Al-Jazeera axes the “Comments” section on its English-language website.

What took them so long?

This past week, al-Jazeera.com, the English-language website run by the Qatar-based international media company, announced that it is disabling the comments section on its site.

In a written statement, the company complained that what was originally designed to “serve as a forum for thoughtful and intelligent debate that would allow our global audience to engage with one another” had devolved into a free-for-all, with the comments sections “hijacked by users hiding behind pseudonyms spewing vitriol, bigotry, racism and sectarianism.”

“The possibility of having any form of debate was virtually nonexistent,” the al-Jazeera statement added – as if any further explanation for their action was needed.

I have a comment of my own in response to al-Jazeera: “Welcome to reality.”

Al-Jazeera is hardly an innocuous website in cyberspace. It reports on some of the most explosive developments affecting the most volatile regions of the world.  Considering the sparring parties in these never-ending conflicts, complaining about “sectarianism” is almost laughable.

Is there a more “sectarian” group of people on the face of the earth than those who are exorcised about the inhabitants of the Middle East – or of Muslims, Christians and Jews in general? I don’t know of any.

As for the comments section being a repository of derision and hate, how is anyone surprised? What other result could one expect – especially since there was little or no attempt by al-Jazeera personnel to moderate the comments section?

The fact is, unmoderated comments sections that also allow for poster anonymity are a blanket invitation for “the inmates running the asylum.” Comments that are left in these “anything’s allowed” forums chase the well-intentioned participants away – and fast.

On the other hand, I’ve found plenty of well-moderated forums and comments sections that are as valuable as the underlying articles themselves.

That doesn’t happen all by itself, of course. Good moderation takes effective policies – requiring commentators to identify themselves for a start.  It also requires an ever-watchful eye.

Evidently, al-Jazeera and others like them found the not-insignificant effort required to perform this degree of moderation to be unworthy of their time or financial resources. And as a result, their forums became worthless.

And now they’re history.

Banner Ads Turn 20 This Year …

… But who really wants to celebrate?

paint the town red
Celebrating in the geriatric ward: The online banner ad turns 20.

It might come as a surprise to some, but the online banner ad is 20 years old this year.

In general, 20 years doesn’t seem very old, but in the online word, 20 years is ancient.

Simply put, banner ads represent the geriatric ward of online advertising.

In fact, there’s very little to love anymore about an advertising tool that once seemed so fresh and new … and now seems so tired and worn-out.

Furthermore, banner ads are a symbol of what’s wrong with online advertising.  They’re unwelcome.  They intrude on people’s web experience.  And they’re ignored by nearly everyone.

Old banner advertising
A whole lotta … nothing? Online banner ads in 2015.

But despite all of this, banner ads are as ubiquitous as ever.

Consider these stats as reported by Internet analytics company ComScore:

  • The number of display ads served in the United States approaches 6 trillion annually.
  • Fewer than 500 different advertisers alone are responsible for delivering 1 billion of these ads. 
  • The typical Internet user is served about 1,700 banner ads per month. (For 25 to 34 year-olds, it’s around 2,100 per month.) 
  • Approximately 30% of banner ad impressions are non-viewable.

paying no attention to advertisingAnd when it comes to banner ad engagement, it’s more like … disengagement:

  • According to DoubleClick, Google’s ad serving services subisidary, banner ads have a click rate of .04% (4 out of every 10,000 served) for ads sized 468×60 pixels. 
  • According to GoldSpot Media, as many as 50% of clicks on mobile banner ads are accidental. 
  • According to ComScore, just 8% of Internet users are responsible for ~85% of the clicks on banner ads.

Come to think of it, “banner blindness” seems wholly appropriate for an advertising vehicle that’s as old as this one is in the web world.

The final ignominy is that people trust banner ads even less than they do TV ads:  15% vs. 29%, according to a survey conducted by market research company eMarketer.

Despite the drumbeat of negative news and bad statistics, banner advertising continues to be a bulwark of the online advertising system.

Publishers love them because they’re easy to produce and cost practically nothing to run.

