If the Internet has taught us nothing else, it has taught us that:
- Advertising pays for otherwise free services;
- People don’t like advertising; and
- Advertising works.
These conflicting forces always cause consternation and Stackoverflow is by no means immune.
Stackoverflow is Free
One of the most important features of Stackoverflow is that it is free to browse, ask and answer questions. People like free. It’s one reason I believe that Stackoverflow has been so well-received by programmers as a whole. Of course it has it’s detractors (most of whom seem to lurk on reddit) but as Bjarne Stroustrup says:
There are only two kinds of languages: the ones people complain about and the ones nobody uses.
The lesson being that anything—not just programming languages—that’s popular will attract countercultural malcontents keen to assert their non-mainstream identities.
Stackoverflow Costs Money
While the content is community driven (and thus free), the site is not. It takes money for hosting, hardware, software development, administration, support issues (separate to community moderators) and so on. No one would argue with that. Yet there appears to be a disconnect between the fact that something costs money and the activities required to earn that money. Either that or people mentally file that away as Somebody Else’s Problem.
So how does a “free” service pay for itself?
Micro-Transactions Don’t Work
An excellent resource on this is Fame vs Fortune: Micropayments and Free Content:
This strategy doesn't work, because the act of buying anything, even if the price is very small, creates what Nick Szabo calls mental transaction costs, the energy required to decide whether something is worth buying or not, regardless of price.
Joel Spolsky has also spoken on this subject. In addition to the mental cost of transactions (no matter how small), Joel remarked on how people will do things for free that they will never do if paid (a small amount).
Segmentation Doesn’t Work
Market segmentation is the time-honoured technique of asking people how much money they have when they want to buy something rather than telling them what it costs, meaning what it costs is a function of how much money they have.
Joel speaks about this in-depth in Camels and Rubber Duckies.
Working my way backwards, this business about segmenting? It pisses the heck off of people. People want to feel they're paying a fair price. They don't want to think they're paying extra just because they're not clever enough to find the magic coupon code. The airline industry got really, really good at segmenting and ended up charging literally a different price to every single person on the plane. As a result most people felt they weren't getting the best deal, and they didn't like the airlines.
Perhaps it’s more correct to say segmentation doesn’t work in the long term.
It’s clear that advertising works as a means of revenue. Why is it clear? If it didn’t, we wouldn’t have it. Of course, that doesn’t mean it works universally. It is obviously possible to lose money on advertising but it’s clearly possible to make money too.
Traditional media typically lied about conversion rates. Conversion rate is the percentage of visitors, users, viewers or listeners who see, hear or read an advert that take some desirable action, which could be simply clicking through or result in an inquiry, a sale or the like. Twenty years ago you’d have radio and TV marketing departments who would work up a model based on conversion rates of up to 25%. They did so because there was no way to refute their claims (other thank taking the plunge and getting disappointed with the result). With the internet such things are precisely measurable. Because the cost of distribution is so low, the conversion rates of 1 in 1000 (or less) are fine.
The other proof that advertising. Possibly 95% of email is spam, if not more. Clearly the conversion rate is non-zero otherwise they wouldn’t do it so that one guy in 10,000 who can’t find porn on the Internet (somehow) or thinks a plastic bottle of oregano will really extend his… well, you know… he is responsible for spam eclipsing legitimate email by a factor of 20-to-1.
Registration to Read Annoys People
The Evil Hyphen Site (ie Experts Exchange; deliberately no link) exemplifies this point. You can read content for free on that site if you either know where to look for free registration (deliberately not obvious) or you get to the site from Google (even though it says “register to see the answer” the answer is at the bottom of the page; try it).
This annoys people and is part of the reason that site has (justifiably) earnt so much hate.
Sometimes this registration is simply offensive, like why do I need to provide you with my date of birth and home address to read your forum post? Of course one has to wonder about what the less scrupulous operators are doing with such private information but even if you’re reputable, you don’t need it so why are you asking?
I can’t speak for anyone else, but as far as that sort of invasive information gathering goes, my name is Jimmy Hoffa, I’m 93 and I live in Afghanistan. I also run a banking company with a million employees and have an annual income of $10,000.
Stackoverflow doesn’t even require you to register to ask questions.
Alienate Your Community and You Have No Site
In this era of social sites (including crowd-sourced sites like Stackoverflow), community matters. A given solution can succeed and fail on the strength of it’s community. The same solution in different communities may succeed in one and fail in another by virtue of the different communities.
On a site like Stackoverflow the most important people are the ones who answer questions. This is a somewhat controversial opinion. The editors will disagree (or at least have a higher opinion of their worth). Don’t get me wrong: editing has value but no one celebrates the guy who edited The Great Gatsby, they celebrate F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Such communities over time can become insular (arguably incestuous). The poster child for this are Wikipedia editors, who went so far as to have a secret McCarthy-esque black list of "problem" users.
Lose your community and you lose your site. The Evil Hyphen Site has already done that.
Stackoverflow and Advertising
Originally Stackoverflow was quite light on for advertising, limited to a (mostly textual) right sidebar. The site started out looking much like this:
Now if you have less than 200 reputation it looks like this:
Interestingly, it only seems to look like this in Internet Explorer, even when I delete all my cookies. Firefox and Chrome (cookies deleted) still look like the original.
The difference? The right sidebar is “higher contrast” and there is an ad banner at the top of the question (and another further down). The top ads I believe were once text only, which is far less invasive. But Jeff has stated there won’t be any Flash or animated ads.
