Friday, December 02, 2005

An Amateur Web (or How I Don't Read Ads)

There are certain words or phrases, spoken or written so frequently and over such a short period of time, that they transcend mere annoyance and quickly become grating. "Monetization" is one of those words. More specifically, "Monetization of the Web". This phrase is in a dead heat with "what's the business model in that" and "web two-point-oh" for top honours in the grating category.

My writing this is a direct result of listening to Steve Gillmor's AttentionTech three part podcast with guests Dan Farber and Dave Winer. The specific point that sent me away thinking about all of this was Dave saying something to the effect of 'maybe the days of writers getting paid for writing is over'. If you want to hear some passionate discussion about the web and where it might go, this is really required listening.

A large part of the discussion focused on Google, advertising, and how businesses will make, and are making money on the web. Surely Google is making large amounts of money from their Adsense program. Of course people are making money from website ads and ads in RSS feeds. They wouldn't be doing it if they weren't. But how long can it last? Google is definitely NOT making money from me. Let's look at my situation specifically.

I'm a 30-something male. I have a decent career. I have a reasonable amount of disposable income. I am not rich by any -and I mean ANY- stretch of the imagination. I'm relatively savvy when it comes to technical things like utilizing the web. I would think I am smack dab in the middle of Google's demographic. One small problem however. I don't pay attention to Google ads. Or any web ads for that matter. I never have and likely never will. (I have been tainted by years of penis enlargement and erectile dysfunction solutions I guess) If I want to buy something like a new printer (which I just bought) or a new monitor (which I just bought) or a book, or a pair of pants, I don't go clicking on text ads. I try to find valuable information on what to buy. That might come from my co-workers, or it might come from the blogosphere or some other personal means. But in the vast majority of cases - no scratch that - in all cases, it doesn't come from web ads no matter how well targeted they are. I want personal recommendations from people who've built influence with me.

So let's take stock of my situation. I use Blogger (Google owned) to voice my opinion to whoever wants to read it. I use Google Maps almost every day to find places I need to go. I use GMail for most of my non-work email activities. And of course I use the Google search engine to find information I need many times every day. And what am I paying for these extremely useful services? Nothing out of my pocket, but I am giving them information about my search habits, my interests, my attention and where it's focused. This lets them create ads better targeted at me. I'm paying them with my personal information. They make money from companies who want to be able to target those ads at me. But they don't realize that the thing I'm NOT throwing my attention at is those very same ads! Am I the only one NOT paying attention to them? I would love to think I'm extremely unique. But I don't think I am.

Are they getting returns on all this targeted advertising? They're not getting any returns on ads placed in front of me, but just due to the fact that there are seemingly successful businesses built on it, I'd have to say some companies must find it useful. But how far can this go? Won't there come a time when either companies will say to Google 'this isn't effective enough' or Google will say 'we need to start charging for all this stuff people are using'. It doesn't matter how many people use Gmail if only a tiny percentage of them are giving the ads even one bit of attention.

I personally can't see Google extending the Adsense model much further. Are they just going to keep trying to focus those ads more sharply at me as they build up their data store? Or will they do something else with this data? Reading their privacy policy a few times makes good sense. They say that when requested to remove a person's data they will honour this, however they also state the following:
"we may decline to process requests that are unreasonably repetitive or systematic, require disproportionate technical effort, jeopardize the privacy of others, or would be extremely impractical (for instance, requests concerning information residing on backup tapes)"

So who decides whether it's unreasonable? Not a very definitive policy. Watch these guys! But I digress..

Will it be very long before companies find out that their ads can't compete with the sway of people who've built their own influence through blogs and podcasting? It's the influence that people have that becomes the valuable thing, not the ads they show on their pages or their feeds. Doc Searls had it right (and Dave Winer pulled it up painfully in front of everyone to see, or hear, in the podcast) when he said that the key is to be successful because of your blog, not with your blog. Dave stated quite frankly - as Dave inevitably does - that his blog is what let him make the big deals that made him the bulk of his money, it wasn't 'nickel and dime' ads on his website.

So how do you build influence then? Well in my mind, running ads on your website will neither hurt nor help it (remember? I don't read 'em). Running ads on your RSS feed however will definitely not help build it. You're throwing things up in front of me that I don't want to read. That will not build influence, if anything it will diminish it. And remember, you may not care about me personally, but I'm Joe Average. I'm not unique. There are many others like me. You want to influence me, but ads won't do it.

This is the conundrum. If you want to make money with - as in, directly from - your blog (or podcast or whatever) then you will have to put ads in there. You have no choice but to do it (unless you're unusually lucky in being employed to blog or podcast or whatever). But you don't build influence by doing it. You actually degrade your influence (on me) by doing it. So maybe Dave is right in saying that the old model of writers getting paid to write will wither.

So who will be left writing, or podcasting? A bunch of amateurs. People who are doing these things because they love doing them. Then my buying habits will be influenced and swayed by a group of people writing and podcasting about these things solely because of their passion for them. What a shame. ;)