Remember when websites looked like this?

This webpage consists entirely of ads.

This webpage consists entirely of ads.

Minor exaggerations aside, we’re fortunate enough to be able to enjoy an evolved web experience.

Blinking banner ads and arbitrary pop-ups have (for the most part) been banished to the dodgier corners of the web. These days online ads are stealthier, personalized, more varied, and as the programmatic ad buying trend heats up, increasingly automated.

Get with the program

So far programmatic ad buying has been a boon to marketers because it can help brands hone in on specific audiences, which ideally makes for a more personalized experience. And diverse ad formats means more opportunities for multiple ads on one page, which is great news for publishers.

The result is that today’s typical editorial page is populated with multiple banner ads, text links, third party sponsored promotions, in-text ads, in-image ads… and the list goes on.

The problem, though, is that all this variety can result in a cluttered webpage, and as any person who has ever surfed the web can attest, a cluttered webpage makes for a terrible browsing experience. This in turn, diminishes the value of the site.

The response to this problem has been a push for more premium display ads as well as for custom content. Take, for example, the recent feature-length Orange Is the New Black promotion in The New York Times, which has been celebrated as the next generation of native advertising.

But more often than not, marketers are loath to pay for a more expensive ad that in practice delivers a fraction of the performance derived from the more cost effective programmatic model, which allows brands to be more targeted with their advertising.

New York Times Orange Is the New Black

Netflix’s paid post advertising Orange is the New Black is one of The New York Times’ most ambitious native advertising efforts.

The programmatic challenge

Automated ad buying also puts pressure on publishers to be more creative with their advertising tactics.

First, there’s the viewability issue. With so many ads on a page, and many of them located below the fold, marketers want a guarantee that their ads are not only being seen, but being seen by actual humans (more on that below).

Second, search engines are starting to ding pages with too many ads on them (à la Google’s recent Panda algorithm update) and are instead favouring content-rich experiences.

Third, there’s the persistent problem of ad fraud, specifically “bot fraud.” As a recent article in The Wall Street Journal explains, “bots are computers hijacked by viruses that are programmed to visit sites and mimic human behavior.” The result? Fake traffic and fake value.

Some marketers estimate that about half the money they spend on digital advertising is wasted because of “bot fraud,” according to the Association of National Advertisers.

Given the constant fluctuations in the digital ad market, the industry is asking whether there is another way to serve the interests of audiences, deliver superior results to marketers, and create a viable business model for publishers. I think there is.

Programmatic advertising has exploded on the scene.

Programmatic advertising in search results, via Google Trends.

Learning to love less

To start – wipe all of the ads off the page and for good measure get rid of all that non-essential site navigation and cross-site promotional activity to give people exactly the content they were looking for without the distraction of ads served up by algorithms.

Doing so clears the path for one promotion that relates to the subject the visitor intended to learn more about, such as product reviews and comparisons.

Eye tracking analysis backs this up. Without distractions, people are engaging – reading, watching and clicking – with much more of the content, much more of the time. That’s a win for marketers, who have fought hard for these earned media placements.

Most importantly, removing clutter drives performance. By focusing promotions on products and services directly related to the information people are seeking, they will be far more likely to intentionally click an advertisement and visit a site.

In short, it’s possible to channel and convert organic interest incredibly effectively.

I am still a believer in connecting buyers and sellers via programmatic methods, especially for certain types of long-tail publishers that don’t sell highly-customized or native campaigns.

As the industry continues to evolve we will see more of these alternatives to traditional display and native advertising programs. The question then, is whether brands and publishers will be able to keep out the clutter and keep their audiences.