The Web at 20: Assault on Page Mountain.

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The Web at 20Raise your hand if you remembered the big birthday last month?  No, it wasn’t anybody in the royal family or any of the Kardashians. (Were any of them actually born or simply the result of a script development process?)  No, last month the World Wide Web turned 20!  I’d buy it a drink, but that won’t be legal for another year.  Anniversaries and birthdays are great times for reflection, so I’m using this week’s Drift to light some candles, illuminate and ruminate.

This week’s Drift is proudly underwritten by The Media Trust, the leading provider of campaign quality automation (for creative quality assurance and campaign screenshots/verification), security (for malvertising and data) and transparency (third-party ads) services to the online and mobile adtech ecosystems. See what over 500 publishers utilize every day to ensure quality and drive revenue.  

In 2010 – when the Web was not yet out of high school – I gave a speech calling out a dozen “Dead Ideas” that were continuing to plague and hamstring the growth and development of internet advertising.  There’s one in particular that’s gone from dead idea to zombie curse:  it’s the idea that we’re going to continue dealing with “a web of pages.”  (See the video of this part of the speech or click here to view the entire 30 minute presentation.)  When the web first emerged (months after Tim Berners-Lee’s invention of hypertext) it was essentially a place where known individuals shared things with one another.  (Imagine a Flintstones era version of Tumblr or Instagram used only by Fred, Barney and their friends in Bedrock.)  Rapidly that model fell away and we started building hundreds, thousands and soon millions of websites.  To make money, we created an artificial construct in which consumers generated page views, which in turn begat a number of ad impressions, which then called out to multiple servers saying “feed me an ad.”  The whole thing got so ridiculous that we now call on futures trading technology to manage the vast ocean of commodity “impressions” we’ve created.  Margins grow ever smaller and consumers become ever more indifferent to the omnipresent , impotent banners with which we continue to carpet bomb them.

But now, at 20, web advertising has the chance to grow up.  And several gathering trends will force it to do so.  Call it the social-tablet-video Tsunami.

Social: Google may always have a far bigger market cap, but Facebook is the company that will have revealed the biggest idea of the digital age: the social graph. By connecting and illuminating “the web of people,” Facebook first established a parallel digital world for consumers and marketers, then reattached itself and began to retroactively change the web.  Once exposed to the ability to market to – and through – actual people, marketers won’t go backward to pages and impressions.

Tablet: According to Venturebeat, tablets will outsell laptops 6-1 by 2017.  That’s a whole lot more swiping, tapping and pinching, and a whole lot less clicking and scrolling.  The physiology of navigation is changing.  Does anybody think the structure of search, content and viewer experience won’t change with it?  And this is not even taking into account the true mobile consumption via smartphones.

Video:  Once you go video, you never go back.  Nuff said.

Am I predicting that individual sites or media companies won’t be able to run great businesses on the web anymore?  Of course not.   That would be foolish.  But not nearly as foolish as believing our 20-year-old assumptions about the economic structure and value equation in digital media will continue to hold.  They won’t.  And I, for one, am excited to see what’s on the other side of page mountain.

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