Are you watching the banners? At least the banners are watching you!

By crisp on Thursday 2 September 2010 01:05 - Comments (19)
Categories: Internet, Tweakers.net, Views: 9.550

When was the last time you looked at a banner? Provided you don't already use a banner blocker, and I don't mean just noticed that there was a banner (some flashing moving thing on top of the page or on the side, or maybe even covering the content you were just about to start reading and making you race for the close button), but really looked at it? Maybe even clicked it? And if you did, do you look at banners all the time? Well, don't worry if you don't; at least banners know when you are not looking, and they're telling it to the advertisers.

direct targettingPersonalisation and retargetting are hot items among advertisers; by using tracking mechanisms in the form of good-ol' cookies advertisers know a good deal about your browsing habits and use that knowledge to target specific ads in order to increase their CTR. Some websites may even provide specific leads derived from the users' profile information to advertising networks which advertisers can in turn use to enrich the global profile information they have on each web surfer.

Some advertisers, like Google, openly admit that they are tracking users' preferences in order to target ads better. Google even offers an opt-out (and on the same page is a link showing which interests they have linked to your profile).

But advertisers want more; they want to know if their ads are actually visible to the user, and in order to determine that they are, they are actually looking over your shoulder at your monitor!

How do we know that? Surely nobody told us; we found out because we tracked an issue (Dutch) of users being randomly logged out of our site and not being able to log in again because a certain banner was placing a temporary cookie with the identifier 'uid' on the users' computer on behalf of our domain using javascript embedded in the banner code. This caused an additional check in our session system on the user-id associated with the session-id because we use a cookie with the same identifier for automatic propagation of sessions to other domains like tweakblogs.net.

We traced the origin of this cookie back to this script (which uses Dean Edwards' packer as an - easily decoded - form of obfuscation, or maybe as a 'poor man's' substitute for HTTP compression) which checks for visibility of the banner within the view-port of the users' browser and the duration, and also tracks events such as browser resizing, scrolling and when the browser loses focus. All these events and its effect on the visibility of the ad displayed are being sent to hottraffic.nl.

bad cookie
bad cookie

Advertising on the internet brings new technical possibilities. Things that are simply not possible with advertising on other media like print or TV - advertisers can't tell whether the page with their ad is being skipped, or if someone has gone to the toilet the moment a certain commercial is being aired on TV - are possible on the internet. In fact: it is very difficult to determine the (direct) effects of advertisements on traditional media, but things like click-through and now even (duration of) visibility are easily measurable on the internet. But should we tolerate or even allow advertisers to utilize every technical possibility that comes with advertising on the internet?

This is in fact a very grey area: advertisers are actually piggybacking on the information that a visitor supplies when visiting a website (that includes the visitors' ip-address, browser information, referrals etcetera) and are able to create a history of visited pages across websites by using cookies. Websites are bound to privacy regulations with regards to personal data, but advertisers are actually able to identify individuals with the data they collect themselves through banners. In fact: they know more than the individual websites these users visit. And knowledge brings more power...

Advertisers probably want to use their accumulated knowledge to obtain lower rates or push more intrusive advertisements. On marketing-related sites I read things like 'increasing the acceptance level of visitors for advertisements', but I often think that marketeers have a complete different view of the world compared to myself. When I see the number of complaints (Dutch) we receive for each more intrusive form of advertisement it makes me wonder whether more 'visible' advertisements will actually increase their visibility to users.

AdBlock PlusIn my humble opinion advertisers are alreay overplaying their hand by deeming their messages more important than the content the visitor is looking for by serving interstitials, pre-rolls and floating ads. These kind of advertisements will only bring visitors to install the countermeasure that technology also provides: banner blockers.

Now I don't approve of banner blockers in general (without advertisement income I'd be out of a job), but I think advertisers should realise that their current methods online give raise to privacy concerns and are generally badly experienced.

More != better.

