This month marks an important anniversary of a key moment in internet history that few web users will be celebrating; the publishing of the web’s first true banner ad.
The appearance of a small clickable, boxy graphic on the top of the pages of HotWired.com was the start of today’s $333bn online advertising industry. Yet, rather than being hailed as a momentous event, the creation of banner ads has been likened to the invention of smallpox. That comparison is even more damning when you consider that it came from the children of Joe McCambley, one of the creators of that first banner.
It’s easy to dismiss that level of criticism of banner ads as the snark of a (probably teenage) child. But that risks overlooking quite how hated banner ads are. Let’s not forget that an entire industry of blockers, so-called “privacy browsers” and even hardware defeat devices have sprung up to help banner-hating users scrub them from their lives. The anger directed at these little, clickable boxes definitely extends well beyond teenage snark, and it is not hard to understand where that comes from.
As an industry, we’ve abused the banner more than any other medium I can think of. They’ve been overused, become bloated, and employed to deliver a range of payloads from annoying autoplay video to spyware. Let’s not forget “trackers” either. For too long, banners have been less about delivering a creative than setting cookies. Even the biggest advocates of the banner must have some sympathy for those who try to block them.
None of this abuse is the fault of the banner though, so let’s not tar it with the brush of its own abusers. At its heart, the humble banner is a great thing with much to be proud of. 25 years since we were first asked “Have you ever clicked your mouse right HERE?” it’s time to start celebrating that.
The success of that first banner ad owed a lot to novelty, but it is ubiquity that has ensured the format’s continued success. Banners are the shipping containers of digital advertising; predictably sized and shaped containers that can be packed with a variety of content and delivered where they are needed.
This standardisation has brought with it efficiency and has paved the way for the automation that now dominates digital advertising. In turn, efficiency allows for scale and reach. Publishers of any size can now almost instantly begin earning advertising dollars from any standard sized placement on their site. Google AdSense alone provides a means to pay the bills of an estimated 10m websites, bringing near endless colour and individuality to the web.
On the buy-side that standardisation not only brings efficiency, but provides reach. Having creatives that fit seamlessly into any of millions of websites allows buyers to reach their audience wherever on the web they may be. It’s hard to imagine the development of real-time bidding without banner ads coming first.
It’s no secret that banners benefit publishers and advertisers, no-one is disputing that. However, I’d argue they massively benefit users too.
Ads support the online content we consume. Without advertising to support online business, it is estimated that the average American internet users would need to pay $420 per year to pay for those ad-supported services. That is a lot of value that variations of banner ads currently contribute a very large proportion of. Whilst a small proportion of users might be happy to pay that sum to avoid banner ads, reducing that to a dollar value greatly undersells the benefits of providing that value without a cost to the end-user.
The biggest of those benefits is the democracy that a free, ad-supported web offers. A banner, or the page serving it, doesn’t care whether you are prince or pauper when you access ad supported content. I’m not aware of any website that restricts content based on the bids they receive for an impression, so banners and other digital advertising work not only to keep content free but to keep it open to all.
The idea of an ad-free “pay to play” internet also ignores the practicalities of that. Whilst some users might be willing to pay for an ad-free experience on the sites they access daily, the model falls apart when it comes to the long tail of the web. The website that settles a pub argument, a local forum of the town you are visiting, the odd niche site that explains your child’s maths homework problem to you and the thousands of other sites we use but have no need to return to.
These sites don’t fit a subscription model and are even more reliant on the pennies that arrive through banner impressions. That vibrant, independent, free and open long tail that exists outside of corporate ownership only continues to do so thanks to the humble banner ad.
So, maybe it is time to love the banner a little for what it has done. Come 27 October, why not pour yourself a glass of something bubbly, set off a party popper and join me in wishing a happy 25th birthday to the unsung hero that is the banner ad.
Mat Bennett is co-founder and managing director of OKO. He tweets at @matbennett.