Auto-play videos lurking in unopened tabs. Pop-ups that won’t go away. Photos that won’t load. Text that’s invaded by ads. It’s hard to complain about the internet without feeling like a mom struggling to post on Facebook, but going online has started to feel like an assault on the senses. The internet so often feels like that joke from Annie Hall in which two old women complain about dinner: “This article is terrible.” “I know — and so hard to read!”
Stopping the publication of bad articles is probably too much to ask, but must so many websites look awful? Between the Platonic nothingness of Medium and the easy-to-use automation of Tumblr, it seems like media companies big and small should be able to create a functional website without too much trouble. A few minutes online proves that this is not the case.
Here’s a common scenario: A reader clicks on a link via social media. The moment they reach the site, they're presented with a prompt to sign up for an email newsletter. The reader must then hunt for an [x] or assert that, “No, I don't want to know about the hottest new sneakers/sex moves,” or give in to confirmshaming and type in their email address, which will open up them up to all sorts of spam. Now they’re at least past the first gate.
At this point, however, if they have Adblock on, they may be asked to turn it off, subscribe, or whitelist the site. This is reasonable, and yet, if the user doesn’t have Adblock on, they’re in for ads that are often obnoxious, slow to load, use invasive tracking, or tactlessly contrast with the subject you’re reading about. For example, upon clicking on this article from Mic about a murdered trans woman, I was treated to a drop-down video ad about a new Mercedes. Midway through the article I found a moving ad for the comic book movie Valerian. Meanwhile, a Juicy Couture video of models in a convertible auto-played in a massive banner atop this article from Teen Vogue about what it’s really like to get an abortion, and Ghostery found 37 trackers on this article on CNN about internet privacy.
“This article is terrible.” “I know — and so hard to read!”
Next, between sidebars, headers, social media share buttons, and various related-content links, the actual article's text makes up only a fraction of available screen space. This is insane; the text is what the reader came for! In this story about recent Donald Trump actions, CNN has embedded five additional videos about other, unrelated Trump actions. You might expect the embedded videos to at least be related to the news to which the piece is dedicated, but instead they are all from different dates, pertain to different events, and contain pre-roll ads. Furthermore, the top video will autoplay once you’ve been on the page for long enough.
In the unlikely event that you ever make it to the bottom of an article in the hellscape that is the web, you’ll encounter a matrix of shit-stories from “Around the Web” like “American Residents Born Between 1936 and 1966 Wish They Knew This Earlier” (via The Guardian, "The Data Doesn't Lie: Blue Apron is Cheaper Than the Grocery Store" or “Fastest way to pay off $10,000 in credit card debt” (both via CNN).
Share buttons and prompts to “read more” treat readers like idiots who don’t know how to do basic tasks; meanwhile, a huge amount of faith is put in technology, which fails constantly. Embedded social media posts don’t load properly, videos expire, and the pre-populated tweet mangles the text. If there are high-res photos, they are often too large to display on a standard laptop screen, so one first looks at a face and much later scrolls to see a body. Should the poor reader decide to navigate the site’s categories via the drop-down menu, they must maneuver the mouse like a tight-rope walker, lest the proper choice vanish before they can click on it.
“These practices are killing the web, and I don’t know if the companies involved have realized that.”
You’ll notice that these problems with web design are mostly found on websites that depend on traffic and advertising. You don’t see these issues on Amazon, Google, or Facebook, which are constantly — if not always successfully — trying to redesign to make their sites easier and more pleasant to use. These companies are focused on maximizing eyeballs, which means any aesthetic improvements that don’t directly boost traffic are not a priority.
“That stuff just doesn’t tend to get decided by developers,” said Ben Nyberg, the tech lead for website design firm Ralph. Some of these flaws come down to publisher or marketing decisions, he explained, so while a designer may prefer a streamlined site, the publisher wants something flashier or the ad department needs larger banners. Other problems can be blamed on a lack of manpower on the side of developers, or simply issues of inertia and following the status quo.
“Of course users want experiences that give them what they want without a ton of crufty bullshit riding alongside it,” said web designer Brad Frost, whose site Death to Bullshit mocks the worst of the web. Citing his work redesigning About.com, he told me a good reader experience “doesn't necessarily mean less money for advertisers” — though he readily admits this isn’t an easy feat to accomplish.
Decreasing ad rates have also put a lot of pressure on websites to devote more screen space to ads, and auto-play videos to increase impressions for video ads. “The very first online ad made a lot of money,” said Ben Williams, head of communications at Adblock Plus, “almost as much as print.” But as early as the mid-’90s advertisers were aware of “banner blindness,” the tendency of internet users to simply not look at the parts of the screen where ads usually are.
As analytics proved the inefficacy of ads, costs came down. Publishers made up for this by adding more ads, including pop-ups, interstitials, and auto-play videos. These things led users to install ad blockers, which contributes to the vicious circle. As fewer people are presented with ads, sites adopt ever more intrusive methods for targeting the remaining users.
“These practices are killing the web, and I don’t know if the companies involved have realized that,” said web developer Peter Gasston. “The major problem is that they negatively affect the loading time of a page, and there’s good data showing that users will abandon pages if they don’t load in just a few seconds. Poor page loading also has two other major effects. The first is that teens and young people don’t like to share links anymore as they know the targets will be filled with ads; so instead they share screenshots. This stops the site from receiving any further traffic. Second, it drives people to install ad blockers.”
Ad blocking software is now installed on 615 million phones and computers around the world, according to Pagefair. Publishers realize that readers are unhappy, but Williams from Adblock says that the complexity of online advertising makes change difficult.
In the past “there was an advertiser, an ad agency, and a publication,” he said. “Now you have lots of people in the middle. If one of those parts doesn’t want to change, it makes it all the more difficult for the other parts to change.” Publishers are stuck “with using the same ads, the same vendors, and the same technologies.”
It’s easy to become blind to these problems when you spend all day on the internet. You figure out workarounds, stop looking at large portions of the screen, and install an ad blocker. People who don’t grasp these tricks are dismissed as rubes. Meanwhile, the problems grow more intractable. To borrow a phrase, this situation has become dangerous and unacceptable. We’re 20+ years into the internet era, and instead of becoming simpler and more thoughtful, navigating our digital spaces has turned into an increasingly frustrating exercise. Maybe it's delusional or naively optimistic to say this, but it feels like there must be a better way.