About ads and websites

This morning I see that Peter G4NKX has written on his blog about “Personal Web Targeting“. Peter wrote it after noticing that ads were appearing on various sites that were related, not to that site, but to things he had previously been looking for. These days I earn my living from internet marketing, so it is something I know a bit about. I was going to comment on Peter’s post but it would have been rather a long comment. In the past I have been asked by a couple of my readers to write about topics related to running a website and blog but there have always been other topics that took priority. Someone even slammed my blog’s rating at eHam because “the ads were annoying.” So this is perhaps a good opportunity to tackle this topic. If it is of no interest to you, you may as well skip the rest of this post.

First, why ads on websites? Put simply, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Web hosting costs money. If you run a professional site and need to employ people to run it, paying their salaries costs money too. Sites like Fred AA7BQ’s QRZ.com cost a lot of money to run and the ads allow people like me to access it for free. If you don’t like the ads, Fred provides the option to remove them by paying a subscription. If you don’t want to pay, you also have the option of not visiting QRZ.com. I certainly don’t expect Fred to pay the running costs out of his own pocket. The same goes for most of the sites you visit on the internet. If there weren’t ads, most of the web wouldn’t exist and a lot of the rest would be subscription-only, as the websites owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation have recently become. It will be interesting to see where that ends.

I’ve sometimes been asked why there are ads on my website. I’ll be as brief as I can. For best part of the last 20 years I have worked freelance. As the demand for my services declined due to recession, people who hired me moving on and so on, I was forced to look for new ways to make money. I stumbled into internet marketing more or less by accident and since my ham radio hobby site was one of my most popular sites I thought I’d try advertising on it. I certainly couldn’t live off the income generated by this site, far from it, but during times when my income only just paid the bills the fact that my hobby made a bit of money allowed me to resist selling my gear and even make the occasional new purchase.

Currently my business website makes us a comfortable living. But as I will eventually be retiring without the benefit of a final salary or inflation-linked pension scheme, in fact without much of a pension at all, I will soon be back in the situation where hobby expenditure is a luxury. So I expect I will be trying to make pocket money from my hobby right up until the day I finally become a silent key.

The issue Peter raised in his post was about ads appearing that related to something he had previously searched for, not the site he was currently on. Though he doesn’t mention it specifically, I presume he is referring to Google, which recently changed the way its context based advertising service AdSense worked. Previously, the ads that were displayed on a web page through the Adsense program were related solely to the content of that web page. When I first tried AdSense on my sites I felt that it actually enhanced the value of the pages. I have found out about radio products I might otherwise never have known about through the ads that have appeared on my and other ham radio web pages, so on balance I consider AdSense a good thing.

For the last couple of years the world has been in recession. The number of internet advertisers and the amount of money they have to spend has fallen. So Google has looked at ways to try to maintain advertising revenues. It has gone into partnership with DoubleClick, a long established web advertising company, to create what it calls interest-based advertising. Essentially it gets your browser to store a piece of information called a cookie when you visit a site, containing information about the topic of that site. When you visit another site that displays Google ads it can display ads related to the previous topic rather than the topic of the current site if the previous topic’s ads are likely to be more profitable to Google (and the site owner.)

Personally I think this is a step backwards. I would prefer people who visit my site to see radio-related ads primarily, not ads about bathroom fittings or whatever else they have been looking for. I haven’t observed a significant increase in advertising revenue since Google introduced its new policy. But in this new tough economic environment where people have to justify every cost website owners have to take what the advertisers will give them. I don’t think the subscription-only model is going to work for News Corporation, it certainly isn’t an option for hobby sites like mine (or even QRZ.com) and I am not going to forego my small but still worthwhile advertising earnings just because some people consider that advertising invades their privacy. You open a newspaper or watch TV and see ads about all kinds of things that aren’t relevant to what you’re reading or watching. Why does it become such a big deal when it’s on a web page?

Google has a Privacy Center which sets out its privacy policy with regard to advertising and also provides a link to the DoubleClick privacy policy. There you will find an Opt Out button that allows you to opt out of interest-based advertising or alternatively to set preferences for the types of ads you don’t mind seeing.

There are also software tools including plug-ins for Firefox that can block ads from appearing in your browser. However I hope you don’t use them. Personally I regard blocking the ads that help pay to keep a site running as a bit like stealing. As I said earlier, there’s no such thing as a free lunch and every website that you visit for free is costing somebody something to provide it.

Julian Moss, G4ILO, is a regular contributor to AmateurRadio.com and writes from Cumbria, England. Contact him at [email protected].

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