Category Archives: Internet

The morbidity of the Facebook Timeline

Not much happened in my life between being born and 2007.

When Facebook rolled out its “Timeline” to replace their Profile pages, it seemed like a neat gadget.  It seemed like an odd move to get rid of the activity stream that had been on Profiles before, but it was kind of neat to see an overview of the person’s life, along with the large picture they could choose to show at the top.  The Timeline is more visually interesting and distinct than the Profile, but over time something about it bothered me, and I didn’t really get get my mind around it until now:

The Facebook Timeline is morbid.

Where are we used to seeing the “timeline” paradigm?  History books.  Timelines are used for tracking progressions of significant events chronologically, events that usually have an explicit beginning and an explicit ending.

When I look at my Facebook Timeline, I feel it is a weird mesh of the profound and the trivial.  It lists a string of mostly insignificant events, things I’ve liked, comments I’ve posted, photos I’ve uploaded, songs I’ve listened to, and other nuggettes of daily life.  Alongside these minutiae, at one end is my start (birth), and at the other end…my end.  That’s pretty heavy for a social network profile page.

The timeline therefore becomes an online tombstone in progress.  Someday, nothing I do will show up on it anymore, and my friends and family will come to my Facebook Timeline to see what happened in my life, and they’ll see that I liked this viral cat video, or listened to Lady Gaga on Spotify.  Maybe a few significant events will be sprinkled in between, but how much of what we do every day on Facebook is really significant or worth remembering for more than a few hours?

It is this unintentional memorializing of the trivialities of life that I object to, and why I wish Facebook would bring back the old Profiles.  I liked them when they felt fluffy, when they were fleeting, and changed constantly based on my whims, and captured the essence of now rather than documenting my existence for future generations to peruse and be amused by.

If I wanted to create a memorial to myself, a summary of my life, a memoir, I would do so on my own.  There are probably sites dedicated to this.  But why force this morbid paradigm onto my daily communications with friends and family, without giving me a choice in the matter?

Most design decisions Facebook are very much about living in the moment.  The News Feed, the Ticker, Chat, Messaging, Open Graph, Places – all have been built to spread information about NOW, about what I’m doing, where I’m doing it, and whom I’m doing it with, so to slap a layer on top of this that turns my Profile into a living document of my life is intensely off-pitch.

As it stands, the morbidity of the Timeline has largely turned me off from using Facebook.  Hopefully Facebook will realize the error of their ways and rebuild Timelines to be more temporal and less monumental.  Time will tell…

 

The Kindle is dead, long live the Kindle

I’ve been complaining (whining) about the Kindle for some time now.  My main argument was that with the impending emergence of netbooks and tablets (which weren’t out yet when I started this thread), a dedicated “e-reader” was pointless and destined to fall by the wayside.  It was clearly a stepping stone to devices that offered an e-reader as just another piece of software on a device that was capable of far more.

Amazon has now released the Kindle Fire, a color tablet that is based on the Android OS rather than their proprietary Kindle OS, just as I told them to.  The world doesn’t need another OS, and Amazon doesn’t need to waste money designing one, so they’re much better off leveraging Google’s OS and adding the Kindle software on top of it.

While Amazon is still offering Kindle dedicated e-readers, it seems clear that the Fire will be Amazon’s focus going forward, and the dedicated e-reader platform will probably be de-emphasized and fall by the wayside as tablets get cheaper and the price difference between tablets and dedicated e-readers approaches zero.

So to Amazon, I say well done: you’re focusing on what you’re good at and providing a reasonably full-featured tablet at a very competitive price.  Will it put pressure on the iPad?  Probably not a lot because it will be the category leader for the foreseeable future, but clearly the race to the bottom for tablet prices has started, just as it did for PCs a few years ago.

Google+: Better than Buzz and Wave, but no Facebook Killer

So I finally got in to test out Google+, and I have to say it’s definitely an interesting product.  I can’t dismiss it the way I did with Google Wave.  Here are some of my first impressions:

Circles

Adding friends to your Circles starts out fun but quickly becomes a daunting task.  G+ appears to use my Gmail account history to suggest people that I might want to add to my Circles, which is convenient, but regular Gmail users like myself may end up with an overwhelming number of recommendations.

