Online Advertising's Missing Link

November 12, 2010

ads need linksLinks are the currency of the Web, the real value of any form of content in a hyperconnected universe. Madison Avenue wants nothing to do with this, and this is increasingly problematic for those who count on advertising to make a living.

Jeff Jarvis has been writing about the value of links for years, like this little gem from 2005:

In this new world, links are currency. Links grant authority. Links build branding. Links equal value.

As Jeff was writing that, Kevin Kelly was publishing his brilliant essay "We Are The Web" via Wired. It, too, spoke of hypertext linking as the linchpin of all that was new. "Linking," he wrote, "unleashes involvement and interactivity at levels once thought unfashionable or impossible. It transforms reading into navigating and enlarges small actions into powerful forces."

Another value of linking, Kelly wrote, is that it teaches. It teaches us. It teaches the highly intelligent machine we're creating called "the Web."

When we post and then tag pictures on the community photo album Flickr, we are teaching the Machine to give names to images. The thickening links between caption and picture form a neural net that can learn. Think of the 100 billion times per day humans click on a Web page as a way of teaching the Machine what we think is important. Each time we forge a link between words, we teach it an idea.

There is a real dollar value in links, as I pointed out in a 2007 essay on the subject:

There already is a dollar value placed on links, and it's found in the seedy underbelly of the Search Engine Optimization world. While the majority of industry practices are aboveboard, many companies clog the comment sections of blogs with false entries that create links for clients. Since search engine algorithms view links as a validation of influence, this actually raises the unscrupulous companies' clients in search engine rankings.

These same companies create sites known as "link farms" and build phoney blogs known as "splogs" in order to drive client rankings up the search engine chain through links. While the search engines are aware of this and take measures to block these kinds of tactics, it is still a thriving business. That's real dollars attached to links.

A new value for links hit the scene with the explosive growth of social media giants Twitter and Facebook and the rapid dissemination of news as a real-time entity. Much of Twitter is about passing links to followers as part of the overall real-time conversation, and links included in Facebook status changes include text and images from the link itself, a great way to include source material in the social grid.

The simple link is THE fundamental new cultural value created by the Web, and in the years to come, it will change things even more than it already has. It's not what's at the end of the link that's necessarily important for the future; it's the link itself, a portable annotation, footnote or portal to anything. Portable portals can be aggregated, curated, and passed around. The only thing missing so far is Madison Avenue. Its failure to grasp the importance of links leads to the lack of any mechanism by which unbundled content could be funded in the future. Much has been written about the concept of "advertising as content," but nobody talks about what happens with that content in a networked world.

That's because advertisers don't think this way. The only thing the industry knows is mass or direct marketing — the pushing of a message or, as Doc Searls calls it, "signaling" to an individual or a crowd. Put the right signal with the right crowd, and the magic of commerce happens. But what happens when people are fed up with all the relentless pushing and use technology to protect themselves from the bombardment? This notion is unpalatable to the marketing world, so it is ignored. The time is ripe for a completely different, commerce-generating concept.

Tweetdeck is one of the applications that has changed media consumption for me. I don't follow a lot of people via Twitter, but I'm very interested in the lives and thoughts of those I do follow. One of the great things about Twitter is that it produces a fascinating form of serendipity through the links provided by those I follow.

John Hagel via TwitterJohn Hagel recently tweeted about a YouTube video he'd seen with four of his favorite blues players, B. B. King, Eric Clapton, Buddy Guy, and Jim Vaughn. At least once a day, it seems, John sends a link to something off the usual grid. Since I'm a blues fan, I clicked on the link and became the 6,509,183rd person to watch that video clip. Those guitar players didn't pay John to send that link; he did it, because he thought others might like to share in his joy. Some of you may be blues fans, too. You'll click on the link here and watch this great performance yourself and find that it was a nice little 5-minute break in your day.