Ad clients understand them better than other online promotional tactics, so they’re easier to sell either as premium content or as part of ad networks and exchanges.

There’s plenty of talk about native advertising, sponsored content and many other advertising tactics that seem a lot fresher and newer than banner ads.  But I suspect we’ll continue to be inundated with them for years to come.

What do you think?  Do you have a different prediction?  Please share your thoughts with other readers here.

Twitter’s World: Click … or Clique?

Twitter traffic:  dominateed by a tiny fraction of users.
Half of all tweets are generated by fewer than one-half of one percent of Twitter accounts.
What’s happening these days with Twitter? The micro-blogging service continues to light up the newswires every time there’s a civil disturbance in a foreign land, because of how easily and effectively it facilitates planning and interaction among the dissidents.

But what we’re also finding out is that Twitter is overwhelmingly dominated by just a small fraction of its users.

In fact, Cornell University and Yahoo recently published results of an evaluation of ~260 million tweets during 2009 and 2010, which found that ~50% of the tweets were generated by just 20,000 Twitter users.

That is right: Fewer than one half of one percent of Twitter’s user base accounts for fully half of all tweet activity.

Just who makes up this “rarified realm” of elite users? It turns out that they fall into four major groups:

 Media properties (e.g., CNN, New York Times)
 Celebrities (e.g., Ashton Kutcher … Lady Gaga)
 Business organizations (e.g., Starbucks)
 Blogs

Even more interestingly, these “elite” users aren’t interfacing with the rest of us “regular Twitter folk” as much as they are simply following each other: Celebs follow celebs … media companies follow other media companies … bloggers follow other blogs.

The Cornell/Yahoo research report, titled Who Says What to Whom on Twitter, can be found here.

But one wonders if the report should be retitled Much Ado About Nothing?

Click Wars Opening Round: Plaintiffs 1; Facebook 0

I’ve blogged before about the issue of click fraud, which has many companies wondering what portion of their pay-per-click campaigns are simply wasted effort.

Until now, Google has been the biggest target of blame … but now we’re seeing Facebook in the thick of it also.

It’s only been in the past year that Facebook has made a real run for the money when it comes to paid search advertising. There are some very positive aspects to Facebook’s advertising program, which can target where ads are served based on behavioral and psychographic factors from the Facebook profiles of members and their friend networks. This is something Google has had a difficult time emulating. (Not that they haven’t been trying … which is what the new Google +1 beta offering is all about.)

But now, Facebook is the target of a lawsuit from a number of advertisers who contend that there are major discrepancies between Facebook’s click volume and the companies’ own analytics programs which suggest that the purported clickthrough activity is significantly inflated.

As an example of one company that is a party to the lawsuit, sports fan site RootZoo alleges that on a single day in June 2010, its software programs reported ~300 clicks generated by Facebook … but Facebook charged RootZoo for ~800 clicks instead.

While contesting the allegations vigorously, Facebook’s attorneys have also argued against the company having to disclose the source code or other details of how it calculates clickthrough activity, citing fears that the proprietary information could be leaked to outside parties (competitors) as well.

But that argument fell on deaf ears this past week. Instead, Facebook has been ordered by the U.S. District Court in San Jose, CA to disclose a wide range of data, including its source code for systems to identify and filter out invalid clicks.

In making this decision, Magistrate Judge Howard Lloyd stated, “The source code in this case implemented Facebook’s desired filtering, and whether that filtering [has] lived up to Facebook’s claims and contractual obligations is the issue here.”

This ruling appears to call into question the sweeping terms and conditions that Facebook advertisers are required to sign before beginning a media program. The relevant language states: “I understand that third parties may generate impressions, clicks or other actions affecting the cost of the advertising for fraudulent or improper purposes, and I accept the risk of any such impressions, clicks or other actions.”

[This isn’t the only incidence of Facebook’s broad and restrictive stipulations; another particularly obnoxious one deals with “ownership” of content posted on Facebook pages – basically, the content creator gives up all rights of control — even if the content came to Facebook through a third-party source.]

