Ad Reform on the Web

by H Burke|Rivermile      posted 3.3.17

For several years now, momentum for display advertising reform – on websites and the greater internet – has been building.

While much of the advertising economy has moved to online presentation, too many of the base-level practices that happen in this environment are either...

  1. focused on old, largely ineffective methods that are no longer valuable to the reader, such as pop-ups, auto-play audio and flat, undersized images
  2. rooted in exploitation of customer habits and data by bigger players such as Google and Facebook

This resource page is our outline for making display ads and other sponsorships a trustworthy and valuable experience, for your reader and for your own standard of quality.

The “new reality,” the targeted advertising business that the IAB wants brands to join them in, is a place where you win based not on how much the audience trusts you, but on how well you can out-hack the competition. And like any information space organized by hacking skill, it’s a hellscape of deceptive crap.

Display advertising on the web, best practices

At present, we believe there are four – and only four –quality methods for handling display advertising as a web publisher or blogger. This is true whether you're a local news publisher, a niche topic publisher, or any type of business that counts website advertising as a primary revenue source.

The methods below are fully responsive, meaning they'll render nicely for both mobile and desktop viewers. And when used within the guidelines mentioned, they reflect well on your readers and your own trustworthiness.

Moreover, these approaches will provide clearly defined value for your advertiser. You may well sell fewer overall ads than you would with the "sidebar stack of ads" method. But you can, and should, sell these stronger formats at a premium price, resulting in better clients to go along with your always above average readers.

InStory ExampleThe in-story ad placement displays within the paragraph content of the article, at pre-defined "break points." Depending on the length of the story, there may be two, three or more in-story placements in a single article.  Yes, these ads interrupt the flow of the story, but they can do so in a way that recognizes the dignity of your reader.

All the power is in the reader's hand to scroll right on through it, and this task doesn't cause them undue work. They're scrolling anyway, right? So continuing that scroll isn't going to cause any frustration.

To clarify to readers that the ad is not a direct element of your article, you'll need small but clear text marking the item as an advertisement.  This signals an ad break to the reader that as she scrolls.

InStory ads aren't simply a picture plugged into a static spot on the page. This can create a bit of a bottleneck in the publishing process, depending on your system. 

There are more advanced (and subsequently, more complicated) methods where these ads could be scheduled and automatically populated within each and every article of your site. But we've found that just offering a brief bit of training for the persons who post/publish articles directly to the website is often better.

In a WordPress example, the developer would create a shortcode: something like this: [Adv-01] and instruct the post publisher to paste that code directly into the article content, maybe between the 5th and 6th paragraphs. The person posting the story doesn't need to do anything other than this. On a longer story, they might add [Adv-02] counting another 8-10 graphs down the copy.

After a couple times doing this, and seeing the results, this small procedure will become a natural part of their editing.

From a design standpoint, the in-story ad has great potential. The format will be horizontal (no, making your reader scroll through and extremely deep vertical ad isn't cool, so don't even think about it!) but on full screen desktop, it's quite large. On mobile, be sure that the depth of the ad doesn't extend for the whole phone screen, otherwise it just looks like another takeover.

Again, using brief and subtle text to set it off  from your article copy:  "---ADVERTISEMENT---" is a benefit to your readers, and separates your method from those horrid "quiz" apps out there that purposefully mix buttons and links of the advertiser with your own content.

Sites that pepper spray your reader with gaudy buttons and links – anything to generate a click –  are committing fraud, tricking readers into clicking on things that seem related to the story.

As an advertiser on these design clusterf_ks, if your link is "lucky" enough to get an accidental click, you've just paid for nothing. Or more likely, you're producing some kind of fraudulent product yourself, and need an equally fraudulent method for your marketing.

Harsh? You bet. This is exactly the type of shit that we're up against, as responsible publishers. In-story is a potentially great format for including advertising as your business model. But if misused, it's just another player in the flood of deceitful advertising out there on the web.

A key error that local advertisers make, and especially those local advertisers more familiar with newspaper and "yellow page type" advertising, is trying to put too much content and information into a single ad. What they don't recognize, all too often, is that a display ad on a website is merely step one of a conversion process.

The purpose of that website ad is to attract the readers attention, and deliver exactly enough information so that they'll seek out more. In practice, this means minimalizing text:  a headline, certainly a company logo and tagline, a very brief description and call to action. But addresses, phone numbers, multiple images, and detailed product text should all be excluded from the display ad.

Make the message singular to a purpose of moving the reader on to more information and preparing them to become a customer.

Often, that click is going to go to to the advertiser's website, or better yet a specific page on their site that is fully relevant to the display advertising copy it originates from.