The latest controversy concerns the “offensive” advertising indicated to the left. Along with the "offensive" Adobe icons.
Call me crazy but I actually like these Adobe symbols on anything Flash/Flex related. It makes them easier to spot and I think it adds value. Spotting an Adobe icon is easier than finding the exact text that you’re after.
if you do find all questions tagged with one of these sponsored tags, you get this:
Is this too much? In my opinion? No. Others (naturally) disagree. Some to the point that they’ve written a script to remove such sponsored content.
Such activities, if done by a sufficiently large percentage of the userbase, undermine that site’s ability to generate revenue that pays for the site existing.
“But I Don’t Click on Ads Anyway!”
The first obvious rationalization is that basically ads don’t affect you. Bullshit. Ads do two things: they attempt to entice the user to take particular action, clicking through, buying something and so on. They also simply raise awareness of a brand, product or service. This is all about mind share. This one is subtle and hard to measure but if you see an ad or a logo often enough you’ll subconsciously recognize it.
“It’s Like Fast Forwarding Through Commercials”
No it isn’t. This defence was used in the ReplayTV lawsuit:
Yet, what the advertisers who are supporting TV are paying for is the potential that you might watch television ads. They know you might channel surf, get up and fart, go grab a smoke, or whatever. The challenge to the advertising agencies is to make commercials that you like to watch, that you want to watch. By editing out the commercials entirely, a priori, the networks can claim that ReplayTV in effect creates a derivative work that deprives them of the possibility that you might actually watch the ads. It is that possibility that generates the value of their ad space, and if something like ReplayTV were widely used, those numbers would drop, big time.
The other way to look at this is that if no one saw the ads, no sponsor would pay for them. If half the audience skipped the ads, it would be worth half as much to the sponsor and so on.
“It’s Already Loaded!”
Irrelevant. Something that’s loaded but never seen is of no value to an advertiser. Also, revenue from advertising can come from simply placing the ad, clicking through the ad or some combination of the two.
Adam Bellaire claims:
I don't think the SO guys are going to "not get paid" by a user script removing images and content after it's already loaded. Nobody can tell who or how many people are using this thing.
It could be argued that Adam believes advertisers are that clueless but it would be the height of naiveté. It’s far more likely that this is simply rationalisation.
“I Should Be Able to Opt Out.”
Adam once again pontificates:
…this is a completely opt-in script!
So what? Does it magically cost nothing to provide the service for you specifically? I must’ve missed the “This packet is intended for Adam” bit in the TCP/IP packet structure so the telcos know not to charge for it. I’ve got a good mind to write to W. Richard Stevens so he can issue an emergency addendum to his book.
“But This is ME!”
All of this comes down to what I call the BITM (“But this is ME!”) syndrome, closely related to NIMBY (“Not In My Backyard”). Examples include “I realize there is a speed limit… but this is ME!”, “I realize that I should stop at this almost red light… but this is ME!” and so on. Once again with Adam:
Or do you mean to say that as long as some people see the sponsored ads, then it's okay? Because I agree with that,
To put it another way: I understand someone needs to pay for this, I just don’t see why it should be me.
Alex Papadimoulis succinctly rebuts this:
Ad blockers are like the fat bastards at the grocery store who take handful after handful of free samples. If everyone [Ed] did it, the system would collapse and everyone would lose out. We know it, they know it, and we all just roll our eyes as they stuff their face with cut-up hot dogs and go "whhaaaat?". When they try to justify it ("it doesn't say only one, not my fault they give it away!"), it just makes 'em look worse. As I always say, at least have the decency to admit you're a bastard
The Innate Sense of Fairness
People have an innate sense of fairness to the point it can be manipulated or predicted with neurochemistry. This can work for companies if they treat their users fairly or against them if they don’t.
EA released Spore with a nauseating and invasive DRM system that limited it to three activations (later changed to five). Microsoft tried the same thing with limited activations of OEM Vista. People naturally believe that if they buy something they should be able to reinstall it as many times as they want.
A lawyer may argue that you haven’t bought the software, you’ve bought a license to use it in a limited way. But we’re not talking what’s legal here. We’re talking what’s fair.
It’s this sense of fairness that will cause people to reject the underhanded tactics of the Evil Hyphen Site to get you to subscribe or pirate some piece of software they’ve bought that has run out of activations (or simply installs a rootkit allowing your system to be hacked). So I guarantee you that if the Jeff and Joel go too far with advertising the userbase will react. But we’re not there yet. Nowhere near it.
There’s No Such Thing as a Free Lunch
Sites cost money to develop, maintain and host. They have a right to earn revenue to cover their costs and make a return on the investment they’ve made (and risked). So what’s fair?
My personal opinion is that icons on tags are OK, sponsored links at the top are OK (if you have a problem with that I guess you don’t use Google or pretty much any other search engine) and the side bar is OK. I find the graphical ads littered throughout the question a bit much but then again I have more than 200 reputation so don’t see them.
For what it’s worth I think I’ve even clicked on a couple (Telerik and SpreadsheetGear spring to mind) of the many thousands I’ve no doubt seen but, as mentioned, such a low conversion rate is to be expected.
The euphemism “opt out” in this context is akin to “it’s OK to steal from the supermarket as long as no one else does it”. If you want good services like Stackoverflow to exist then on principle alone you should be supporting them.
Writing scripts to block ads is just selfish. What’s more if the ads offend you that much it suggests a certain irresponsibility, thoughtlessness, touchiness and intolerance that doesn’t speak well of your character.
Seriously, get a clue.