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Can Web Ads Add Up For Readers, Not Just Advertisers?

Like many of you, I've gotten too much practice at clicking the "close" button on Web ads that try to seize my attention by popping up, popping under or pushing down. Unlike many of you, my livelihood partially depends on how many Web ads people do notice and, to some degree, act upon.

So I don't pretend to be a detached, objective observer in today's column about the state of the online-ads business.

(Note that this morning, The Post announced yet another round of employee buyouts--the day after Post chairman Donald E. Graham issued a rather gloomy letter to shareholders about the paper's short-term prospects.)

My story today began as a blog post on Google's new "interest-based advertising" initiative, in which the Web search/services giant will use anonymized data about the online reading habits of users to determine their interests -- but will also let those users see and edit those profiles.

The immediate reaction to proposals like that is often a cry of "none of your damn business!," followed by efforts to engineer some escape from the planned surveillance.

But if advertisers can't get our attention with information that's more relevant, they will instead try to grab it by being more obvious (which often means being more obnoxious). In a declining economy, they're not going to sit back and run the same old boring banners.

I hate annoying ads, and I don't like irrelevant ones even if they refrain from flashing or floating across the browser window. But if ads are relevant, I don't mind. If they're relevant and can tip me off to a good deal, I will bring them upon myself.

The best example I can think of, as mentioned in the column, is Amazon's Twitter feed of MP3 deals. This has gotten me to spend money faster than perhaps any other ad I've seen -- it's been a matter of seconds between my seeing a blurb about a one-day sale on an album and my clicking the "buy" button on Amazon's site. In the process, I've gotten comfortable with buying MP3s on that site... oh, and look, here I am repeating its sales pitch to you all for free!

So if a) the ads that I'm going to see anyway can speak to my own interests instead of making me wonder what kind of cretin the advertisers think I am; b) I can remain a faceless, nameless bundle of interests to the advertisers in the process; and c) this keeps my employer in business, I will not object.

I had no idea if readers with no economic stake in Web ads would see my point. But so far, it seems that you do. Every single comment on the column and reader e-mail in my inbox has talked only of how annoying it is to have to look past, click through or read around obnoxious ads. If you disagree with that early verdict, or if you want to add your voice to the chorus, the comments are yours...

By Rob Pegoraro  |  March 26, 2009; 11:18 AM ET
Categories:  The Web , The business we have chosen  
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Another great and easy way to track amazon's mp3 deal of the day is through the following page. Besides the page being updated daily along with previewing/listening capabilities, there's also a gadget you can install on iGoogle or wherever that lets you easily see the deal and preview it. Great tool if you are into music downloads:

Posted by: cmsell | March 26, 2009 12:28 PM | Report abuse

I'm sort of stuck in the middle on this one.

On the one hand, I agree that content providers (in this case, the Post) should have a means of getting paid. Everyone likes to get paid for their work, right?

On the other hand, I have a strong dislike for the idea of Google following me from site to site. As you said, "None of your damn business."

Besides, they're not doing a very good job with relevancy as it is. More often than not, the "context relevant" ad they display is that stupid "One rule for a flat stomach" ad which is selling laxatives as a weight loss plan.

Apparently Google's logic is, "Oh! They're reading Rob Pegoraro's column. They must be fat!"

To be fair, Google initially showed an ad for their Chrome browser. Not exactly relevant to the content of today's blog post, though the incognito mode does, allegedly, offer a way to keep from being tracked.

But now that I'm previewing my reply, they're showing an ad for a likely scam, "How a Christian Mother makes 5K a month from the comfort of her home."

Not exactly sure how they figure any of this is relevant to a blog post about advertising models.

Posted by: dactyl | March 26, 2009 12:50 PM | Report abuse

I have complained to the Post for years about the obnoxious ads that block access to news content. I don't mind ads on the side of the web page, but to me it's crossing the line when the ads block what I came to see. Now I won't access the Post's web site without an ad blocker plug-in.

Posted by: Skeet_Shooter | March 26, 2009 9:34 PM | Report abuse

In order for the internet to remain as free as it is (after I pay my provider), there has to be some way to raise monies. If the ads are alongside, i don't mind. i dislike those that pop up and cover the message or one that takes up the whole screen and you have to close it. i really tbelieve i pay more attention to those at the side, they stay on for the whole time I am on the screen and I am seeing them out of the corner of my eye. I don't appreciate any rated xxx. On my personal blogs, I make a disclaimer that I neither do nor do not recommend the advertisers.

Posted by: LindaJoyAdams | March 27, 2009 8:38 AM | Report abuse

Rob, great minds and all that, but I was just wondering today if some form of reader ads click-through would be of benefit to local newspapers. With all of the discussion of local newspapers, in particular the actual reporting and not just the medium itself, I wondered if newspapers could "sell" reported pieces with revenue from click-throughs, ads, etc. going to the original reporting source.

I know the question is slightly off-topic, and I admit my barely-above novice status, but could some form of what you're discussing be used to help local reporting get credit for every source that links, with credit for eye-views as well as click-through ad sales?

BTW, my local paper, the Northeast MS Daily Journal, is already owned by a non-profit foundation that supports many local agencies and charities in the area. Their reluctance to have a real web presence is understandable, but frustrating. Just, FYI.

Posted by: KeninMS | March 27, 2009 11:43 AM | Report abuse

Given that I don't pay a dime to enjoy the Wa Post online (I'm on the West coast so I don't pay for a print copy), I realize that the adds I see are in fact the 'payment' for the service. That being said I can't think of a single one on the Wa Post's site that I've found relevant. The Apple adds (and this morning's Microsoft add) on the NY Times have been entertaining enough that I've clicked for sound, but still I don't buy computers based on adds. When it comes to targeted advertising I'm torn between a preference for adds I'd relate to and MYOB or more to the point if you're going to use me for market research then pay me for it). That being said consider the following a list of major offenses when it comes to online adds. #1 being the most egregious

1) Staring at a page devoid of the content I'm seeking while the add server struggles to load the adds.

2) Sound. No page should ever load with sound /video playing by default (this includes Ann Telnaes' animations, which I do enjoy). Click to play is fine

3) Onmouseover expanding adds. It drives me nuts when I'm moving the mouse down the page and suddenly the whole page is take over by an add. Just like with sound a click should be required to activate. Conversely pages that I have to click through to get to the page I want, don't bother me.

4) Poor web coding standards. I use Firefox on Linux a lot and add content frequently winds up covering up the content do to poor coding.

This is a little OT but as long as I'm on the subject of things that drive me nuts: Pages that feel the need to do a full refresh really should have gone out with IE6. Haven't the Post's web lackeys heard of AJAX? There's noting like getting ready to click on a link from the home page, when suddenly it decides to reload.

Posted by: foxn | March 27, 2009 1:06 PM | Report abuse

I would happily, joyfully pay quite a bit of money for access to the Washington Post online. I would pay even more for access to ad-free content. I've come to question the whole "online content must be free to users and therefore supported by advertising" model, and I can't believe I'm the only one. Rob, send me a bill.

Posted by: --sg | March 28, 2009 10:58 AM | Report abuse

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