The Great Web Advertising Filter Scare

By: Steve Outing

Just when you thought is was safe to go in the water with your business plan, along comes a new technology that may tempt you to run back to the beach and grab a towel. That’s how Web publishers may feel about the recent release of Internet Fast Forward, a worrisome product from a new U.S. company called PrivNet that allows consumers to filter out ads on World Wide Web pages. It’s sort of a “mute button” for the Web.

PrivNet is a start-up company in North Carolina created by four college students. Fast Forward is their first commercial product, and it’s creating quite a stir in the Internet publishing business. After all, most Web publishers are relying on advertising to support their fledgling ventures; giving content away free is still the norm, and even sites that charge for some (premium) content typically offer a good deal of free content that’s made possible by advertising revenues. Fast Forward seems to threaten that model.

But let’s take a closer look. Fast Forward may be a shark in the Internet publishing waters, but it’s a baby one. Is there anything to worry about? Yes, no and maybe, judging from some of the industry experts I’ve been speaking with lately.

How it works

Fast Forward is a Windows client application (Mac version promised soon) that works on top of the Netscape Web browser. It comes with a database of known advertisements on the Web, which the program filters out so that when a Fast Forward user views a Web page, the ads don’t appear. For ads that do get through, a user can instruct Fast Forward to add the ad’s URL to the client database.

PrivNet continually adds known Web advertisements to the central database on its server, but those additions are not added dynamically to client applications already in use. (This capability could be added in later versions.) To get the latest database of ad URLs, a Fast Forward user would have to periodically download the most recent database from PrivNet. PrivNet is asking the Internet user community to contribute known advertising URLs, offering as an enticement a monthly $500 cash prize to be awarded from among those who submitted URLs.

It’s worth noting that PrivNet has a formidable monitoring task ahead of itself, since its users could submit any URL for Fast Forward to filter. A disgruntled user or practical joker could submit to PrivNet the URLs for all the images on a site, in hopes that they would be added to the Fast Forward database and thus sabotage the target site. So PrivNet must check each URL to make sure it indeed is an advertisement. Given the numbers of people who might want to try for the $500 prize, they could be kept very busy.

Tool for the disgruntled?

Some of the Internet publishing industry experts I spoke with this week suggested that Fast Forward will make a very small splash. Says Adam Schoenfeld, vice president of Jupiter Communications, a New York online services research and consulting firm, “It seems to be a niche application for only the crankiest people. … It might appeal to the near-Unabombers among us.” The number of people using ad-filtering software like Fast Forward will probably be very small, Schoenfeld suggests; most people don’t feel the need to filter out advertisements.

As evidence that computer users aren’t bothered by the appearance of ads on Web sites, he points to a user study completed this month called “Consumer Experience Probes: Web Advertising” (Jupiter and The Westport Company). In this research exercise, the companies gathered 40 computer users and conducted one-on-one tests as they navigated the World Wide Web. They were asked what they liked and disliked about specific Web ads and quizzed about their overall perceptions of advertising online.

Some key findings of the study: 1) Novice Web users were surprised to find Web advertising, but typically said they did not find it obtrusive. 2) Users who access the Web from America Online were acutely aware that downloading ad visuals was being done “on the clock”; these users were more resistant to the idea of Web ads than direct-dial Internet users. 3) Users said they were more likely to click on an ad that displayed a familiar logo or brand name. 4) The top of the page banner placement was the most likely to be noticed and clicked on by users. (Jupiter is selling the full results of the study in a report document.)

In a nutshell, Schoenfeld says, the study found that unless ads are particularly obtrusive, consumers are content to be exposed to them. It’s only when advertisers go overboard (and publishers let them) with too-large graphics or animated banners that slow down other functions of the PC that consumers become alienated by ads.