I have 500 recommendations (presumably this is a maximum), and I just don’t want to take the time to sort them all into Circles. Maybe I’ll whittle away at it over time…I stopped after 40 friends because it’s just too tedious.  This is why the Friend Lists never took off over at Facebook, but I don’t think it’s a good sign that Google hasn’t really improved upon the concept aside from slapping a nifty UI on it.

It’s not immediately clear that people whom you add to your Circles will receive an email notification.  I added several people whom I’m not close to, but I just wanted to follow their updates (like Twitter), and they may be rather confused when they see that I’ve added them on G+.  Google needs to work a little on this process to make it more clear what’s going on, and what the consequences of your actions are.

The Stream

In “The Stream” (like Facebook’s Feed), you can see updates from anyone whom you’ve added to your Circles, without them having to approve you as a friend (although they are notified, and can Hide or Block you after the fact.)  This makes G+ work a little like Twitter, actually – you can have a 1-way relationship, more of a “follow” than a “friend,” but you still need to know someone’s email address in order to “follow” them, so don’t expect many celebs to be joining up or ditching Twitter for this.

Using 1-way relationships is a very interesting product decision, and it’ll be interesting to see how it plays out.  It’s possible that people may develop a Twitter-like usage pattern, where they follow a lot of people that they don’t know, particularly in business circles.  For instance, if you can get the email addresses of people in your industry, you can just start following their G+ updates, but of course you’ll only see content those people make public unless they add you to one of their Circles and publish to that Circle.

If you add someone to your Circle who isn’t using G+, they’ll get your updates via email, which is either an awful idea or a fantastic one: if you don’t have G+, you’ll get your inbox spammed by your friends who do, so that could motivate more people to join, or it could just annoy them.  Maybe both. It’s a little risky, but if people surrender and sign up for G+, it’ll be a big win for Goog.

Update: I received this via IM from a friend today:

why is google+ spamming me when they know I’m not a member and I can’t join? load of crock

One side effect I noticed: I’m hesitant to share things with my Circles, because I don’t want my friends who aren’t on G+ to get emails for every little thing I share.  It’s okay on Facebook because people are already there, and if they happen to see my update, that’s cool, but most things I post to Facebook, I do NOT want to send to my friends via email, or I would have done that in the first place.  Once all my friends are on G+, it’s not an issue, but that’s a long ways off.  Until then, I may have to “unfriend” my contacts who are not on G+ just to avoid spamming them, or I’ll have to post things as “Public” without posting to a Circle.

The Toolbar

Once you’re on Google+, you’ll see a toolbar on any of the common Google sites you go to – Gmail, search, Docs, Picasa, etc.  There’s a “Share” button at the right of the bar, so you can easily add things to your Stream from any of those sites.  A smart move, and it should kick start sharing.

G+ has some neat features, but I’m not sure how Google is trying to position it.  It appears to be a direct Facebook competitor, as I really can’t imagine myself using both for very long.  It’s just too much sharing, too much work to maintain friends lists, too much seeing what my friends are up to, and too much “hanging out.”

I really wanted to see Google tie their tools together as a part of G+.  All of Goog’s consumer tools still exist as independent entities, when most should be tied into one interface.  Picasa is tied in (to some extent), but Gmail and Calendar are totally separate still, which is unfortunate.  If Google could reposition G+ as the only site you need to go to for your daily communication needs, they’d have a leg up on Facebook which is struggling mightily to integrate email functionality. Hopefully they’ll move this way soon.

Hangouts

Hangouts are audio/video chat rooms. I suppose Google wanted to be clever by giving them a hip, in-your-face name, but it’s often rather confusing.  How’s this for clear product messaging: “Hangouts: Have fun with all your circles using your live webcam.”  Oy.  I started “hanging out” by myself, and it posted to my stream that “Joel Downs is hanging out.”  When I finished the experiment, it told my friends “Joel Downs hung out.”  I’m sure my friends were fascinated.  It’s even better than the inane Facebook Places updates like “Joel Downs is at Starbucks.”

