How to fix the web

Robin Rendle published Why are websites embarrasing? wherein he laments the state of design and accessibility on the web. But, he’s hopeful.

“I do truly believe that a website can be as well designed as any book, just as thoughtful, just as brilliant.”

I sympathize with Robin. The web, especially the news web, is a morass of user hostile ads, pop-ups, notifications and autoplay videos. Yuck!

However, I think Robin is incorrect on where to place the blame. The blame isn’t likely on some web professional making design decisions based on the number of readers it would impact. The blame is on the advertisers. The only thing powering the mainstream published web from local news outlets to enormous media conglamorates is advertising. Without advertising 99.9% of this part of the web disappears.

If advertisers were to band together and say “We will only buy ad spots on websites that are fast, accessible, and have lovely reading experiences” the web would fix itself in a hurry.

This will never happen of course.

Most advertisers have no idea where their ads are being shown on the web. Yes, they have extremely detailed analytics but a large percentage of those data are lies. I can prove it. Go to any local news website in the US (I don’t know about the rest of the world, but it is likely the same) and browse around a little. A keen eye will see that there are ads loading all over the place – way down in the footer, in the middle of an article, after the story content and even after the comments section. You’ll also see loads of ads bunched up in sidebars. Who sees these ads? No one. But, people are paying for those ad “impressions” even if the reader never scrolls to the point they are visible.

Unsuspecting small business owners trying to show ads for their lawn cutting businesses in a big city suburb by purchasing display ads on the most popular local news outlet are likely being swindled for greater than half of those impressions. They would be far better off buying a few yard signs. The local news outlet may boast: “We displayed your ad over 10,000 times this month.” No. They didn’t. They loaded the ad 10,000 times and only 12 actual readers saw the ad.

The incentives in web publishing are upside down. For publishers the people’s pageviews are the product and the advertiser is the customer. If you flipped that and made the reader the customer the news web would change.

Some websites actually try to do this and have had some success.

Over a decade ago The Boston Globe redesigned their website with the help of talented, thoughtful folk like Ethan Marcotte. Ethan wrote about the launch of that responsive redesign at the time.

In that post Ethan was downright giddy in his descriptions of the process, the people he worked with, and the results. And, even today, when I visited The Boston Globe’s website, no doubt having changed a lot since that release, it is still pretty good compared to so many other sites on the news web.

A more contemporary example that I can think of off the top of my mind is The Verge. I loaded The Verge’s website this morning and I had zero pop-ups, the page loaded quickly, and while there are ads they are clearly placed. One niggle I have with The Verge is that they are loading “sponsored content” ads from Outbrain. These ads are revolting. I can only imagine The Verge team are able to buy yachts in payment to load those vomitous ads on their otherwise very lovely website.

But Robin isn’t looking for “pretty good” or “somewhat better than terrible websites”. He wants a good reading experience, loaded quickly. I get it.

I deplore the state of so much of the web where advertisers reign supreme and even the most thoughtful and caring people throw away their principles in order to stay in business. But I’m also a realist and I understand that without advertising so much of the stuff I find useful, entertaining, and valuable on the web simply wouldn’t exist.