I was reading this Pando Daily article about branded captchas last night, and I was disgusted but couldn’t totally put my finger on why. So, just a quick thought about the moral difference* between two main types of Internet advertising: search vs. display. Pardon the kindergarten-ness and complete lack of statistical evidence for anything I’m about to say.
*Things we culturally consider immoral tend to elicit a “disgust” reaction even if we can’t explain why. See here and click the “YourMorals” link to really get into this stuff.
Search ads are those links on google, bing, etc. that show up (usually with a shaded background to indicate thtat they’re different from the rest of the search results) in front of the “organic” SEO-driven results when you’re using google, bing, etc. to search for, say, new camping equipment. You, the user, type out “camping stove” in the search box, and google, bing, etc. spits out what it thinks are the best places to find that item, including everything from Wikipedia (learn more information about the item in the search term) to Amazon (buy the item in the search term). Google makes something like 98% of its revenue from websites that literally pay Google to have them put their link before the organic ones when a user searches for exactly “camping stove” and usually similar terms also. This business of paying google to show links when users search for specific terms on google.com is called paid search advertising, and it’s just about the best business model known to man.
And most importantly, I never, ever feel violated when a Colemen ad comes up when I’m using google, bing, etc. to search for terms like “camping stove.”
If I’m starting a t-shirt company that makes funny college mascot Ts, how am I going to find customers? Paid search advertising makes this fairly simlpe — google lets me bid against other people/businesses in similar boats for whose link will show up the highest when a random user searches for “New Mexico State University t shirt” and “funny college shirts” and “t shirts of college mascots” etc. Popular search terms cost more than unpopular ones, because the more popular a search term is, then by definition the bigger it’s audience will be. So, “funny t shirts” will be more expensive than “funny college mascot t shirts.” Generic terms are more expensive than specific ones as a general rule, because they cast a bigger net, ergo bigger audience. Bigger audiences cost advertisers more than smaller audiences.
All of this is to say, I’m perfectly comfortable being shown ads when I SEARCH for something. It seems perfectly reasonable.
But there’s more to Internet advertising than paid search. There’s display. And display ads are fundamentally different than paid search because every single display ad knows that no one cares about it. With search ads, each ad has a reasonable expectation that the ad might actually be HELPFUL to some portion of those who view it. But display? I don’t want to say that display ads are never (serendipitously) valuable for me, but they’re never intending to be HELPFUL. They seem a lot more sinister.
Sure, maybe I’m browsing Facebook (the ads you see there are highly targeted “display” ads) and see an ad for JackThreads.com and the sunglasses in the ad look sorta cool, and I click through. I don’t really mind browsing cool stuff, and odds are I wouldn’t have gone to JackThreads.com if not for that ad, but I, the user, fundamentally feel differently about clicking on a random ad when I’m browsing the Internet vs. searching for stuff. When I’m browsing, I want to browse.
And sure, maybe brands say, “Well, relevant ads are a valuable part of the browsing experience.” F that. No they’re not, because you’re not intending to “enhance my browsing experience.” You’re intending to get me to click a link and buy something. With search ads, I should expect that.
There are all sorts of things one could say in response to all this, and most basically come down to this: all advertising is just going after your wallet, so isn’t it all just morally equal? So be it. But the answer’s no, because it feels like less of a personal violation when I’m searching, because I’m searching. And I think the way the ad makes users feel (and I’m assuming my feeling is somewhat universal — correct me :) if you feel differently) plays a heavy role in evaluating the moral “rightness” of the ad. Faulty principle of “feeling elicited determines morality of the object”? Probably, but so be it. (This is a blog).
So, in conclusion, display ads are more immoral than search ads, because even if they’re both just going after my wallet, search ads don’t violate my expectations about what links I should expect to see and when, whereas display ads, especially the tricky kind mentioned in that Pando Daily article, do. When Google, the biggest search ad company, says, “Don’t be evil,” they are actually probably the lone company who makes most of its money on advertising that can say that and keep their tongue out of their cheek.
I’ll update this idea later on if I see good reasons to. And I’m also certainly open to the idea that evaluating advertising as moral/immoral is a complete waste of time, and furthermore, that maybe my evaluation is completely wrong. Feel free to make those cases to me in a comment or email :).