Sparks

Sparks are interests.  You type in things you’re interested in, and Google recommends content for you.  I assume it’ll put recent recommendations in my stream, but I haven’t seen that yet.  It could be a nice way to keep on top of topics you’re interested in if it works well, akin to Google News Alerts or Yahoo’s Alerts.  We’ll see.  Why does Goog call them “Sparks”?  I have no idea.  They definitely built in a bit of a learning curve.

Other Stuff

I won’t cover the Photos or Profile today…neither section seems particularly robust or different.

Summary

Google has a good product here, but so far I think it’s too little too late.  Google+ just isn’t well differentiated from Facebook, and it certainly isn’t any easier to use, in fact, the terminology alone may relegate its usage to a younger audience that digs the hipness and wants to spend the time to figure out how to use it.  It’s much more interesting and robust than Google Buzz was (not a high bar), but it’s hard to picture many people either 1) switching away from Facebook or 2) using both G+ and Facebook regularly.  My guess is that G+ will attract the same demographic as Gmail, but will have a hard time going beyond that.  Google will have to do some serious work to woo Facebook users, and they need to do it fast.

Google Wave’s Fatal Flaws

So I got my Google Wave invite a couple weeks ago.  I have been fairly skeptical of all the Wave hype lately, but I was still intrigued and very much looking forward to seeing what it had to offer.  I logged in, and…didn’t know what to do.  I felt like the first guy in the world to have email – it sounds like a cool idea, but there’s nothing to do until you know other people who have email, too.

Wave allows you to send invites out to 9 friends, so I sent some out.  And waited.  A week later, finally they started showing up, and I could really see what Wave had in store.

Wave is slick, and pretty, and for the most part fairly easy to start using, but it has too many flaws that will keep it out of the hands of mainstream users and limit its adoption to tech-savvy user groups.  My biggest issues with it are:

  • No email integration. This is supposed to be the communication tool for the next century, but it isn’t backwards compatible with the communication tool(s) for the last century.  Surely someone will write an extension to allow it to interface with email, but at that point you’ll lose all the cool Wave features, making the whole exercise moot.
  • Nothing to do until you know people who have it.  Adding an email extension would alleviate this.
  • Built by programmers, for programmers. As Lifehacker points out, “the first search command every Wave newbie needs to know (is): with:public” which will allow you to see public waves and is very useful when you have no friends using Wave yet. Really guys?  Resorting to cryptic command lines in a supposedly mainstream web app?  Let me guess, was this documented somewhere in your man pages?
  • No notifier application. If you’re not in Wave, there’s no way to know you have new Waves waiting for you.  There is a third-party app to do this, but it’s annoying that I have to have a notifier for my email and Wave.
  • Watching people type in real time. Internet “old-timers” will remember that the original tools for instant messaging over the Internet (like “talk”) worked like this.  Surprisingly, it’s not much fun to watch other people type and correct their own typos.  Really.  ICQ and AIM popularized the “wait until they’re done to send the message” model, and no one looked back (until Wave.)
  • Editing other people’s messages. If I want to collaborate on something with my friends, I’ll tell you.  Don’t just let other people edit my messages willy-nilly.  It’s fun for a few minutes to edit what your friends said, but threads can quickly become chaotic and impossible to follow.  There’s a reason message boards don’t have this feature.
  • Google Wave

    Click for larger image

    Un-novative thread presentation. In a giant leap back to 1997, Wavelets are organized by thread first and not by date.  This means that responses to any message within the wave get indented directly below that message rather than showing at the bottom of the Wave, so new messages end up located all over the place within the thread.  In long threads, you may have to scroll up and down for several pages to find the new messages.  For ‘net old-timers, you may remember that many of the first, primitive online forums were arranged like this, but somewhere along the lines everyone discovered that it was easier to follow a conversation by always posting new messages at the bottom and just quoting the message it was in response to.  It’s not as elegant from a purist perspective, but it’s much easier for the user to follow.