Volgende: Speaking at the HTML5 Game Jam 09-'10 Speaking at the HTML5 Game Jam
Volgende: The internet anno 2010: all about the money? 06-'10 The internet anno 2010: all about the money?

Comments


By Tweakers user Barleone, Thursday 2 September 2010 02:39

_/-\o_ Well said Sir!
Btw, would it be possible to block that specific cookie(or hottraffic JS) easily?

[Comment edited on Thursday 2 September 2010 02:40]


By Tweakers user Blokker_1999, Thursday 2 September 2010 07:29

But should we tolerate or even allow advertisers to utilize every technical possibility that comes with advertising on the internet?
No, we should not tolerate such things. People often look at the internet as a place where anything is possible, but that isn't true. Even on the net we should have limits.

I sometimes look at a banner, just to see what it is actually showing, but it is a rare occasion, most of the time i ignore them. And when a banner is in the margin of a site that isn't difficult to do. I don't even have a problem with sites that change the theme to fit a special event (like t.net has done a couple of times already).

But those floating banners are irritating and it happens often that the close button simply does not work. Whenever i come across such a thing i refresh the page, if it resurfaces i simply leave the site.

I do wonder what the people who invented those floating ads were thinking when they did it. When you enter a store irl you don't want someone standing in your way waving commercials to you about products you are interested in, when they do and they refuse to let you enter you simply turn around.

I often use a browser without flash, it helps a lot.

Maybe we should have an international adblock day, to show advertisers they have reached the limit of how far we are willing to go.

By Tweakers user i-chat, Thursday 2 September 2010 08:29

i so totally agree, i dont intend to hide how i browse the web,

meaning that even on tweakers.net i ocasionally use(d) banner blockers,

i have created a key-shortcut for firefox that instantly enabled addblock on current site.
and im still trying to find an alternate extention that: allways enabled for x site -- never blocks for site y and selectively block adds on site z,

maybe we tweakers should invent such a plugin,


to be more specific, some advertisments on tweakers.net actually included 'strange' backgrounds on menu's and army faced lining and logo's to promote some kind of game, that was the minute i immediatly enabled the blocker because i didn't only hate it but it made the site verry poorly visible for me...

also adds that top the content (because of a script error, or intentionally) we result in me blocking them. yet on the other hand, if adds are targeted correctly they sometimes get my clicks, for instance i read an article about Fiber to the Home a few weeks ago, and that was when an add was shown about FTTH providers ..

now next year i myself are up for a fiber connection and to be honest i never knew about providers other than: TweakFiber and BB Beyond -... so in this particular case the adds where actually improving the content while stil serving a 'commercial' purpose

so in the end non discriminatingly blocking adds can also actually have a downside. other than having to pay for viewing the website offcourse.

in the long run, advertisment will have to A become more tightly intergrated in the content itself, but B be causious of not being clear about being a commercial, as if people find out 'the wrong way' they'l feel, mislead, witch ofcource doesn't help them either.

By Tweakers user prutsger, Thursday 2 September 2010 09:43

@i-chat "allways enabled for x site -- never blocks for site y and selectively block adds on site z,"

That is what AdBlock Plus in Firefox does? I block all advertisements except on tweakers.net. And I have never seen irritating banners on tweakers. And because I never accept cookies except the sites that I whitelist, advertisers have a hard time building a profile on me and I never experience the problems mentioned in the article.

By Tim, Thursday 2 September 2010 09:57

I don't use Flash, myself, so ads tend to be less obtrusive for me. Of course, there's still full-page ads - I still haven't forgotten the time that happened to me on tweakers.net itself. There's only a limited number of extremely obtrusive ads that I choose to block.

Two remarks about your blog posting, though. First off, how come an advertiser has the ability to read or write cookies that are capable of causing problems relating to the user's signed-in state on tweakers.net? Aren't these two supposed to reside on completely independent domains?

