We’re Living In The World Wide Ad Honeypot

Portrait of Joshua Schnell
by Joshua Schnell
Nov 14, 2018

What was once known as the World Wide Web has now evolved to become the World Wide Ad Honey Pot. What was once a beautiful and seamless delivery mechanism for information has now become a sticky, hot, confusing mess designed to drive traffic to advertiser’s landing pages by pushing content delivery into the background.

Take a moment and think about the world’s greatest news brands. What have you come up with? Was it The Wall Street Journal? What about The New York Times? The Washington Post? When we think of renowned “journalism,” they certainly come to mind. But, all of these world-class news organizations have one thing in common, and it’s not their Pulitzer-worthy articles.

Each of the three news organizations listed above provides a very curious reading experience to their readers. Each of them, through a series of strange decisions, have made it pretty clear that readers aren’t their primary customers. Instead, they’re the product being sold to their real customers: advertisers. The experience delivered to their readers tells this tale better than anything I could write.

Consider the steps required for consuming an article on the website of these three major publishers.

The Wall Street Journal

The experience of going from an external source like Facebook to an article on the Wall Street Journal unfolds exactly like how you would expect it to, unfortunately:

  1. Click an interesting article on Facebook.
  2. Get redirected to the Wall Street Journal story.
  3. Read the title, and then start to scroll.
  4. Immediately click on an embedded advertisement by accident because it’s exactly where you would start to scroll on your phone screen, and it wasn’t loaded yet when you started to swipe.
  5. Get redirected to a house ad for a summer subscription sale at the Wall Street Journal.
  6. Hit the back button to go to the original story.
  7. Wonder why it took me seven steps to get to the article.

The New York Times

Maybe the world’s “paper of record” will take a different approach to delivering the news:

  1. Click an interesting article on Facebook.
  2. Get redirected to The New York Times
  3. Wait for the page to load.
  4. See a banner ad for… who knows what… it’s super pixelated and has, what I think to be, a picture of an orphan on it.
  5. Scroll past a picture, a byline, a signup request for a “briefing email” to a “show full article” button. Umm. Okay.
  6. Click the “show full article” button.
  7. Finally get to an article I was hoping to read about Shaunae Miller. It turns out that it was a daily news roundup article I originally clicked on, so I’m going to have to hunt for the information I was looking for this time. Start scrolling.
  8. Accidentally click on an advertisement for Enbridge (my gas company) because the Times’ page jitters while loading.
  9. Lazy loading seems to be consistently jumping text around. Whoops.
  10. Hit the back button in my browser, only to realize I’m in a new browser window on my phone. So the back button does nothing.
  11. Cry.
  12. Close the article. Go back to work. Sorry Shaunae, I ran out of time to read about you. I had a lunch meeting I had to get to, so I’ll try again later by Googling you.

The Washington Post

What about the publication now owned by Jeff Bezos (of Amazon fame). The guy who also founded Blue Origin, an “aerospace manufacturer, and spaceflight services” company. Surely, delivering the news isn’t as complicated as space travel:

  1. Click on an interesting article about the horrendous treatment of Gabby Douglas.
  2. The post loads in record fashion. Excellent. Plus one for WashPo.
  3. Oh, high there sticky footer ad. Oh, wait, it’s you again. The pixelated advertisement I saw in The New York Times. I’m still not sure if they want me to sponsor an orphan, or instead buying something called — what looks to be — Plan C. I don’t click.
  4. I start to scroll. Wait, now I’m on a site called Monnit, “a remote monitoring solution that works.” Sorry guys, I’m with Rollbar. I’m not sure what happened, or how I got here. I most definitely didn’t click an ad. C’est la vie?
  5. Find the old window I was redirected from. Joke’s on me. I wasn’t redirected to a new window this time. I should have clicked the back button. So, now I’m back on Facebook again, despite the article being loaded in a different window somewhere. It’ll probably remain open on my phone forever.
  6. I click the article again.
  7. Great, it loads in what appears to be record time. Start reading and scrolling slowly. Scroll right past that Plan C ad.
  8. Finally get to the end of the article.
  9. Rejoice.

I guess serving up the news is as difficult as space travel. Minus one for WashPo.

Here’s The Frustrating Thing

In total, I clicked three advertisements. All three times, I accidentally clicked and had no intention of clicking on an advertisement. I’m not against ads (I don’t even rock an ad blocker), but in each case, the products being delivered to me were either irrelevant or for products I already use (Hi Enbridge, I’m a customer. I’ve taken advantage of your Nest rebate already. Why are you paying to target me?).

Three articles. Three ads clicked. Zero intention of clicking an ad. If the goal was to trap me in a sticky ecosystem where I click on advertisements instead of read the news, all three publishers above have succeeded.

Maybe this is part of some larger Machiavellian scheme, or maybe the ad technology still isn’t quite there yet for these industry leading publishers; I can’t be sure anymore. That said, in all three cases the publisher got paid for advertisement clicks, but I had the luxury of getting more annoyed with each test. I only read one of the three articles, despite being genuinely interested in each.

Publishers shouldn’t be surprised that most people now get their news from headlines, instead of the detailed information in an article. They also shouldn’t be surprised that people no longer want to leave the confines of the platform for these news websites. Media companies have designed a system where the cost of clicking a link is too big of a burden for readers.

A Better Alternative

Here’s how the experience should have unfolded:

  1. Click an interesting link on Facebook.
  2. The article page loads without seizure inducing jittery content while ads finish loading.
  3. I read the article.
  4. I see an interesting advertisement related to the content I read today. That means no Plan C: Orphan Adoption ads. Maybe it’s one of those fantastic Nike ads we’ve been watching the last couple of weeks.
  5. I finish reading.
  6. Then I scroll back and check on that ad that caught my attention.
  7. Done.

I shouldn’t need an ad blocker to survive online. We had this stuff all figured out back in the mid-2000s. We’ve only made things more complicated since then. Are we really all that surprised that ad blocking has exploded, given the current state of content consumption online?

This approach isn’t working anymore.

It’s time we get back to our web roots and leave this ad honeypot behind for Pooh, because right now the current content experience on the web offers so little that it’s basically best described as A.A Milne’s character’s name.

That’s about all it’s worth, anyway.