The dawn of sustainable ad practices

While perusing the technical documents relating to Google’s new Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) initiative, I noticed an interesting phrase that I’ve never seen before:

“A goal of the Accelerated Mobile Pages Project is to ensure effective ad monetization on the mobile web while embracing a user-centric approach… As part of that, those involved with the project are also engaged in crafting Sustainable Ad Practices to insure that ads in AMP files are fast, safe, compelling and effective for users.”

Given that I’ve often likened today’s complex, interconnected system of publishers, search engines, ad networks, and data brokers as a marketing ecosystem, considering sustainable ad practices is a healthy way to think about our current plight/existential crisis/moment of reckoning.

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Even if you disagree with the assertion that irrelevant ads are a form of information pollution, it’s clear that users want a cleaner, easier-to-navigate computing experience. Ads and ad tech are being increasingly perceived as major obstacles to this goal.

So what are sustainable ad practices? AMP’s documents do not quite define them. But we already know enough about why today’s unsustainable ads turn people off to infer the following about their properties:

Sustainable ads do not annoy

In 2014, researchers from Microsoft and Northeastern University surveyed a Mechanical Turk panel to establish what exactly is so annoying about digital display ads. According to this study, “The most common reason given for an ad being annoying was animation. The ‘animation’ category (typified by words such as ‘move,’ ‘motion,’ and ‘animate’) occurred 771 times. The second category of attentional impact, which had 558 mentions, is less important for understanding what makes ads annoying because it captures the psychological impact of annoying ads (e.g. ‘annoying,’ ‘distracting’) rather than the ad features themselves that annoy. The next most frequent category (435 mentions) was aesthetics (e.g. ‘ugly,’ ‘loud,’ ‘busy,’ ‘another cheap-looking ad’).”

Put simply, sustainable ads are classy. They stay put, don’t shake, don’t distract, and don’t look cheap.

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Any clicks on these polite, well-behaved ad units are going to be exactly the right kinds of clicks – from those who are genuinely interested in the product or service.

Sustainable ads are transparent

Yes, we all know native units generally outperform conventional ad units, but when they masquerade as editorial content, the FTC’s prohibitions against deceptive advertising come into play. So, I’m undecided whether native is a truly sustainable form of advertising – at least until the industry (on its own or with a gun to its head) agrees on clearer disclosure signals.

The Acceptable Ads criteria published by AdBlock Plus is a good place to start:

“Advertising should be clearly marked as such with the word ‘advertising’ or its equivalent, and it should be distinguishable from page content, for instance via a border and/or different a background color.”

Look at the way the New York Times does native: its ad units are loudly and proudly disclosed as ad units “from our advertisers.”

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Sustainable ads are safe

About a year ago, the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) released a detailed report on ad-blocking behavior. According to the report, about 11 percent of ad-block adoption is driven by the desire to ward off malware developers, leveraging ad networks to inject nasty payloads to user devices. But public awareness of the security issue increases with each new hack that hits the headlines, making anti-ad and anti-virus software synonymous in the public mind.

This is where AMP HTML can play a huge and important role. Just as HTML was a subset of SGML, AMP is a “light” subset of HTML that strips out some traditional capabilities. One in particularly is the ability of publishers or ad networks to execute arbitrary JavaScript or third-party scripts that bloat pages, slows mobile performance, and provides hackers with ways to inject malware onto users’ devices.

AMP doesn’t eliminate JavaScript, but it does put it in a cage. It forces developers that are seeking to use interactive doodads like polls or lightboxes to use safe, pre-built blocks of code called Custom Elements or Web Components.

Google hasn’t mandated that publishers publish AMP compliant content, but it’s pretty clear that publishers who do will get a major advantage in visibility, so the market will naturally follow. The search giant is backing AMP heavily, going so far as to offer publishers the use of its caching infrastructure to allow pages to load faster.

While the AMP spec was just announced, if Google can clean up digital advertising as effectively as it cleaned up the SEO industry over the past five years, digital advertising on the open web has a long and sustainable future ahead.

Move now before “sustain-ageddon” forces you out of business.

Homepage and article images via Flickr

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