. Dozens of times every day. I’ve frequently clicked on the corner of their Google ad where you can report or complain about the ad, and I consistently select “stop seeing this ad” then select the option “seen this ad multiple times,” and get the message from Google “we’ll try not to show this ad again.” However, it seems I only see it more often. I spoke with Harry’s, and their solution is to clear your caches and browsing history, but that hasn’t worked. I’ve also added ad blockers, but these ads are so pernicious, almost like weeds, that they still manage to show up.

If it were only Harry’s, I’d chock it up to some anomaly. However, it’s happened with a few other items as well. The reward I got for buying a pair of Allbirds shoes a year ago now are ads for every kind of shoes most everywhere I go on the web (in between the Harry’s ads). What’s strange is that I don’t see many other ads repeating, as if Google has typed me as someone that shaves and walks.

One of the significant issues in serving up ads that are based on interests is that Google doesn’t know when our interests have been satisfied, either with a purchase or a decision to move on. The exception, of course, is Amazon that knows the difference between looking and buying, and appropriately tailors their ads with that knowledge in mind.

I suppose numbers don’t lie, and Google can prove that their ads tailored for each of us are more effective, but they are also much more annoying than random ads. In fact, they’re creepy at times, messaging us that they know where we were online or what we were thinking about. That can be jarring and interrupts us from reading an article or doing other work online. They grab more attention than random ads, just as they are supposed to do. More effective and more annoying.

A Facebook Solution
Having followed and written about Facebook and the mess they’ve created, it’s very discouraging to see how little Zuckerberg is doing to protect us from interference from the Russians in our upcoming elections. The latest act of contempt is not replacing Alex Stamos, their respected chief of security who, apparently tangled with Zuckerberg and Sandberg about being more transparent and more aggressive in dealing with their problems. Instead, Facebook said, they are spreading the expertise into individual groups. Anyone that understand organizational behavior knows that’s a way of diffusing responsibility and accountability and makes it more difficult to hold executives accountable.

Even if Facebook did take these threats more seriously, it might just be that their basic model can never be adjusted to let in the well-intended advertisers while keeping out the bad players. That’s a terrible thought as we approach November. Perhaps there’s only one solution to prevent a tainted election, based on the long tradition of banning campaigning around voting locations during on election day.

We should consider having Facebook suspend operations 30 days before the mid-term election. Yes, it may sound outlandish. How can a private company be prevented from operating and no one has the authority to make this happen. However, how important is preserving our elections and our democracy? Moreover, does anyone have a better idea that would be equally effective?

Lastly, if there’s a common thread with this column on online ads and Facebook, it’s that it may be time for an Internet and Facebook that’s supported by paid subscription rather than advertising.