  • Replay. The only reasons the Replay feature needs to exist are 1) the flawed thread presentation mentioned above and 2) the fact that anyone on the thread can edit any message.  Using replay isn’t fun or interesting – it’s tedious, and it’s there to compensate for unintuitive UI and unnecessary features.
  • Worst offense: Too many things in one. Wave seemingly tries to replace your email, your IM, and your Google Docs, but doesn’t do a great job on any of them.  I much prefer using my IM client to talk to my friends, so I’m not giving that up.  Gmail is a better email client, and Google Docs and Spreadsheets are pretty great for collaboration, so I’m not giving those up. (Gmail and Docs already have messaging built-in, and it’s executed rather nicely, btw.)  By trying to do so much, it doesn’t do anything well.

I should have known we were in trouble when this was the first line of the “Getting Started” wave: A wave can be both a document and a conversation. For how many users would a statement like this make any kind of sense?  For someone like myself, that’s a pretty deep statement and worth some pondering, but how would that help my mom figure out what’s going on?

Wave is truly a technical marvel, and the fact that it works as well as it does is impressive.  It’s easy to see why the room full of developers at the Wave unveiling was in awe.  But, you must do more than impress developers to build a tool that the mass market will adopt.

Ultimately I think Wave will find some fans within tech-savvy organizations because it could be useful for collaboration and communication in situations where everyone in the company is using it (competing with Yammer), but it won’t gain any significant market penetration compared to email or IM.

Related posts:

I love Dropbox

dropbox_logo_homeI admit it, I’m in love.  Joel and Dropbox, sitting in a tree…yadda yadda.  I am in love with Dropbox (getdropbox.com).  If you’re not familiar with it, Dropbox is a little program that lets you sync a folder on your computer with 1) a drive online in the “cloud” and 2) any number of other PCs you own.  You get 2GB of online storage for free, and can pay for more if you want.

With Dropbox, I can plunk files I’m working on into my “My Dropbox” folder, and at the speed of the Internet all my other PCs at home and at work will have that file available.  If I delete it off one, it’s gone from all of them.  If I accidentally delete it (and clear my PC’s Recycle Bin), I can find the file on the web interface.

One of the coolest features I’ve found is the ability to share folders with others.  Here at the office we have a shared Dropbox folder that we can all edit.  If I need a file for a presentation, I just put it on the shared folder and it’s available on the conference room computer or on anyone’s else’s PC in the building.  It’s like having a file server, but much, much easier.

A related program that I’ve been using religiously is Sugarsync.  Sugarsync works in much the same way as Dropbox, but it allows you to sync multiple, existing folders on your PC.  I’ve set it up so I have my “Music”, “Pictures”, “Videos”, and “Documents” folders all sync’ed separately, so I can choose which folders to sync to which PCs – for instance, I don’t need to have all my media on my work PC, so I only sync my Documents folder to it.  If I need a video or picture, I can always download it from the Sugarsync website.  I upgraded my Sugarsync to the 100GB plan so I can sync every file I have to the remote server.  Awesome benefit of doing this – no need to do backups anymore.  I can get my files on any of my PCs, and I don’t have to backup any of them.  Computing nirvana! (Yeah, I’m a geek.)

The only thing I’ve had trouble with on SS is when you delete large numbers of files – SS puts these into a Recycle Bin of their own, and those files contribute to your storage quota.  I once deleted 30GB of files just to move them somewhere else, and I went over my quota because those files were still in the online Recycle Bin.  And, unfortunately, there’s no “Empty Recycle Bin” feature…hopefully they will address this soon.  UPDATE: Sugarsync contacted me after this blog post, and let me know that: “In the desktop client, you can right click on the Deleted Items folder and select Empty Deleted Files.”

So currently I use Dropbox for the small number of files I need to work on all the time or just for transferring files between computers, and Sugarsync for my comprehensive file backup and sync solution, and it’s been working great.  I don’t worry about PCs crashing or accidentally wiping my hard drives anymore.  Let me tell you, it’s a very freeing feeling for those of us paranoid about losing years of our digital history.  Kudos to the product folks at both companies, and I’m sure both will do well.

What syncing or backup solutions have tried?

Twitter, MS, Yahoo, Hunch, and other boring news

yawnSorry I haven’t posted in a while, guys – honestly, there just haven’t been a lot of interesting developments in the digital media area lately.  So, I’ll just tackle a few smaller topics today.