Robert Seidman, publisher of Seidman’s Online Insider, an online services industry email newsletter, likewise believes that few people will go to the bother of acquiring and installing special software to filter out Web ads. “It’s not worth the trouble,” he says. “How many people really care?” Already built into Web browsers are the capabilities to turn off an ad — by clicking the Stop button before it finishes loading or turning off graphics loading — he says. That’s enough for most people.

Seidman believes that most people using online services or accessing the Internet will stick to the default settings of their software and not be bothered to configure their system to filter ads. He estimates that only 1-2% of Web users would actively try to filter advertising.

“It’s funny,” Seidman says of the motivations of PrivNet and those who object to Web advertising, “they want it free and without advertising. That just doesn’t work.”

What could pose a significant threat, he suggests, is if Netscape or Microsoft built the ad filtering capability into their Web browsers. “But why would they do that?” he says. They’d be sabotaging their own business.

If you must react, here’s how

But let’s say you don’t buy this argument; that you believe that Fast Forward and future software applications sure to follow that might do the same thing indeed do pose a threat to the viability of your advertiser-supported Web site. Let’s look at ways you can prevent Fast Forward from succeeding at its ad-obliterating task on your site.

Fast Forward works by filtering out known URLs of banners. Thus, if an ad banner on your site just sits there week after week with the same URL, it’s likely to find its way into Fast Forward’s filter database. Seidman suggests that if you’re truly worried about this, change the URLs of your ads on a daily basis, so Fast Forward won’t be able to keep up.

A more sophisticated way to circumvent this problem is being tried by Real Media, a New York start-up that is placing advertisements on multiple Web sites (including many newspaper sites) around the U.S. A publisher client of Real Media places a piece of code onto its own Web pages which is a pointer to an ad residing on the Real Media server. This type of ad — where a standard URL is used to point to an ad that appears on multiple sites — is easy pickings for Fast Forward. (Another company, DoubleClick, operates similarly.) Real Media president and CEO Dave Morgan says his company is experimenting with dynamically placing ads on its remote publisher sites, so that software like Fast Forward will have difficulty filtering out ads because they would have a different URL from the last time they were displayed to a user. If, for instance, Fast Forward filtered all requests for anything on the realmedia.com server, Real Media might dynamically generate different server addresses that would not be subject to filtering by Fast Forward.

Morgan says this could end up becoming a “technology war,” where Web advertising companies devise techniques to bypass Fast Forward’s filtering mechanisms, and PrivNet releases upgrades that catch the latest ad technique to circumvent Fast Forward’s latest. Each will leapfrog the other over time.

This scenario is obviously silly, yet it’s shaping up to be the new reality. Morgan suggests that the more intelligent way to cope with the whole issue of consumers having the ability to filter ads is to give them advertising that they won’t object to — indeed, that they want. When more Web sites present dynamically produced pages, generated on the fly based on a user’s requests, advertising that accompanies those pages will be very difficult to filter out. But more importantly, those ads can be tailored to fit with the request, so the end user is less likely to be bothered by seeing ads that are more likely to be useful to him.

Rather than fight off Fast Forward with technical solutions, publishers need to look long and hard at their advertising and make sure that it doesn’t annoy consumers. Make sure ad banners are not too large so they load quickly. Be careful about animated banners; many consumers (and I count myself as one) are annoyed by animated ads that cause their hard drives to work continually as the animation goes through its paces. Particularly for sites that support Java, a fancy animated Java applet advertisement could slow down other functions of the end user’s computer and tempt that user to filter your site’s ads in the future.

Morgan says that personalizing and categorizing ads — putting them in their correct context — can go a long way to making sure your users don’t object to the advertising presented. A page that delivers to a consumer personalized baseball scores, for instance, might have an attached ad for branded clothing of the user’s local ball team. This is unlikely to be objected to and in fact may be seen as a positive piece of information by the consumer.

The lesson is that if you can make advertising useful to your users — and not just an annoyance or something they ignore — then they’ll have little reason to seek out ad-filtering applications like Fast Forward. Fast Forward has just given publishers a good reason to work more closely with advertisers to make sure that online ads are effective, not annoying.

