Ad networks’ grip on news outlets

Ben Thompson's latest post tackles how web pages — especially web pages driven by advertising and ad networks — are bloated. Ad networks have gained huge adoption amongst big news websites, which largely cannot manage to sell their own inventory, and instead rely on a complicated workflow that can massively slow a website down.

The way it actually works is a little complicated: unlike print ads, which were delivered days ahead of time and inserted along with editorial copy before going to press, ads today are delivered “programmatically”. The process is actually kind of amazing, and consists of several different pieces (my reference to “ad networks” has been a bit simplistic):

  • When a user requests a URL, the publisher checks to see if they have any directly sold ads available (because of the scale problems noted above, fewer and fewer publishers have fewer and fewer directly-sold ads; advertisers just aren’t interested)
  • If they don’t, the publisher asks an ad exchange for an ad
  • The ad exchange, which has built up a profile of the user across all the different sites where the ad exchange is used, sends the (anonymized) user profile and website description to a variety of demand-side platforms (DSPs) (which actually sell the ads)
  • The DSPs examine the user profile and website description and a host of other factors and offers up the price they are willing to pay to serve an ad to the user
  • The ad exchange selects the highest price, retrieves the ad, and sends it to the publisher to display

All of this happens on a just-in-time basis, and you can see why advertisers love it: to a greater extent than ever before they are reaching exactly who they want to reach at the most efficient price possible. The result has been a huge increase in advertising on the Internet.

Ben's post, as well as John Gruber's (which Ben references multiple times), call for a reckoning of the current system, where pages are commonly 10mb+ and keep open connections for minutes at a time.

I've seen a lot of news organizations complain about these speed issues as well, and despite some very smart developers that work on these projects, from what I've seen ad and user tracking centric Javascript is often off limits. So even if you do a great job getting a huge page to load in 1-2 seconds, you are always beholden to what the ad network demands. Indeed, something must change.

I hate browsing news websites on mobile, and I don't love it on desktop. This recent round of conversation stems from iOS 9's content blocking feature, which makes ad blocking trivial. Mobile revenue is so huge a priority to big publishers that the threat is very real, hence the current reckoning conversations.

The whole thing makes the state of monetizing high-scale websites look pretty grim.

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