The proliferation of ad blocking software is just another consequence of a large portion of the web plastering their sites with invasive advertising. At this point, it’s a never ending cycle — websites increase the number of ad units because readers use ad blocking software, then more readers install the software because of the increase in ad units. Maybe direct sponsorships really are the best way to go – as long as they’re done right.
Brad Sams, writing for Neowin:
Microsoft is working on a new app, right now it is only available on iOS, that is described as a micro-email app that allows for quick chatting with anyone who has an email address. Information first popped up about this app yesterday and now we have new images that give us the first look at this app.
Why would anyone use this instead of a service like Slack or simply SMS? It looks like the kind of application that’s destined to be discontinued a year or two after its release.
Joe Rossignol, writing for MacRumors:
KGI Securities analyst Ming-Chi Kuo, who has a respectable track record at reporting on Apple’s upcoming product plans, has issued a research note to clients that claims Apple will announce its next iPhones in August ahead of a September launch. […] It is worth noting that Kuo has sometimes been off with his launch timing predictions in the past.
I hope this is true. My nearly two year old iPhone 5s is getting a bit long in the tooth and I wouldn’t mind getting my hands on a new device a few weeks earlier than normal.
I’ll be in Philadelphia in June for a concert and I’m crossing my fingers that by then I’ll be able to walk into an Apple Store and buy a Watch.
What a botch.
I started writing the following in April of last year and later abandoned it because I wasn’t yet able to articulate my feelings on the topic. I’ve revisited it every few months since then and think I’ve finally found what I was trying to say when I started it thirteen months ago. Remember, it was written long before Gigaom shutdown, so some of the nitty gritty details might not continue to apply. But, I think the overarching thought behind this piece is still relevant in today’s atmosphere of online advertising.
Sponsorships, Integrity, and Online Publishing
Back around 2007, when weblogging was all the rage, there were a few companies — PayPerPost and SponsoredReviews being the two I remember most — that were claiming to help writers monetize their sites. They offered a marketplace where advertisers could pay writers to publish sponsored posts on their weblog.
I dug up This piece by Matt Cutts after realizing that the current state of sponsored posts (often affectionately referred to as “native advertising”) feels very similar to how it did around 2007. Matt’s piece more specifically mentions the passing of PageRank as the primary problem with sponsored posts (which is what I would expect from the perspective of a Google employee). But, I do remember there being a lot of discussion regarding the morality of sponsored posts by other writers in the weblog community. And after Google started severely punishing websites for publishing paid articles and selling links, sponsored posts all but disappeared.
However, I started noticing the trend start to resurface over the past couple of years. I’m not exactly sure where I saw it first, but I have recently seen them appear on Gigaom, Shawn Blanc’s weblog, and John Gruber’s Daring Fireball.
The aforelinked sponsored post on Gigaom is clearly labeled as an advertisement with “Sponsored post” written in the headline in bold, and I would expect most readers would be able to spot it as an advertisement from a mile away. There’s no name attached to the article so I would guess that it was written by the advertiser and not by any members of the Gigaom staff. The only link to the advertiser is buried in the third paragraph and does not pass PageRank by making use of the “nofollow” attribute, adhering to Google’s recommendation to publishers.
The sponsored posts on Shawn Blanc’s weblog are a little different. The text below the headline reads as if it is written by the advertiser and the text written in italics below the break seems to be written by Shawn himself. The headline is a link to the sponsor and there is an additional link to the sponsor in the paragraph written by Shawn — neither of which have the nofollow attribute added to them and therefore pass PageRank. When you purchase a sponsorship with Shawn, he also includes a text-link ad in the sidebar that appears for the duration of the sponsorship and also excludes nofollow.
The Daring Fireball sponsorships are framed as “RSS feed sponsorships” with a sponsored post appearing in the RSS feed at the beginning of the week. This post only appears in the RSS feed, it never appears on the homepage of Daring Fireball or anywhere in the archives (that I can find). The author of these posts is listed as “Daring Fireball Department of Commerce” according to the RSS feed and I’ve confirmed with John through email that it is written by the advertiser. But, John also posts a “Linked List” item at the end of the week thanking the sponsor. These “thank you” posts appear on the homepage and archives of Daring Fireball in addition to the RSS feed. None of the links include the nofollow attribute and all of these “thank you” posts are written by John.