Pointless Twittering: According to a study by Pear Analytics, 40% of Tweets are “Pointless Babble” with another 38% being “Conversational” (which I suppose is a step above Pointless Babble.  A small step.)  Only 3.6% of posts were classified as news, confirming my assertion that Twitter is more of a communication tool than a source of information.  If you’re in the market for pointless babble or conversation, now you know where to go.  On a side note, I love the use of the term “pointless babble” in serious research.

Celeb name power: The social media press should stop talking about Hunch.com just because it was started by a Flickr founder.  It’s not interesting and it’s not (as the press keeps calling it) social Q&A; it’s social polling, more akin to  Sodahead or even the old-school Coolquiz than Yahoo! Answers or my baby.  With social Q&A you get to ask a question any way you want and let other people answer your question.  On Hunch, you can’t ask a question at all – you have to search for decision-making wizards that other users have already created.  And even then, it’s only good for making decisions like whether you should mow your lawn or whether you should renew your World of Warcraft subscription.  If you want to know why the sky is blue or what sights to see in Istanbul, you’re out of luck.  Yawn.  The initial burst of traffic they got from the press is fading, although not as precipitously as Wolfram Alpha’s.

Dumb, smart!: Radio Shack is smart to try rebranding as The Shack because they have nothing to lose.  Their old brand stands for irritable, aggressive salespeople, batteries, and out-of-date, no-name electronics devices, so they could stand to shed some of that.  Pizza Hut, on the other hand, is nuts to drop the ‘Pizza’ and call themselves The Hut.  They will forever be associated with Jabba, and there was nothing terribly wrong with their brand as it was.  The Hut says they changed the name to allow them to broaden their menu, but I say if Burger King can sell salads, you guys can sell just about anything short of sushi.  Don’t get me started on Syfy.

Microyawn: I suppose the whole Yahoo-Microsoft deal is big news, but for the average web user, it just won’t mean anything.  Yahoo search results will look different.  Big deal.

Wake me when Google Wave comes out.  It’s way too overblown to gain any mass-market acceptance, but at least it’ll be a fun toy for tech geeks like myself.

Random 15 year-old speaks, TechCrunch and Mashable listen

Dude, teens don't like Twitter!

Dude, teens don't like Twitter!

Morgan Stanley today, in a fit of “we can do no wrong”-ness, posted a “research” report discussing the behavior of today’s teens regarding media.  The only problem was that their research was based on talking to a single 15 year-old intern at Morgan Stanley.  That’s right, they talked to one random dude.  While normally this sort of interview would be fodder for a high school newspaper, Morgan Stanley continued their quest for irrelvance by publishing it themselves.

Because the report is generally so useless, I will not be posting a link to it.  However, nothing stopped Mashable and CrunchGear/TechCrunch from posting their own coverage, including a full list of the conclusions reached by said 15 year-old.  Mashable had the sense to at least question the research, but TC went ahead and used one of these useless conclusions as their headline (talk about link-baiting):

Morgan Stanley report shows that teens don’t use Twitter, don’t buy music (but still go to the movies)

in reality neither site should have said anything about this worthless report and they definitely should not have posted the conclusions.  Guys: if it isn’t news, don’t cover it.

The real meaning of the Google OS (sans hype)

It’s always fun to see a trailblazing product get announced and then watch the press run around trying to figure out what it is, what it means, and why it’s important.  The latest occasion for this kind of tomfoolery is Google’s announcement yesterday of the Chrome OS.  Here’s my take on it:

What it is

Chrome OS is the Chrome browser plus a version of Linux that is built to run a single application: the Chrome browser.  The “applications” that run on Chrome OS are what we have traditionally thought of as web sites, pages, or services, things like Google, Yahoo, Gmail, Hotmail, Delicious, or pretty much anything else that starts with http.  These include services like Google Docs and Google Spreadsheets.

