Why online advertising sucks, and is a bubble

It isn’t adveristing itself. It’s the way it’s too often done.

I almost never click on an ad, for three reasons. First is that I almost never find what I’m looking for. Second is that I don’t want to waste the advertiser’s money on a bad click-through. Third is that I’m tired of looking at so much waste of pixels, rods, cones, cycles and patience.

Example: about two minutes ago I wanted to find what the sales tax is for Cambrige, MA. So I looked up sales tax cambridge, ma. At the top of the results was this sponsored link:

Massachusetts sales tax
SalesTax.com Get Current Sales Tax Rules & Rates for Specific Addresses & Zip Codes!

The first few “organic” (non-advertising) search results below that didn’t look promising, so I decided to take my chances on the ad.

Wasted my time. Salestax.com redirects to a tax.cchgroup.com page that’s headed by “CorpSystem® Sales Tax Solutions, Compliance without a burden”, plus piles of sales jive about CCH group products and “solutions,” but nothing obvious about what I’m interested in: the advertised “Rates for specific addresses & zip codes”.

I’m not going to waste more time digging into this, or looking for other examples of the same, because my point is made: this is baiting and switching, and just one of the ways that — for you and me — online advertising sucks and fails so often that it rounds to all the time.

It’s also one more reason why I believe the advertising bubble is due to burst. There’s a limit to how much abuse, misleading and general wrong-ness we’ll put up with. This has been tested for the duration, but at some point the failures become intolerable.

And those failures are not just of performance on the sell side.

What we need is for demand to find supply, not just for supply to “drive” demand. We are not cattle and we don’t like being herded, even if it’s by friendly chutes like Google’s. This was true before online advertising went nuts, and it will be true after the chutes get trampled.

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34 Responses to Why online advertising sucks, and is a bubble

  1. I feel your frustration.

    There is SO much bad advertising-supported content that it’s creating a real demand for quality, paid content.

    I love the expose by Brian Clark in his report on http://www.teachingsells.com

    He outlines exactly why Google is making paid content MORE viable, not less.



  2. Shawn Powers says:

    I think online advertising too easily takes out the human factor. Television commercials have people, granted actors, that relay (usually) something insightful about a product.

    Web ads tend to be more obviously deceiving. I don’t think TV ads are any more honest, but if you buy a product based on something Joe Montana endorses, you can be mad at Joe Montana. If you click on a web ad, you have only yourself to blame — and that is never fun.

    What that means for web advertising, I have no idea. I know that I too rarely if ever click on one. It’s definitely not something that works well. And as someone that makes a portion of his living online, I do WANT for it to work. 🙂

  3. Allen Taylor says:

    It’s probably evil, but I secretly (not so any more) hope the bottom falls out of most of it so we can get on with something that has more value.

  4. D says:

    I’m pretty sure the answer is that Massachusetts doesn’t have municipality sales taxes, only the 5% state (commonwealth) sales tax. At least, I’ve never noticed a city sales tax in my 30+ years in Massachusetts.

    And by making this post, you’ll have helped Google index the answer to everything.

  5. Doc Searls says:

    Douglas, http://www.teachingsells.com is closed. Can you summarize Brian Clark’s exposé? I also hate to admit that I don’t know exactly what “paid content” is. Subscriptions? Advertising? Not sure.

  6. Doc Searls says:

    Shawn, I agree. Those are good and insightful points. Web advertising is a great example of “fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me”. I’ve been fooled too often by ads on the Web.

    Still, I do want advertising to work.
    (I should add that both Shawn and I both work for Linux Journal, which makes much of its living off advertising. So this subject is close to home.) That’s why I started out by saying “It isn’t adveristing itself. It’s the way it’s too often done”. A subtle but important point.

    Sometimes the ad is straightforward: “Asus EeePC, just $250” is a good example of that, provided there isn’t a catch. Those kinds of ads are fine. What sucks are the ads that waste the user’s time, energy and good will, as well as that of the medium.

    There have to be better ways. And we’re still a long way from finding them, alas.

  7. Hanan Cohen says:

    Matt Haughey writes:

    “When people use search engines to reach your site, they’re looking for something. Chances are, your site probably doesn’t have what they are looking for, but with context-sensitive ads like Google’s Adsense, they’ll likely see ads for things related to their search terms.”


    There is an obvious conflict between providing the best search results and online advertising.

    Google is in both businesses.

  8. Todd says:

    I looked into this a couple of years ago and found out that most context insensitive online advertising is because of collusion between ISP’s, the major content portals ( Yahoo, AOL, MSN ) and the advertising whole sellers ( Google, DoubleClick ).

    ISPs are double dipping, making you pay for internet access AND selling you out to the highest bidder.

    APML would solve this, but until then use a script blocker like No Script.

  9. Doc Searls says:

    Hanan, you’re right that Google is in both businesses, and that they are in a degree of conflict. This has also been the case for newspapers, magazines and broadcasters for the duration. What allows management of the conflict is a “chinese wall” on both the production and consumption side, that makes clear that these are separate domains. Editorial is not advertising, and vice versa.