Even though I lived through all of this before I’m still not sure how I feel about it. Back around 2007 when I was 19 (and slightly less wise) I took part in a few SponsoredReviews and/or PayPerPost dealings. All of them labeled as such but written by me and done without the use of of the nofollow attribute on links to the sponsor. I only took part in a few and later that year decided to stop doing them entirely. Before my decision to quit (and the reason I only did a few), I was only willing to write and publish a sponsored post if it fit with the context of what I was writing about at the time.
I never felt great about publishing sponsored posts but the extra money was appreciated. It’s sad to say it, but the primary reason I quit doing sponsored posts was because Google started cracking down on websites that published them. Now that I’m older, I continue to have morality concerns with sponsored posts — an advertiser paying a writer to publish articles about their product could put a chink in the armor of credibility that the writer has developed over time. And, it leads many readers to question the writer’s motives in the future.
But, I also can see the reason why writers decide to publish native ads in the first place — they enjoy writing and want to continue doing so. And the best way to continue writing, is to figure out a way to get paid for your work. That’s why I chose to and I’m sure that’s why a lot of other writers are willing to, as well. But, at what cost? Potentially damaging your credibility and hoping that Google doesn’t start cracking down again isn’t something I’m interested in worrying about.
But more than almost anything in the world, I want to continue writing. If I was ever to accept sponsorships on Initial Charge I would have to find a way to do so that allowed me to maintain as much credibility as possible. This would mean clearly disclosing that I’ve been sponsored by a company every single time I write about them or potentially having someone else interact with the advertiser — essentially putting up a wall between them and myself in order to limit any influence they could have on my writing.
The aforelinked Gigaom sponsored post feels bad from a reader’s perspective because it appears to be pushed down our throats. Not only is the Gigaom staff giving up an area of their site that historically was reserved for editorial content, they are also charging the advertiser for that privilege and then surrounding the ad copy with banner ads for the advertiser. The sponsored post feels completely disconnected from the rest of the site while occupying the same area that news and editorials would typically live. This is the equivalent of those scummy-looking, full-page magazine ads that are designed to look like just another article. They’re obnoxious. But, at the very least Gigaom isn’t breaking Google’s webmaster guidelines and they’re labeling the post in the headline.
Shawn Blanc’s sponsored posts feel much less intrusive to me than Gigaom’s, most likely because Shawn publishes several link posts per day in a similar format to his sponsored posts. And it also helps that his aren’t surrounded by banner ads like Gigaom’s are. There is still the issue of the ad copy occupying the same space that would typically host actual content. But Shawn tends to attract advertisers of products that I’m actually interested in, which helps keep the sponsorships feel less obtrusive and more helpful.
John Gruber’s approach is the one I like most from the examples above — if you read the site and not the RSS feed you only see John’s “thank you” note to the sponsor (which is, again, written by him) and there’s no additional links to the sponsors anywhere else on the site. The links don’t include the nofollow attribute, but when I asked John about this he didn’t seem concerned about potential repercussions from Google or any of the morality issues.
John Gruber, when asked about his sponsorships and Google’s webmaster guidelines:
For one thing, I’ve been running my sponsor-thank-you posts since before the “nofollow” attribute existed. For another, I personally vouch for each sponsor being worthy of my readers’ attention. I’m not writing for Google, I’m writing for my readers. I do nothing regarding “SEO”.
Reading Google’s “Link schemes” guidelines:
It seems to me that what I’m doing is not just within the spirit of their guidelines, but the letter of them. I wouldn’t accept a sponsorship whose text contained keyword SEO links.