But in this particular case, evidently the terms and conditions language isn’t sweeping enough, as Judge Lloyd ruled that the plaintiffs can sue on the basis of “invalid” clicks, if not “fraudulent” ones.

Touché! Score one for the judges against the lawyers!

Of course, it’s way too soon to know how this particular case is going to play out – or whether it’ll even get to court. It’s far more likely that Facebook will settle with the plaintiffs so as not to have to disclose its source code and other “trade secrets” — the very things that cause so many marketers to see paid search advertising as a gigantic black hole of mystery that is rigged against the advertisers no matter what.

But one thing is easy to predict: This won’t be the last time the issue of pay-per-click advertising is brought before the courts. Whether the target is Facebook, Google or Bing, these skirmishes are bound to be part of the business landscape for months and years to come.

Blockbuster lives! (But for how long?)

Blockbuster logoI blogged recently about the financial travails of Blockbuster and its pending sale … indeed, whether the brand would survive or be liquidated instead.

Wednesday evening’s auction was the scene of some drama as various groups contended with each other for the right to purchase this white elephant. As the evening wore on, Dish Network was vying with Monarch Alternative Capital for placing the high bid.

It was a true battle between old and new forces … with Dish Network seeing Blockbuster as a conduit for augmenting its suite of services, and Monarch looking only to liquidate Blockbuster’s substantial real estate holdings while shuttering the enterprise for good.

When the dust finally settled, Dish Network was the victor, agreeing to pay ~$228 million in cash at closing, which is expected to occur within the next few months. In total, the deal came in at ~$320 million, which tracks with the current value of Blockbuster’s assets.

What in tarnation is Dish Network thinking of doing with Blockbuster? It turns out that the company is hoping to use at least some of Blockbuster’s ~1,700 store outlets to facilitate cross-marketing of its satellite programming and related video services.

The industry is already abuzz with what this really means. Is the Blockbuster acquisition by Dish Network a master-stroke … or a big blunder?

Dish Network looks like it will attempt to keep Blockbuster afloat by having it provide free or discounted rentals as a value-add to Dish’s pay TV subscribers. But industry watchers are also looking at potential online opportunities which could turn out to be more lucrative, since Blockbuster holds streaming rights to various video titles that Dish can use to expand its existing streaming offerings. It could also roll Blockbuster licenses into a Dish-branded online video-on-demand service offering.

In a likely related move, Dish Network has also acquired the assets of financially troubled satellite operator DBSD North America. That purchase provided access to a broadband spectrum that Dish can now use to roll out wireless networks for voice or data communications. This way, it wouldn’t need to rely on the broadband networks of other Internet service providers to stream the content to its satellite TV customers.

But with the pace of change and the fickleness of customers, any effort to bring synergy to these new acquisitions must happen very quickly. Dish Network doesn’t have the luxury of time to make things work; it’s got to happen in weeks and months rather than years.

So the coming months will be interesting in seeing how the Dish/Blockbuster union pans out. One thing is certain: Blockbuster won’t end up looking anything like it does today. But on the bright side, the brand won’t be thrown into the dustbin of corporate history – at least not yet.

And that probably surprises more than a few industry observers – the ones who have been loudly predicting the death of this iconic brand for months or years now.

Where are Newspapers Now?

Newspaper ad revenues continue in the doldrums.John Barlow of Barlow Research Associates, Inc. reminds me that it’s been awhile since I blogged about the dire straits of America’s newspaper industry. The twin whammies of a major economic recession along with the rapidly changing ways Americans are getting their news have hammered advertising revenues and profits, leading to organizational restructuring, bankruptcies, and more.

But with the recession bottoming out (hopefully?), there was hope that the decline in newspaper ad revenues might be arrested as well.

Well, the latest industry survey doesn’t provide much cause for celebration. A poll of ~2,700 small and mid-size businesses conducted this summer by Portland, OR-based market research firm ITZBelden and the American Press Institute finds that ~23% of these businesses plan to cut back on newspaper advertising this year.

The kicker is that these revenues are being spent, but they’re being put to use in other advertising media.