That’s the way it is

My first reaction to news of Fast Forward was, Why on earth would a company produce a product like this? In theory it could kill lots of great free content on the Web by killing off advertising to support it. (And what’s the sense of the business model? PrivNet wants to charge a price for the software, which is reasonable, but most likely freeware software performing the same function will appear in the coming months. I’ve heard rumors of other such ad-filter software that pre-dates Fast Forward, but have been unable to find it.)

But Fast Forward really is not an unexpected development — nor entirely “bad.” As Morgan suggests, the product can be seen as “pro ‘Net” in that it gives users more control over what they see and read on the Web. If consumers don’t want to see ads, they should have the ability to ignore them. If they want to filter out the picture of me that accompanies this column each day, well, that should be their option. Like it or not, that’s the way of the Internet.

And that’s my final point here. I don’t think Fast Forward is reason for publishers to run and hide from the Internet because it kills the advertising model on the Web. Fast Forward has, as have so many new technologies before it, changed the Internet publishing landscape. Publishers wishing to do business in cyberspace simply have to adapt to a new reality before diving back into the water. There’s little use bemoaning Fast Forward’s development; it’s time to figure out how to deal with the threat it may pose to your Web publishing endeavors.

Contacts: Dave Morgan, davem@realmedia.com
Adam Schoenfeld, adamx10415@aol.com
Robert Seidman, robert@clark.net

Fast Forward discussion forum on E&P Interactive

If you’d like to take part in an online discussion of the implications of Fast Forward and other ad-filtering developments on the Web, check out a new discussion forum on Editor & Publisher Interactive. This Web-based forum, using NetGenesis’ NetThreat software, is the first specialized discussion hosted online by E&P, according to vice president of development/new media Martin Radelfinger. Anyone can join in the discussion. Additional topics will be added to the forum area in the coming weeks.

Contact: Martin Radelfinger, martinr@mediainfo.com

Yes, you DO have something to worry about

This excerpt from yesterday’s Simba Media Daily about a national (U.S.) real estate Web guide caught my eye:

“While most online papers say they don’t feel overly threatened by such services, they do admit to turning more attention to the design and presentation of their real estate offerings.

“‘The (Boston) Globe isn’t worried about these other real estate sites that appear on the Net,’ said Lisa DeSisto, marketing manager of the Boston Globe’s Web vehicle Boston.com. DeSisto compared the proliferation of online real estate sites to small-scale real-estate publications such as Apartment Guide.”

If DeSisto was quoted accurately, I beg to differ. In the Internet environment, non-newspaper classifieds ventures are in a different league than printed apartment guides. Online, such companies operate on an equal playing field — they don’t need to buy huge presses and operate expensive distribution systems to compete — and in many cases possess superior technology and human resources than do newspaper companies. For newspapers, the classifieds arena is theirs to lose to entrepreneurial competitors.

In a recent column I mentioned Match.com, the premier national (U.S.) online personals service. Match.com’s parent, Electric Classifieds of San Francisco, has a big head start on newspapers that publish relationship ads. By the time newspapers get in the game with online personals of their own (in a substantial way), Match.com could be so far ahead as to be difficult to catch. I’ve glimpsed its technology, and I think newspapers should be worried. The same thing could happen with real estate classifieds.

Any newspaper that thinks entrepreneurial companies don’t pose a significant threat to its classifieds franchise in the coming decade will be rudely awakened in the next few years. The Internet is not like print; different rules apply here.

Watch for Info Bytes on Tuesdays and Thursdays

This column recently cut back from a five-day schedule to three days a week (Monday, Wednesday and Friday). On Tuesdays and Thursdays now, watch for Info Bytes, a new column by Editor & Publisher new media associate editor Jodi Cohen covering the interactive news business.

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This column is written by Steve Outing and underwritten by Editor & Publisher magazine. Tips, letters and feedback can be sent to Steve at outings@netcom.com

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