Also, if you're opposed to the practise of tracking users to this extent - is it true that you're linking to the company engaging in this behavior without using the 'nofollow' tag? Are you sure you want to contribute to that site's pagerank?

Just my €0.02.

By Tweakers user hyptonize, Thursday 2 September 2010 10:27

Ik lees te veel fantasyboeken. Ik dacht aan Banners.

By Tweakers user Snake, Thursday 2 September 2010 10:29

I think browsers should be more careful what they offer to third party scripts. For example, permission should be given to access viewport data.

By Tweakers user crisp, Thursday 2 September 2010 10:38

Tim wrote on Thursday 02 September 2010 @ 09:57:
[...]
Two remarks about your blog posting, though. First off, how come an advertiser has the ability to read or write cookies that are capable of causing problems relating to the user's signed-in state on tweakers.net? Aren't these two supposed to reside on completely independent domains?
Most advertisements work by injecting javascript into the page itself; this makes it possible to set cookies on the domain of the website.
Also, if you're opposed to the practise of tracking users to this extent - is it true that you're linking to the company engaging in this behavior without using the 'nofollow' tag? Are you sure you want to contribute to that site's pagerank?
Pagerank is mainly used by websites to limit link-density. Besides, I don't believe in 'punishing' sites by using nofollow; the link is relevant so the association itself is also important.

That, and the fact that the CMS of Tweakblogs doesn't have an option to add nofollow ;)

By Tweakers user crisp, Thursday 2 September 2010 10:49

Snake wrote on Thursday 02 September 2010 @ 10:29:
I think browsers should be more careful what they offer to third party scripts. For example, permission should be given to access viewport data.
How can a browser determine if a script is really a third-party script? A lot of websites use CDN's or at least different domains (like we use tweakimg.net) to serve their static objects (like scripts).

Besides that, things like determining the dimensions of the viewport can be done with legitimite reasons (like centering a layer). And which other javascript functionality should be limited? Wouldn't it completely cripple the current system? What would be a good alternative?

By Tweakers user nero355, Thursday 2 September 2010 11:03

The bigger the annoying overlay flash banner, the faster I ignore the whole page >:)

The same with those annoying background banners T.net is using lately from time to time : I just ignore the frontpage for a day :P

By Tweakers user -RetroX-, Thursday 2 September 2010 11:13

Set up an script executiontime limiter for outerdomain sources. If a script takes to long then kill the script. If such a script is part of navigation then add an exclusionlist or store the script in local cache.

By Tweakers user Spesh, Thursday 2 September 2010 11:36

Net alsof tweakers.net zijn enige inkomsten haalt uit banners, begrijp wel dat ze dat hun bezoekers graag willen laten geloven maar volgens mij zijn de banners maar een fractie van het totaal dat ze verdienen met bijvoorbeeld de evenementen die ze organiseren.

Ps. waarom in Engels? Ik ben al op genoeg Engelstalige forums actief, ben juist blij dat dit een van de weinig plekken is waar we gewoon Nederlands kunnen praten.

By Tweakers user crisp, Thursday 2 September 2010 11:44

Spesh wrote on Thursday 02 September 2010 @ 11:36:
Net alsof tweakers.net zijn enige inkomsten haalt uit banners, begrijp wel dat ze dat hun bezoekers graag willen laten geloven maar volgens mij zijn de banners maar een fractie van het totaal dat ze verdienen met bijvoorbeeld de evenementen die ze organiseren.
Voor zover ik weet organiseert Tweakers.net helemaal geen commerciële evenementen :?
Ps. waarom in Engels? Ik ben al op genoeg Engelstalige forums actief, ben juist blij dat dit een van de weinig plekken is waar we gewoon Nederlands kunnen praten.
Omdat ik me niet puur richt op een Nederlandstalig publiek; uiteindelijk is dit ook een internationaal probleem/vraagstuk. En de meeste Nederlanders kennen ook gewoon Engels :P

[Comment edited on Thursday 2 September 2010 11:44]


By Tim, Thursday 2 September 2010 12:56

Thanks for your response, crisp!