What it isn’t

A traditional operating system.  You can’t install Photohop, MS Office, iTunes, Yahoo messenger, AIM, or any other OS-based application you’re used to.  If you want to play MP3s, you’ll have to find a site or service that will do that like Pandora or Orb.  If you want to IM, you’ll need a web-based IM like Meebo.  If you want to edit pictures, you’ll need a web-based photo editor like Aviary’s Phoenix.

What we don’t know

  • It’s unclear if Google will build hooks into Chrome to allow it to manipulate local files.
  • It’s also unclear how much access web applications would have to peripherals.  I don’t know if I can just plug it into an iPod, webcam, or external hard drive and have it work.  Google claims that Chrome apps would run on any standards compliant browser, and that functionality just isn’t part of the current browser model, so I’m guessing these peripherals would not work.

What it means

Chrome OS, at release, will be built primarily for netbooks.  It will let you boot the netbook quickly and browse the web within seconds.  It’s good for people who want access to the web anywhere and aren’t doing heavy-duty computing like hardcore PC games, Photoshop, or even complex Excel spreadhseets or Powerpoint presentations. It definitely isn’t going to be useful as a media center.

A netbook with Chrome OS is what used to be known as a thin client or a Network Computer, but with real graphics capabilities.  It’s meant for mobile computing, and it will only threaten Microsoft’s Windows OS in the ultra-portable netbook space for the foreseeable future.  Windows 7 need not worry.

As for the press’ coverage, it’s largely regurgitations of the Google Press Release with a dash of analysis and a double helping of “maybe it’ll be important…you decide.”  But then…we have TechCrunch, which is getting harder and harder to describe as a “news outlet.”

Today Michael Arrington brags about how he predicted the Google OS in September of ’08, despite the fact that rumors have been flying since at least ’06 admittedly without the “Chrome” moniker.  In his “prescient” article, he claims

Chrome is nothing less than a full on desktop operating system that will compete head on with Windows.

Not true at all.  As Google made clear in their latest announcement, Chrome OS will still require Linux as the traditional OS it runs on top of.  He goes on to grandly pronounce

Expect to see millions of web devices, even desktop web devices, in the coming years that completely strip out the Windows layer and use the browser as the only operating system the user needs.

Firstly, the browser still needs Linux, and let’s not forget our history – the pioneers of computing have been talking about the thin client since 1993 and the similar Network Computer since 1996, both of which follow the same model as the Google OS, so he wasn’t exactly going out on a limb there.  Why he felt the need to brag about his tardy prediction again today, I can’t say.

Certainly there are still questions to be answered about Chrome OS and I don’t think it will be a game changer in the next couple years, but it is a step forward in making mobile computing cheaper and more convenient.  We’ll still need our PC’s with real OS’s to do real work, but this could indeed take a big bite out MS’s dominance in the low-end PC market, particularly when wireless data plans become more affordable.  Of course, don’t expect MS to be silent – they’re working on their own browser-based OS as well.

Update: 3:19pm

By way of Valleywag (bravo VW), I noticed Dave Winer’s summation of the Chrome OS, and he almost gets it right.  He says:

Let’s be dispassionate. Before yesterday’s announcement: 1. Chrome ran on Linux. 2. Linux was an operating system. 3. Linux ran on netbooks.  However, most people want XP on their netbook, not Linux. That was true yesterday and it’s still true today.

I think this is mostly accurate, but I think Google is trying to create a different class of device that is actually different from today’s netbooks and therefore, it isn’t a question of Linux vs. XP.  A Chrome netbook will boot directly to a browser window, and everyone knows how to use a browser, so it avoids the typical Linux geekiness.  The fact that it only runs a browser clearly makes it much less feature rich than XP, but it’s also much faster and cheaper.  Maybe it needs a new name to signify its limited abilities – micro netbook or browserbook or something…but I agree with Dave that calling this an OS is really just a marketing maneuver.

Mr. Magazine: Cater to your customers

On the newstand

On the newstand

For subscribers

For subscribers

In a recent post on his blog Mr. Magazine, Samir Husni discusses the recent trend of magazines producing a single issue with two different covers, one cover for placement in newsstands, and a different cover for their subscribers.  It seems that for distribution on newsstands, the covers were more sensational and sexy, with  more lists (8 reasons your diet isn’t working) and more lascivious content (“The Sex of your Dreams (& Hers.)”)  Notable magazines using this technique are Men’s Health, US Weekly, and Bazaar.

