As I’m dusting off this website and taking a harder look at content strategies and the potential for advertising revenue, I simply cannot believe that it seems like absolutely nothing has changed in traditional online advertising in 10 years.

Seriously. We are still using the same ad block sizes we were using 10+ years ago, despite the fact that we live in a world of CSS3, javascript and responsive design.

My goals as a publisher are to integrate advertising into my website in a way that will catch my readers’ attention, but also won’t look like complete shit and distract from my own content. Banner ads can instantly cheapen a website if their quality is poor, their placement is bad, or their numbers too many. I am still trying to figure what’s going to work for us here at Snipe.Net – I’ll be experimenting a bit to find the right balance, and I hope you’ll forgive me if I don’t get it perfect right away.

I have had this website since 1998. I have never once in 15 years had a content area that was 468 pixels wide, or a sidebar rail that was either 125 pixels wide, or 250 pixels wide (plus whatever padding would be needed to stack them side by side.)

Back when banner ads first started and banner online advertising started to pick up steam, it made perfect sense that the industry needed to standardize sizes. I remember what it was like before we had those standards, and it was untenable. You couldn’t create an image banner (which was all we had back then) without knowing the specs you were creating for.

In the time before dynamic content, they were fine. Most screens were 640×480, and over time, we worked our way up to *gasp* 800×600. And then, years later, 1024×768. Madness!

It’s 2013 now. Let’s look at what I believe is our present day reality:

[checklist]

  • Websites are responsive – we have the ability to scale images and text on the fly and users can consume that content in any browser, without additional plugins
  • There is a much wider, less definitive range of common screen sizes and resolutions
  • There is an entire billion-dollar industry around ad networks that serve only to mobile devices in proprietary apps
  • Banner blindness hit us hard years ago, it’s never been harder to get people’s attention
  • The way advertisers pay has changed – impressions and even clickthroughs are less valuable than they used to be
  • Banners don’t work as well as they used to, but they do still work – wikipedia made $16 million in 50 days at the end of 2010
  • People still click on content, ads or otherwise, that they feel is relevant to their needs or interests

[/checklist]

While I don’t think we can fix human nature, I don’t understand why the ad systems available to us as publishers are effectively identical to the ones we used in 2003. We’re stuck using the same rigid banner ad sizes we always had, and find ourselves designing our websites around ad block sizes. I can’t even believe I just wrote that. Let me say that again. It is 2013, and we are designing website layouts around adblocks. That’s insane.

Why hasn’t someone come up with an ad network where the publisher determines the size of the ad that displays? Text-only ads are a no-brainer, but even richer content ads can be flexible with just a little bit forethought. This seems like a huge opportunity.

We have apps like Hype and iAd Producer that are effectively WYSIWYG editors for non-flash, complex HTML5/CSS3 animations.

It should be reasonably trivial these days for even a non-technical person to drag-and-drop the ad they want to create and export that code to be added into an ad network. Maybe they set a minimum and maximum size, so that their ad will never be smaller than $x and never larger than $y, since that’s what the ad creator has determined to be the reasonable visual tolerance for their ad layout.

In fact, a clever as designer could do some clever stuff with a responsive layout, where additional content is revealed if you increase the width of a browser, etc. Turning this ad medium into something that could actually be engaging, even entertaining, could be a game-changer in a stale marketplace.

As an advertiser, I want as many people to see and click on my ads as possible.

As a publisher, I want ads that I can work into my own layouts, so I can make sure that my design focus is always on providing my users – the most important part of this whole equation – with an optimal experience that is centered around ease-of-use and content discovery that is not just simple but enjoyable. Like the advertiser, I also want my users to see and click on as many ads as possible, since that means more money in my pocket.

I would in fact make the argument that the rigidity of adblock sizes has potentially contributed to banner blindness. I believe users brains have been trained to ignore content that appears in standard adblock sizes, and new flexibility in the marketplace may just add enough variation to mix it up and disrupt perception enough to start to get some eyeballs back on the banners.

I tend to prefer networks like Skimlinks, that allow you to effortlessly convert content on your site into affiliate links. This feels more genuine to me (although it can obviously be horrible in the wrong hands as well), since I’m already writing about these products in a genuine context – Skimlinks just makes it easier for me to potentially monetize the stuff I’m already talking about. But there is clearly still room in the ad world for banner advertising, and using modern technology to breathe new life into a stale old medium could benefit everyone.

Responsive design is the current buzzword in web development. Why hasn’t some industrious hipster-laden startup figured out that by implementing modern technology into a new kind of ad network, everyone wins? Am I missing something?

Image source: Know Your Meme

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I’m a tech geek/dev/infosec-nerd/scuba diver/blacksmith/sword-fighter/crime fighter/ENTP/warcrafter/activist. I'm the CTO at Mass Mosaic and the CEO of Grokability, Inc. in San Diego, CA. Tweet at me @snipeyhead or read more...

  • netmeg

    http://www.responsiveads.com/ I was talking to them last year, but we didn’t get anywhere with it and ended up implementing our own (half baked) solution. Google says they’re working on it, but they want to see how I’m doing it (!) and measure that. Is a puzzlement.

    • How is it still a puzzlement? This shit seems like something you and I could bang out in a weekend. :-/

      • netmeg

        I mean it’s a puzzlement why Google doesn’t get off its ass since they’re so busy hawking responsive design and pushing mobile on their advertisers. My sites are primarily monetized with AdSense (just started selling direct ads too – where I have more control) and a number of solutions have been proposed to Google and they’ve put the kibosh on most of them. They want to do it themselves, but they won’t do it themselves. All it takes is replacing one size ad for another based on viewport. You’re right – a weekend. But then it has fall within TOS.

      • Totally – I was agreeing with you, and also wondering why Google doesn’t get off their ass.