Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Directory tiles, incentivisation, and indirection

Note: I have absolutely nothing to do with directory tiles, but they have been on my mind (and of plenty of other peoples), so here are my thoughts. My opinions are not those of my employer, but I am very grateful to be able to voice these opinions.

I agree with the need to diversify our revenue streams over the long run, and I think I agree with the sentiment that we should not 'leave money on the table'. However, some of the discussion around directory tiles makes me uneasy. (I think the worst thing about the whole thing has been how badly the idea was communicated, but that has been pretty well established, so I won't beat that horse any further. Personally, I don't think any revenue from the idea would be significant because, aiui, only new users will see the ads and then at most nine times, which if I were a company, I wouldn't pay for. But I don't know anything about such things and there are plenty of people at Mozilla who DO know about this stuff, so I'll believe it could make money somehow).

My position only makes sense if you assume that advertising is bad per se. I do. I know many people do not, especially in the technology sector. But I think advertising is a bane of modern civilisation - not just on the internet, but in magazines, on billboards, on public transport, in sport; it is poison. It is particularly insidious in that we don't realise we are seeing and being influenced by advertising, in part by design and in part because of its ubiquity. In the rare times I have spent time away from it (the subway in Prague a decade ago, hiking in the mountains) returning to a world full of advertising feels as jarring and unpleasant as it ought to. I would love to live in a world where we paid for websites and software. If I could pay 1/10th of a cent for every page I viewed and if Mozilla could be funded by administering that and taking 1/10th of a percent of it, then I would be very happy indeed. Unfortunately, people on the whole seem to prefer free, and so it is a dream.

The argument I dislike is 'we already send search traffic to Google in exchange for cold, hard cash, and Google in turn makes money by showing these people ads; therefore, showing our users ads directly in the browser is no different or no worse or something'. As a software engineer, I know that indirection is very, very important. It is totally incorrect to treat a value the same way as a pointer to a value, and I believe the analogy holds with monetisation too. It comes down to incentives - money is a very powerful incentive (not the only one, and I trust Mozilla more than pretty much any other organisation to balance other incentives, but it is still an incentive - we each want to keep getting paid to keep doing these awesome jobs we have).

So, with the current system, in order to maximise search traffic and thus income, we might tweak our design to make the search box more prominent or otherwise encourage more users to search via the search box (I believe that this is not quite the case because we do not get paid _per search_, i.e., there is some slack in the system, and I don't think we have ever done something like this or intend to). That is not so bad, I would not feel bad about encouraging people to search the internet - it is kind of an essential task. Now Google (or whoever we might sell search traffic to in the future) is incentivised to show their users more ads, but there is no incentive for us to modify the browser to show the user more ads.

With directory tiles (or any system where we are directly showing ads to users) the above does not hold. The monetary incentive is to show users more ads and more often. And that (in my opinion) makes for a worse user experience.

In summary, when the incentive is indirect, optimising for it does not negatively affect our users. When the incentive is direct, optimising for it does negatively impact our users. And that makes me very uneasy about going down that road.

However, I fear we might have to. We need money to fund our mission for a better web and the current situation may not last forever (maybe it will, and we can all live happily ever after, but I fear everything changes). Fortunately, I trust Mozilla better than anyone to ignore the incentive described above, I just wish we didn't have to ignore it.


Gavin Sharp said...

Not sure where you get "[new users will see the ads] at most nine times" from - they will see them potentially much more than that, depending on how much they use about:newtab and how quickly they accumulate history (i.e. bump out default tiles with new "most visited" ones).

"Google makes money with ads and we get money from Google so we're already all-in on advertising" seems like a straw man - I don't think anyone is seriously using that as rationale for why Directory Tiles are OK (and if they are, I agree that they're wrong).

The rest of your argument seems to depend on the assumption that Mozilla is not able to define boundaries about which incentives we let impact our behavior in which ways, and that seems overly pessimistic.

Nick Cameron. said...

Gavin, thanks for the comment:

I thought the current behaviour was that every page you view a page it replaces an empty tile, so unless a user visits the new tab page and then closes it again without visiting another page (or visits exactly the same page as previously visited), after nine views, all tiles will be filled. Of course I only use an empty profile every few months, so I'm probably wrong.

I have seen the argument raised, possibly (hopefully) not by Mozilla people. Even if it is a straw man, I think the point about incentivisation and indirection is still valid.

Like I said, I have more faith in Mozilla to do this than any other organisation. But over the long run, even the best intentions can give way to immediate, practical needs, especially where money is concerned. It seems to be human nature. I hope I am being too pessimistic.

cajbir said...

A Flattr-like system where you could set $X per month going towards your browsing and each site you visit gets rewarded with a percentage of that X based on the total sites visited could be an option. Currently Flattr is useful but not ubiquitous enough. You can just Flattr random sites and have them collect funds when they find out about it.

tom jones said...

first of all, i think ads are "a good thing", at least when done well. people often seek out and watch ads on their own (viral ads, apple ads), and they are the most popular part of the most popular show in the us (superball).

second, ads are democratic. limiting access to the whole sum of human knowledge only to those who can afford it is simply unfair and inhumane.

when presented in the right way, ads are often "information", or "content". think google adwords, or people who read fashion magazines partly for the ads..

and btw, this "newfound polution" you speak of is nothing new. check out this 110+ year old photo:

"I think the point about incentivisation and indirection is still valid."

i'm pretty sure google would pay us much more if we agreed to remove search engine choice from firefox. that would be a direct incentive to do worse (for our users), and get more money, but i doubt anyone at mozilla would even propose such a solution.

more ads does not necessarily mean more money. first of all, exclusivity is worth something, so we should be able to charge more for each ad spot when there are less of them on a page; and second, too much ads might annoy users, and less users gets us less total revenue. so your "direct incentive" argument is not so clear in my mind.

Ian Tommins (thelem) said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ian Tommins (thelem) said...

In many ways the search box itself is an ad, for Google search (where Google get their revenue from is largely irrelevant for this discussion). Presumably you don't consider it an ad because it is providing a useful service.

"with the current system, in order to maximise search traffic and thus income, we might tweak our design to make the search box more prominent or otherwise encourage more users to search via the search box"

That would be a good example of changing the application to suit the advertiser rather than the user. It's a difficult line, but Mozilla has stays well on the user-friendly side of it so far, and I trust them to continue that behaviour.

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