I thought most graphic ads worked from within an iframe, however? At the very least, displaying ads from within an iframe should be doable by Tweakers.net, right? This way you can separate the domains by utilizing the browser's security model - even if not always 100% reliable.

By Tweakers user crisp, Thursday 2 September 2010 13:01

Tim wrote on Thursday 02 September 2010 @ 12:56:
Thanks for your response, crisp!

I thought most graphic ads worked from within an iframe, however?
Back in the old days, yes ;)
At the very least, displaying ads from within an iframe should be doable by Tweakers.net, right? This way you can separate the domains by utilizing the browser's security model - even if not always 100% reliable.
iframes exclude the 'interactive' advertisements (expandables, floating ads, floor ads, site takeovers etcetera) that the advertisers want, so unfortunately that's not an option anymore these days...

By Tweakers user 108886, Thursday 2 September 2010 13:18

Barleone wrote on Thursday 02 September 2010 @ 02:39:
_/-\o_ Well said Sir!
Btw, would it be possible to block that specific cookie(or hottraffic JS) easily?
Added *.hottraffic.* filter in ABP ;) problem solved.... for now :/

By Tweakers user Laurent, Thursday 2 September 2010 17:01

Is it common for ads to have access to these cookies, like, on other websites? This would be exploitable even further by the advertiser.

[Comment edited on Thursday 2 September 2010 17:01]


By Tweakers user crisp, Sunday 5 September 2010 22:54

Laurent wrote on Thursday 02 September 2010 @ 17:01:
Is it common for ads to have access to these cookies, like, on other websites? This would be exploitable even further by the advertiser.
No, cookies they set on the domain 'tweakers.net' cannot be read from advertisements they run on other websites. However, they can combine it with cookies set on their own domain, which they can process serverside. This way they can track visitors globally, and in addition track the visitors' behaviour on each website individually.

And yes, it's a security concern as well since these ads can read all cookie data on our domain including session id's (untill we are ready to switch to httponly for those cookies).

By Tweakers user Mentalist, Monday 6 September 2010 00:15

The system is pretty clear. Advertisers pay websites to put shit on their site. Websites pay their bills using that money and allow the shit. Because of visitors watching the shit, the advertiser can sell more junk, and using the money made from selling junk they can pay the websites.

The funny thing is it all assumes average values, statistics. Everyone who views the website with the ads gets content for free, even though few will actually buy the advertisers' junk.

I don't think it works for me. I generally don't buy that much stuff that was heavily advertised and when I do, I've likely made an extensive comparison of different products before buying anything. Advertising doesn't help too much when people do that.

But hey, free content for me. And I don't even pay for it indirectly by buying the advertised junk. It's really free.

If everyone were like me, advertising would be dead. But the subsciption model (or paywall) would be the only viable alternative, so the freeloader days would be over. Community-generated content would also still be an option (because that costs almost nothing, so no ad revenue is required). So for me, no matter how annoying ads can be.. I profit from the system. Sorry.

I do have an idea for an alternative system. A new company (online) needs to be started where you can buy credits. Now you should be able to connect your account on any website to your account with credits at the new company. Whenever you read an article, a few credits are taken from your account. When you do it like this, you get the pages without advertising. If you wish not to use the system, you get the old style pages with ads.

But this system could only ever be succesful if all major websites support it and it's dirt cheap. Dirt cheap should be doable, ads don't generate that much money per user either. Getting all the big sites to use the system, that's a different story.

The reason this would work better than a paywall is because you would only need a single subscription and you would pay less for websites you don't visit often. And if at any time you decide the site isn't worth visiting at all anymore for whatever reason, you lose no money (or subscription-time).

This might happen someday. Until it does, we'll have to put up with the banners.

[Comment edited on Monday 6 September 2010 00:18]


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