    Search results are editorial. They are not contaminated by advertising, and I’m not suggesting with this post that this is the case. In fact, Google led the way not only by making clear that advertising and search results are separate, but by improving advertising in two essential ways (among others): 1) making it far more accountable; and 2) charging only for click-throughs. These were big advances. But there is still waste. And too many ads are still misleading and aversive.

    I’m not sure this can be fixed. I hope it can. But I’d rather approch the problem from the demand side, by serving customers’ actual intentions, rather than by improving guesswork by advertisers and their media. That’s what ProjectVRM is all about.

    Oh, and as for Matt Haughey’s quoted point, users do not necessarily see ads for things they are interested in. They see automated guesses that or often (and perhaps usually) wrong.

    One reason we gave up on IT Garage (aside from the fact that it was overcome with comment spam) was that all the ads it got were for garage door openers.

  10. Hanan Cohen says:

    Doc, what do you consider a reasonable time for getting an answer to this question?

    I am trying another method for getting the answer. Asking other people.

    I have posted the question in Yedda


    (Please don’t cheat and answer the question if you know the answer)

    Let’s see how fast I get an answer.

  11. If you’d added ‘site:.gov’ to your search, I bet you’d’ve gotten a good answer, possibly as the top item.

  12. Emil Sotirov says:

    “And too many ads are still misleading and aversive.”

    May be because too many businesses (business models) are still misleading and aversive… as we have witnessed recently.

    So… it may not be advertising itself – as Doc says – and not even the way it’s done… it may be as basic as a widespread lack of moral integrity.

    Two days ago I posted something about a possible way to avoid some trivial contextual ad blunders (like serving McCain ads on a pro-Obama blog) – http://sotirov.com/2008/10/19/what-to-do-about-the-contextual-ad-blunders/

  13. RE: Doc Searls – Douglas, http://www.teachingsells.com is closed. Can you summarize Brian Clark’s exposé? I also hate to admit that I don’t know exactly what “paid content” is. Subscriptions? Advertising? Not sure.

    Yes, Paid content is a membership based site.

    Here’s the new pitch: Sick of looking for bartkins diet recipies and finding nothing but ads? example.biz has 500 ad-free recipies for $x (with social testimonials to back up the offer)

    TeachingSells explains that advertising supported sites are notorious for bad content because they *want* you to leave the site by clicking an ad. And TeachingSells goes on to point out that the new Social Media sites, blogging etc, are taking over the top of the search engines. This provides plenty of biased content with dubious accuracy, often based on personal opinion.

    Again, this trend is providing the average searcher with a frustrating experience trying to find good information – and it provides real, credentialed experts with an opportunity to provide quality content on a paid access basis.

    Finally Brain and Tony Clark explain how new technologies are permitting the re-purposing of text books into interactive online video learning environments.

    @brainclark tweeted recently that TeachingSells.com may be ready to re-open in January. Mark that day on your calendar.



  14. Hanan Cohen says:

    I have also posted the question to Yahoo! Answers and got an answer within minutes.

    “Sales tax in Massachusetts is 5 percent. There are no city taxes anywhere in the state. Remember, if you can “eat it or wear it” there’s no tax.”

    So, would you wait a few minutes for a good answer from other people?

    Isn’t this a partial solution towards VRM?

  15. Doc Searls says:

    Hanan, good point about Yahoo Answers. I’ve used them too rarely.

    Not sure it’s a partial VRM solution, though, mostly because the work we’re doing is elsewhere. But maybe it qualifies.

  16. Ravi says:

    The key here for enticing you to click was the lack of relevant results in the organic part. If the core (organic) is imperfect, the outer cover (advert) can’t really make it better.

    Were you logged into a google account or it was as is? They are supposed to improve relevance if one has an account (knowing ones preferences better, etc.)

    If google gets that right and opens access to your personal data, that would make them a better offering. Your feedback on the relevance would only help them improve.

    Probably move in the direction of a VRM solution as well?

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  20. Chip says:

    Quick 2cents
    Background – I’ve used adwords since about the first 3months of launch.
    But selling food products, targeting food buyers.

    “Dried Morel Mushrooms” and Earthy.com comes up.
    Very targeted, specific.
    Beauty is that you can be “granular”

    As a matter of fact, in my mind, the more granular the better.
    I don’t like generic terms “Gourmet Baskets” – nope but Fresh Chanterelles, not only do we hit the search term, but we advertise next to the term.

    Note that I’ve passed all upkeep to staff.

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  22. Doc Searls says:

    Chip, the kind of advertising you do is a perfect example of what Google and its best advertisers do right.

    What CCH does in the example I gave is to devalue advertising, and to devalue Google along with it.

    I think there will always be a place for good advertising. But in the long run newer and better ways will be found for demand to find supply, as well as vice versa.

    IMHO, etc.

  23. Jim Bursch says:

    Ad-supported media is corrupt and corrupting and deserves to die.

    The solution is to separate advertising from media, which will allow each to fully realize their full potential. In the case of advertising, it is as information about what is available in the marketplace. In the case of media, it is as information that serves its audience.

