Every web designer – and publisher – should read this

fatcat01

Every web designer and site owner needs to read this article by John Allsop on the epidemic of website bloat. To sum up:

There is only one honest measure of web performance: the time from when you click a link to when you’ve finished skipping the last ad.

Everything else is bullshit.

[…]

Web designers! It’s not all your fault.

You work your heart out to create a nice site, optimized for performance. You spend the design process trying to anticipate the user’s needs and line their path with rose petals.

Then, after all this work is done, your client makes you shit all over your hard work by adding tracking scripts and ads that you have no control over, whose origin and content will be decided at the moment the page loads in the user’s browser, and whose entire purpose is to break your design and distract the user from whatever they came to the site to do.

The user’s experience of your site is dominated by hostile elements out of your control.

It’s a rather revealing article (actually the transcript of a talk, the video of which is here).

When I started out in web design, before it had even got past the ‘it’s just a fad’ phase, a big part of the job was squeezing images until they sat on the border between small enough that a typical modem would download them in less than five seconds, but not so compressed that they looked awful. Nowadays, I admit, I don’t bother with that just assuming that everyone’s on broadband or a decent mobile plan.

But all that is moot anyway given that the biggest culprit in page bloat is advertising and tracking. The reason for this is simple, but shocking.

Accepted practice today is for ad space to be auctioned at page load time. The actual ads (along with all their javascript surveillance infrastructure) are pulled in by the browser after the content elements are in place.

In terms of user experience, this is like a salesman arriving at a party after it has already started, demanding that the music be turned off, and setting up their little Tupperware table stand to harass your guests. It ruins the vibe.

So to reiterate. Page designers, writers and even site owners don’t know what their site will look like because ads are sold and positioned when the page is viewed. In print journalism, ad space is sold in a way that means the publisher knows what the finished publication will look like. From the advertisers’ point of view that makes a lot of sense. You don’t want your ad for a car to go next to a feature article on the wonders of cycling (and neither does the writer).

Imagine what server-side ad layout would mean for designers. You would actually know what your pages are going to look like. You could load assets in a sane order. You could avoid serving random malware.

Giant animations would no longer helicopter in at page load time, destroying your layout and making your users hate you.

This isn’t just ‘dodgy’ sites either.

Here’s a grab from The Guardian just now after I disabled my ad blocker.

Guardian page

Notice two things. Firstly, a window popped up asking me to update Flash. Why? Because The Guardian serves ads using Flash, despite having run several articles about the security risks posed by Flash.

Secondly, the ad on the right is for clothes retailer Namshi. I’ve never heard of them, they appear to be an Arabian company that doesn’t trade in the UK, and I’m a bloke so how well-spent was that ad budget?

Is it any wonder I block the ads? They’re annoying and completely irrelevant to me. Now I link to a lot of Guardian articles here, so am I being a bit of a hypocrite? No – I pay an annual fee for The Guardian iOS app and I read via that rather than the web. But in The Guardian’s case I pay as much not to see ads as much as I pay for the journalism – and the fact there’s something wrong with that is down to the business model, not me.

The only question for publishers is whether to get ahead of this and reap the benefits, or circle down the drain with everybody else.

I’ve said this in other posts – the great debate last year about ad blockers seemed to think that readers were being devious in blocking ads when in fact the issue really was the shit that made people want to.

I mean things like this:

Bad web ad

I’ve seen ads like that on prestigious websites. It’s not just the clickbait places.

Advertising in magazines and newspapers, on the radio and TV and in cinemas doesn’t track the reader, listener or viewer. There’s no reason it needs to on the web. And with a few exceptions ads in old media tend to be well-executed and well thought out. I can’t remember the last time anyone got excited about the latest web ad in the same way they do for, say, the annual John Lewis Christmas ad.

Content providers should sell advertising space directly, or use an old-fashioned agency to do it for them. And they should take responsibility for what’s in the ads. The number of links I’ve clicked on recently where the screen has been filled with an ad with no design, no context, just a link to something I’m really not interested in… more often than not I close the page. Whatever was there is not so interesting I’m prepared to be visually assaulted and robbed at the same time.

Running ads like this, abdicating editorial responsibility to an algorithm, devalues your brand. If you think what you’re producing is good enough that you should be paid for it, then either find a business model that allows you to charge your visitors, or use your impressions and demographics to sell ads to relevant people (Jon Gruber makes a living doing just that).

Don’t sell your users, or more importantly, their location, their sexual preferences, and their recent search history (which might just be an indicator of their sexual preferences anyway). And let’s get back to the days when web pages were crafted to load as quickly as possible without starting up your laptop’s fan just to autoplay an ad for a shoe shop in Dubai.