The horrible awfulness of online ads

Been thinking a lot about advertising and ad blocking. Last night, I had my “Aha!” moment.

I’ve long used Ghostery as a browser extension to control and, mostly, block trackers that invade my browsing experience, dig for my private data. Ghostery is one of those things that does a lot, but does it mostly under the hood. What I notice is the number of trackers it encounters. Just a number. Even a large number didn’t really register as anything more than, good thing Ghostery is doing its job.

But then I read this article by Rob Leathern.

Rob’s words:

I had heard about heavy mobile web pages, and wondering what was loading that took up SO MUCH BANDWIDTH, I turned on Charles Proxy on my desktop and ran my iPhone’s IP traffic through it, and I only visited one mobile website to test it out: — my guess is there are plenty of other similar sites that will exhibit similar behavior.

In a nutshell, Rob saw exactly two ads, both small and both near the bottom of his iPhone screen, one behind the other. He was on the site for exactly 5 minutes (he timed it) and Charles Proxy recorded all the activity that occurred on that page.

You really must go to Rob’s article to read all the details, but in a nutshell, the loading of the New York Post front page (here’s a link to it, if you dare) produced over 900 HTTP/HTTPS calls, about 10.3 megs of data consumption, and 291 different transactions using his IP address.

To truly get your head around this horrifying madness, take a look at Ghostery’s complete map of the New York Post front page loading activities. If the link doesn’t work, go here, and enter the Post URL in the text field at the top of the window.

The way Rob explains it, there are multiple large .jpg images and invisible/silent autoplay video ads playing underneath the innocuous text ads that appear as the only ads on the page.

Remember, I didn’t see any video content nor any video ads at all. If there is not willful fraud here, loading ads in the background that are impossible to see, then at the very least it is ‘user-hating’ irresponsible behavior to have a 10+mb payload with hundreds of http calls in a mobile browser.

Many publishers simply must have a sense that something nasty is going on — when their users complain about slow page loads on mobile web — but they either don’t have the tech savvy and/or more likely, they won’t ask questions about how their site could possibly be monetizing as well as it is when simple math indicates that their users aren’t watching that many video streams. Many simply turn a blind eye.

Ad industry insiders talk about “improving viewability” — but make no mistake, these are likely not mistakes made by inexperienced workers — just as mobile ads that pop up iTunes Store pages for mobile app installs are not casual errors — this is an industry that persists by helping already-fraught businesses like newspapers and online publishers survive at the expense of the advertisers who supposedly help us users have free content.

Is it any wonder desktop ad blocking has been on the rise, and many iOS users are excited at the prospect of using content blocking in iOS9 to get rid of mobile ads? The industry has only itself to blame.

First things first, please do follow the headline link and read the article. Good for Rob to get the links, good to get the whole story. And pass this along, if you would.

I see ad blocking with new eyes now.