The ITZBelden survey found that a similar ~23% of companies plan to up their 2010 digital ad spending anywhere from 10% to 30%. This compares to only about 10% planning to increase their print advertising by similar proportions.

Moreover, the survey findings reveal that small and mid-size U.S. businesses have moved into digital marketing in a significant way. Not only do more than 80% of them maintain web sites, they’re active in other areas, including:

 ~45% maintain a Facebook or MySpace page
 ~23% are engaged in online couponing
 ~13% are involved with Craigslist
 ~10% are listed on Yelp! or similar user-review sites

One area which is still just a relative blip on the screen is mobile advertising, in that fewer than 4% of the respondents reported activities in that advertising category.

Where are these advertisers planning to put their promotional funds going forward? While newspapers should continue to represent around one quarter of the expenditures, various digital media expenditures will account for ~13% of the activity, making this more important than direct mail, TV and Yellow Pages advertising.

There was one bright spot for newspapers in the survey, however. Respondents expressed a mixture of confusion and bewilderment about the constantly evolving array of digital marketing communications options opening up … and they’re looking for support from media experts to guide their plans and activities.

And where do they see this expert advice coming from? Newspaper ad reps.

Perhaps the Yellow Book’s “Beyond Yellow” small business advertising campaign – you know, the one that touts not only the Yellow Pages advertising but also web development, online advertising, search marketing and mobile advertising – is onto something.

Are “News Hound” Behaviors Changing?

News Hound Behaviors are ChangingMost of the people I know who are eager consumers of news tend to spend far more time on the Internet than they do offline with their nose in the newspaper.

So I was surprised to read the results of a new study published by Gather, Inc., a Boston-based online media company, which found that self-described “news junkies” are more likely to rely on traditional media sources like television, newspapers and radio than online ones.

In fact, the survey, which was fielded in March 2010 and queried the news consumption habits of some 1,450 respondents representing a cross-section of age and income demographics, found that more than half of the “news hounds” cited newspapers as their primary source of news.

By comparison, younger respondents (below age 25) are far more likely to utilize the Internet for reading news (~70% do so).

Another interesting finding in the Gather study – though not terribly surprising – is that younger respondents describe themselves as “interest-based,” meaning that apart from breaking news, they focus only on stories of interest to them. This pick-and-choose “cafeteria-style” approach to news consumption may partially explain the great gaps in knowledge that the “over 40” population segment perceives in the younger generations (those observations being reported with accompanying grunts of displeasure, no doubt).

As for sharing news online, there are distinct differences in the behavior of older versus younger respondents. Two findings are telling:

 More than two-thirds of respondents age 45 and older share news items with other primarily through e-mail communiqués.

 ~55% of respondents under age 45 share news primarily through social networking.

Also, more than 80% of the respondents in Gather’s study revealed that they have personally posted online comments about news stories. This suggests that people have now become more “active” in the news by weighing in with their own opinions, rather than just passively reading the stories. This is an interesting development that may be rendering the 90-9-1 principle moot.

[For those who are unfamiliar with the 90-9-1 rule, it contends that for every 100 people interacting with online content, one creates the content … nine edit, modify or comment on that content … and the remaining 90 passively read/review the content without undertaking any further action. It’s long been a tenet in discussions about online behavior.]

What types of news stories are most likely to generate reader comments? Well, politics and world events are right up there, but local news stories are also a pretty important source for comments:

 Political stories: 28%
 National/international news stories: 27%
 Local news stories: 22%
 Celebrity news: 13%
 Sports stories: 5%
 Business and financial news: 5%

And what about the propensity for news seekers to use search engines to find multiple perspectives on a news story? More than one-third of respondents report that they “click on multiple [search engine] results to get a variety of perspectives,” while less than half of that number click on just the first one or two search result entries.

And why wouldn’t people hunt around more? In today’s world, it’s possible to find all sorts of perspectives and “slants” on a news story, whereas just a few years ago, you’d have to be content with the same AP or UPI wire story that you’d find republished in dozens of papers — often word-for-word.