The Closed Nature of the Open Web
Ad Age | May 10, 2019 - The world wide web celebrated its 30th birthday this past spring. That’s three decades’ worth of growth and evolution for an experiment whose entire purpose was to encourage freedom and decentralization of information and communication.
Unfortunately, this open, free global information network has never worn heavier shackles than it does today.
Today’s web has calcified into a mostly closed environment in which a few powerful players control the majority of information being shown to the masses. That’s not only bad for society, but it’s also untenable for the very brands that are funding the growth of these closed platforms.
A vibrant, open web—one where quality, independent publishers can thrive on their own—is essential for not only the continued unrestricted exchange of information and ideas, but also to maintain a fair e-commerce and advertising marketplace for retailers and brands. Brand support of platforms with advantages creates a reinforcement loop that continues to give the platforms power over advertisers, content creators and the open web. If today’s advertisers want to maintain access to the audiences that matter most to them, they need to start diversifying the investment of their advertising dollars.
The pendulum swings
It’s only in understanding how the web has evolved since its inception that we can understand the precarious position in which we find ourselves today. Back in the fledgling days of the web, it was an entirely open system—and an incredibly painful user experience. AOL saw the opportunity to make it easy, and this first-ever closed platform quickly became the dominant way in which people accessed the web. But over time, as subscription revenue stalled, AOL became too aggressive in the advertising space, and user experience took a backseat to revenue. (Some of you might even remember AOL randomizing the location of the “close ad” to make it harder to dismiss popups.) All the while, dial-up was on the decline, and AOL eventually lost its footing.
AOL’s dominance gave way to a sort of golden age for the open web as it was always intended. Information and publications came online in droves, and the user experience was much improved compared to the earliest days of the open web. Digital ad revenue flowed into publishers, and those that continued to respect their user experiences were rewarded with large online readerships. But the digital economy was monetized by direct-response tactics—aggressive lower-funnel advertising that is interruptive at its core. That meant the web eventually became what AOL became: a messy user experience.
So the pendulum swung again. As consumers migrated to closed experiences and in-app environments like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Amazon and others (which initially were uncluttered, ad-free environments), ownership of the consumer relationship (and the access and data that come with it) has become tightly restricted. Even Google, once synonymous with the open web, has increasingly evolved into a closed-minded player looking to control all aspects of the consumer experience. Advertisers looking to connect with today’s consumers vis-à-vis these companies must play by their rules—and those rules intentionally obscure details in a way that does not benefit advertisers.