    For media, the only legitimate business model is paid content, mostly in the form of subscription (Netflix is my current favorite model). For journalism, I think it would be a combination of subscription and patronage, along the lines of public broadcasting (sans government subsidy). Community journalism has to be treated as a public good, not private property.

    For advertising, the solution is to treat mindshare/attention as private property that can be bought/sold/traded by the owners — which would be you, me and everybody else who has a mind. The demand comes from advertisers, the supply comes from consumers.

    My Mindshare 10-point Declaration

    1. My mindshare is mine.

    2. My mindshare has real monetary value.

    3. I have a right sell, trade, or keep my mindshare as I choose.

    4. Nobody is entitled to take my mindshare without my permission.

    5. Unsolicited and intrusive advertising amounts to mindshare theft.

    6. Mindshare theft is wrong.

    7. I have a right to resist mindshare theft.

    8. I demand media that does not deal in stolen mindshare.

    9. I support media that respects my mindshare.

    10. The world is better when individuals control their mindshare and their media.

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  25. Contextual advertising does not have to be irrelevant or intrusive. My site http://www.worldreviewer.com is both publisher and advertising network, and I think is an example of where content does not need to be trash. We run our own text based ads (in addition to the usual banners, and some google ads) from travel company partners, and clearly we want people to click out on our partners ads. But if they click too quick, and are irrelevant, my partners will not renew, so my job is to drive them, relevant, contextual traffic – if you are reading a post about the ‘serengeti migration in Tanzania’, chances are that you might want to know how to get there and see it, and who is running tours to there.
    It’s a healthy balance. No different from a print magazine – they won’t survive if they don’t deliver readers who are interested in their advertisers.

  26. Doc Searls says:

    James, my post wasn’t about the good advertising, but the bad. If all of online advertising were done your way, that would be way cool. Alas, too much of it is not.

    Another way of putting it: you’re configured to survive the bursting of the bubble. Hats off.

    Meanwhile I’ll keep working on approaching the market from the demand side. Symbiosis at work. Cheers.

  27. Pingback: Doc Searls Weblog · After the advertising bubble bursts

  28. David Havard says:

    Fortunately there has been so much money wasted on irrelevant ads resulting in wasted ad spend that advertisers are starting to see sense, and put the user experience first. Outside of the spammer world they are increasingly focusing on making sure ads are highly relevant. This is largely being driven by a desire for increased conversions but also by google charging more for ads that it does not deem relevant. Each ad now has a relevancy ratings and this heavily impacts how much the advertiser will pay for each click.

    When advertisers start paying over the odds for ads that do not convert, we can be pretty sure they will start to get their acts together!

    This is certainly a move in the right direction – lets hope it’s a quick one.

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  30. Tim Brickle says:

    My feeling is that advertising on the web historically has not been very clever or useful but now things have changed dramatically partly due to the growth of the social media space and contextual advertising through channels such as Google Adsense. This move has meant that people have become vary aware of the commerciallity of the web and switch off from overly corporate advertising. Advertisers have had to seek new avenues to present their goods in front of the consumer which has meant that the consumer now on the whole gets presented with more quality and useful advertising that many people actually want.

    I am a big advocate of Amazon. As a frequent buyer of goods on Amazon I now get presented with very clever results that match the goods I am looking for. It has made my whole shopping experience on the site easier and saves time. The advertising works.

    I run htttp://www.adventuresportsholidays.com which is both a publisher and an advertiser and our constant goal is to provide relevant information on products offered by our members at the point where they find it most useful.

  31. Tim Brickle says:

    Sorry guys the last paragraph of my comment above should have read:

    “I run http://www.adventuresportsholidays.com which is both a publisher and an advertiser and our constant goal is to provide relevant information on products offered by our members at the point where they find it most useful.”

  32. Doc Searls says:

    Tim, was your comment itself an ad? Just curious.

    As for Amazon, I don’t agree.

  33. Tim Brickle says:

    My comment was an ad as with every other comment on this post (every profile name has a weblink?). Your blog is an ad – it’s calling attention to your product ie you.

    http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/advertising (this is an ad for dictionary.com)

    I don’t agree advertising sucks I think the reality is it pays for the presence of quality content in a lot of instances.

  34. mike says:

    You can’t even go to a weather site and get the temperature without a 30 second delay with dancing icons trying to sell something. And have you noticed all the TV commercials during the Olympics have a driving drum beat which will have you screaming for mercy in seconds? This whole ad industry is in lockstep to program minds. Every facet of it. The people who are in the ad business are totally unaware of how much we HATE ads. They don’t care so I will block them off at every juncture. I don’t HAVE to let their noise into my head.

    I use the mute button at every break.

    I don’t listen to radio.

    I use the 800 numbers which come in the mail to get off their lists.

    I send my address label back to them in the business reply mail envelope.

    I make obscene X-rated remarks to the bimbos in the ads. Have you seen that hairhead in the progressive insurance ad? How many of you watched it a SECOND time?


    Stop the world I want to get off.

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