The power of this is all tied to the fact that this video has its own link, something that can easily be passed around by those so inclined. It's called "distributed media," what I referred to in my earlier writings as "unbundled media." I wrote of an "unbundled awakening" for 2006 that didn't materialize as I'd hoped, because media companies that needed the awakening were too busy trying to squeeze an extra egg from an exhausted and dying golden goose.

What we've been able to accomplish in a short period of time in the world of distributed media is truly remarkable, but it is the same speed of change that is so threatening to those whose income depends on bundled, not unbundled media. We simply must step across the line and develop concepts for the distributed world, or yet another outside enterprise will do it for us (and make all the money in the process).

Media companies today may understand the value of links, but they've yet to truly grasp distributed media, because the old value proposition for advertisers doesn't exist in this world. Once a new one is established, there will be a flood of movement, but until then, these folks are content to do nothing and continue to ride mass marketing's tired back.

So let's think about this for a minute. If media is to be "distributed," then so, too, should be commerce-related media, that which was formerly known as "advertising." If we're old school, we're going to say, "I get it. Make a page with a link and pay the people with the biggest reach to shove it down their follower's throats via Twitter, Facebook or whatever. Brilliant!" No, that's called "mass marketing," and it doesn't work in places where people can avoid it. The Twitter user who pushed such ad links would soon be losing followers, and quickly.

However, if any distributed ad link is a pull option, the value proposition swings the other way, because the end users — the people formerly known as the "consumers" — have the option of chasing it or not. Let's say that Twitter, for example, created an application that allowed for 10-characters in green to be a link to a distributed ad, we'd all learn that clicking on that link would lead to a deal or some commercial message. The 10-characters could be coded so that a clue about the message was revealed, say, "biskitdeal." Twitter feeds for distributed ad messages could be created, including those that would be highly customizable for end users.

Links provide a built-in governor that I really like, because just as distributed media can be passed around as an example of something the passer likes, so can links be passed around that the passer dislikes. This produces a refreshing "check" on Madison Avenue, not only over facts and promises, but also over products and services. In the end, making quality products at fair prices and providing quality service reasonably will advance brands, not simply the amount of dollars thrown at the marketing "problem." This would usher in a new art form, for Madison Avenue lives off the problem-solving money, which is why they are so disinclined to think outside the box.

I don't want to be "sold," but I do want to be "aware." The problem with our culture is that everywhere we look, we're being sold. It's what we do. We created the form, and it's worked well in growing businesses and fueling the economy of commerce. But somewhere along the way, we crossed a line, and now we're turning to technology to get out of the way of the relentless bombing. "Just get 'em in the tent," is a license for distortion and any form of showing off. We pay $10 for a movie at the theater and sit through a half hour of ads before the show starts. Signs block everything. Commercial breaks on TV run 5-minutes. Websites are blocked with roll-overs (conveniently located where your mouse comes in contact with the page), roadblocks, pop-overs, pop-unders and anything else that "works" to get our attention. The print industry throws out pages that resemble NASCAR race cars.

Any attempts to bring this to the world of distributed media will fail, utterly.

The open ad directory of tomorrow will contain distributed links of those who pay to be there. Technology will work on our behalf to bring those messages or "signals" our way, because we've asked for them. Doc Searls' wonderful Project VRM, where consumers signal businesses about wants and needs instead of the other way around, will also be a form of distributed media with links. Even now, with classifieds like Craigslist, each item has a link, and those could be aggregated elsewhere and passed around, depending on the need specified in a user's "signal." Whoever pays the most gets first in line, and that's where the money will be made, for matching consumer needs with business goods and services is something the Web can handle very efficiently, if the knowledge is simply made available. Sound far-fetched? Commerce-generating applications will make it all happen, whether it's via a closed system like Twitter or an API at the application layer of the Web itself, and when it does, Madison Avenue's experience with push won't mean much anymore.

But that's just one possibility of moving advertising into the link economy and the stream. Greater minds than mine will certainly develop others, but the possibilities of unbundled advertising are limitless, all made possible by the portable link.