Of course, with many small businesses, their website isn't edited regularly or in a dynamic way. As such, linking the display ad to their site may not be effective in the conversion cycle.

For example, the ad from a heating and cooling company announcing its Spring Maintenance deal shouldn't merely link to a generic home page where the reader has to track down details of the bargain. Rather, the first thing a reader sees when they click on that ad is a page with substantial detail and "next steps" on the ordering/purchasing of that deal.

If the advertiser's site is not the appropriate target for this message, you have a better option as a publisher.  The landing page.

Now easy to create within WordPress and other content systems, a landing page begins as simply a blank template on the publisher's website. It has no header and footer, and abandons any sidebars or navigation that appears on published articles and the home page.

The Landing Page is a blank slate for design. Typically, it would open it in a new tab or window when an ad is clicked. Like any other page on your publishers site though, it's going to combine text, graphics, hyperlinks and other information to provide a full description of the product or service at hand.  And all that content will be responsively optimized to read perfectly on a mobile phone, as well as a multi-column desktop display.

As a publisher, you would typically charge additionally for creation and maintenance of this landing page, bundling the cost with the display ad placement itself.

Landing Pages solve the problem of the advertiser trying to squeeze too much information into a smaller, static web image. And they guide the reader smoothly into a conversion process that respects their time and attention  – all the while giving both the advertiser and the publisher granular quality control.

Interstitial ads appear on the full screen when clicking through to a page. This is a format that we find both tasteful and open to creative design. It recognizes the essential contract between publisher and reader. And since the reader has not yet begun his dive into the article itself, it just doesn't feel particularly intrusive.


  • For interstitials, we find the critical component to be a "Skip Ad" or "Continue to article" link in the prominent upper right of a desktop view, prominent as well on mobile.
  • The interstitial should not be configured for entry on the home page of your site. Such placement lends itself to a frustration loop where the same readers see the same interstitial ad every time they hit your site. An exception may be if you are temporarily alerting your readers to a specific situation, or offering them an in-house description of your subscription offerings.
  • In any case, interstitials can typically be configured to display only a small number of times per user session. Usually, that number should be "1."
  • Lastly, never place interstitials on long-term contracts where the ad copy rarely changes. Again, pelting your readers with the exact same interruptive advertisement, day after day, serves no one in this equation well.

In cases where the perception of bias is not an acute factor for the publisher, sponsored pages are an effective means of combining ad revenue with article content.

This can take two forms:

  • as a normal publisher's article, with highlighted announcements and branding of a sponsoring business or organization. This may be anything from a brief sentence recognizing the page sponsor on up to a page that includes multiple elements with exclusive placements on the page.
  • as native advertising, in which the publisher and advertiser work together to create an article beneficial to the sponsoring advertiser. This method, when handled improperly, can reflect poorly on the publisher if it seems to the reader that content on the site is fully "for sale." But if treated with proper design and disclaimers, it can leverage the trust and familiar format that the publisher has established with readers.

These methods encompass display advertising only, whether visible on web pages, publisher email marketing, or other means that fall fully within the publisher's grasp.

The methods mentioned can surely accommodate not just text and images, but also video, audio and other multimedia approaches.

You may notice that more traditional website advertisements, such as banner ads and sidebar rectangles, are not mentioned here. We submit that those formats are out of date, serving both advertiser and reader quite poorly. Moreover, those traditional formats, still very common on mid-sized and smaller publisher sites, are largely caught in a race to the bottom for publisher revenue.

If your site generates high traffic, and you absolutely need to get some of that Google algorithm-based advertising candy, then at least put those ad placements in a position where they'll run after all relevant content on the page. The highly-targeted, yet massively scatter-gun approach to programmatic display advertising absolutely begs that you, as a publisher, don't give more to the network (be it Google or whoever) than you receive.

Ad blocking, anti-tracking and other trends toward improving reader experience

As long as you're practicing respect for our audience, you're OK. - Michael Preim

Ad tracking technology has become so pervasive that it is possible for ad tracking companies to recreate the majority of a person’s web browsing history. - Apple

Make no mistake, there are many in the ad tech and marketing tech industry who would scoff at many of the assertions we make about website display advertising. They'll tell you that buying advertising at scale requires adherence to methods that are sometimes intrusive, and that applying big data and big tracking is just the way things are done now.

But we've been involved in the business of revenue generation for mid-size and smaller online publishers since the beginning, and it's truly disheartening to see what a mess online advertising has become. We believe that choosing to become part of a solution, rather than an accomplice to the exploitation of readers, advertisers and publishers, is the only logical path forward.