What surprised me about the article was Husni’s dramatic objection to the practice:

I do not believe that the single copy cover should be any different than that of the subscriber, if we are in the business of customers who count and not just counting customers. Subscribers do visit the newsstands and what they see their should match what is on their coffee table.

Husni doesn’t seem to give any reasoning for his assertions; he just thinks this is the way it “should” be.  The way I see it, if you’re not just “counting customers” and you actually think your customers count, why not give them an experience they want?  If you know that most people in a certain segment have a certain preference and you have the ability to cater to that preference, why wouldn’t you?  Naturally, newsstand issues need to be more marketing oriented, so the headlines should be more attention-grabbing.  If someone wants to put a magazine on their coffee table, they many not want lewd headlines about sex tips all over it.  So why wouldn’t you give your readers what they want?

I applaud the magazine industry for this step in the right direction.  Websites have been delivering customized experiences for years, so it’s about time that magazines took a page from our…book?

How to fix online advertising

The internet publishing industry did itself a serious disservice when first designing ads for the web.  Rather than learning from the newspaper and magazine industries, they reinvented the wheel by designing ads that were as unobtrusive as possible, and they’ve been paying for it ever since.

Remember the first standardized ad size?  It was 468×60, an amazingly small ad unit by today’s standards.  You just can’t fit a meaningful message on an ad this size (especially with today’s larger screen resolutions), and to compensate ad sizes have been creeping upwards over time…from the original 468×60 and 125×125 to
250×250 to

120×600 to

728×90 to

300×250 to

160×600 to

336×280 to

300×600 to

flyovers, pull-outs, interstitials, and a whole new set of big ad sizes.

I say it’s about time we started showing huge ads.  We online publishers have been limiting our success for years, ever since that first tiny ad size was standardized.

To see why this is the case, look at print magazines.  Those guys have huge ads.  One of the most common units they sell is a full page!  They sell full pages, half pages, quarter pages with the smaller eighth- and sixteenth-page ads getting either shoved to the back of the magazine or spanning several pages so they can tell a story.   Certainly it is true that the print mag industry is hurting these days, but that pain is because of rising printing and distribution costs and an oversaturated market, not because of their advertising model.

TechCrunch AdsOnly now are we online publishers finally seeing ad standards that are competitive with the print mag standards (One could argue that interstitials are full page ads, but most don’t take up anywhere near the whole page.)  TechCrunch whines childishly about these big ads having a poor user experience, but I posit that TechCrunch’s alternative of a superabundance of small ads create an even worse user experience than one or two large ads would.  TC shows ELEVEN ads before you even get below the fold, 10 of which are deprecated 125×125′s that allow for virtually no design, messaging or branding benefits, and they make the whole page look messy and cluttered.

Large ads are simply better because:

  1. There is more room for compelling design
  2. There is more room for compelling messaging
  3. Page layout is easier – I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen page designs compromised by trying to fit a 300×250 ad.  Interstitials and full page-wide ads are actually easier to design around
When will ads on the web be this cool?  When they're large enough

When will web ads be this cool? When they're big enough

Print mags have much larger ads than websites, so do they have a poor user experience?  Of course not.  In many magazines the ads are so cool that they’re almost considered content.  Magazine readers realize that you need to see ads to get cheap/free content, and website readers only whine about big ads on websites because:

  1. We have conditioned them to see small ads
  2. Online ad creative is often poorly designed (not visually appealing, message isn’t compelling, etc.), and
  3. Online ads are often poorly targeted

We have been trying to fix the Problem 1 for 15 years, and once we do fix it, the advertising folks will fix Problem 2 for us because they’ll have much more space to work with, as they do in print mags.  As for targeting (Problem 3), AdSense was the biggest quantum leap in this space, with behavioral targeting being the next wave; there is plenty of work going on in this area.

As soon as online publishers and advertisers can fix these problems, user experience will improve, ad rates will improve, and we will finally see the maturing of the online advertising model.