This is good to know and does put me at ease about the quality of his sponsorships. I’m still concerned that these sponsors could have influence over his writing, but in a followup email he discussed his role in the process and his ability to reject sponsorships outright based on content:
But I do have approval over the sponsor-written RSS entries. In the 6 or 7 years I’ve been doing this, I’ve only ever suggested changes regarding spelling and punctuation (“and” instead of “&”, that sort of thing), but in theory, I might reject a sponsorship outright based on content. (And if that were to happen, I’d issue a refund.) But the vetting I do at the time of booking makes that a non-issue in practice.
This helped me to start thinking about native advertising from a different perspective (at least when it comes to one man shops), maybe we should be questioning the morality of links to products and services that we have no control over. Maybe the best way to maintain integrity is to vet every single word and link published on our sites. If someone else makes decisions about what products and services are linked to in sponsorship spots then how can we as publishers vouch for the quality of everything we publish?
If some of the content on our websites is determined by advertisers, then everything we publish could be taken into question by our readers. If we interact directly with sponsors and maintain the right to reject their advertisements based on content, then we might have to deal with occasional arguments about whether those sponsors have an undue influence on our work. But I’d much rather have that along with the peace of mind knowing that I have the final say on everything that’s published rather than having to fight for respect with intrusive advertising mucking up my site.
I don’t have any direct site sponsorships in the works and don’t have plans to start accepting them anytime soon, but I don’t want to rule out the possibility of doing so in the future. I would love to start making a larger portion of my overall income from Initial Charge and sponsorships is a great way to do so.
To be certain, if and when sponsorship spots start appearing here, they will be clearly labeled as such so that my readers know exactly what is and isn’t paid for. I will vet every potential sponsor ensuring that the product or service they are promoting aligns with what I have or would be willing to pay for myself. And, I will do my very best to disclose that a company has sponsored the site in the past whenever I write about them from that point forward.
But, I also want to encourage writers to take a look at how native advertising is handled at their publication and what that could mean for the integrity of their writing. Are you or your advertising department accepting anything and everything that comes your way? If so, I implore you to reconsider and only allow sponsorships from companies you have, or would be willing to purchase products or services from. It will help maintain your credibility and it’s simply the right thing to do.
Stephen Fry, writing for The Telegraph:
Until now, Ive’s job title has been Senior Vice President of Design. But I can reveal that he has just been promoted and is now Apple’s Chief Design Officer. It is therefore an especially exciting time for him.
Inside the fabled design studio (cloths over the long tables hiding the exciting new prototypes from prying eyes like mine) Jony has two people with him. They too have been promoted as part of Ive’s new role.
Richard Howarth and Alan Dye will become head of industrial design and head of user interface, respectively. This will leave Ive free from some of the administrative and management work so that he can spend more of his time traveling and focusing on bigger picture projects.
I also want to point out that 9 to 5 Mac has published Tim Cook’s memo to employees regarding Ive’s new position.
Mark Gurman, writing last week for 9 to 5 Mac:
Apple is currently planning to use the new system font developed for the Apple Watch to refresh the looks of iPads, iPhones, and Macs running iOS 9 “Monarch” and OS X 10.11 “Gala,” according to sources with knowledge of the preparations. Current plans call for the Apple-designed San Francisco font to replace Helvetica Neue, which came to iOS 7 in 2013 and OS X Yosemite just last year, beginning with a June debut at WWDC.
I’m finally getting used to Helvetica Neue and Apple’s already switching to a font I’m not yet sold on. Maybe I’ll be all in once I spend some time with it, but for now I’m cautiously optimistic.
M.G. Siegler on the recent news that Apple shelved development of a television set:
why on Earth would they want to do that? Even for a company with the manufacturing chops of Apple, a 60-inch screen would be complicated. Glass. Shipping. Storing. Showcasing. Margins. Etc.
At the same time, a whole generation is now growing up used to watching television content on their phones and/or tablets. Or, at the very least, their laptops. For all intents and purposes, these are televisions. And guess what? Apple already makes them!
Every friend I had growing up had a TV in their bedroom. It was kind of a right of passage that your parents would buy a TV for you when they thought you were responsible enough to have one. But, that no longer seems to be as common. Today, nearly every teenager has a smartphone they carry in their pocket and if they have a TV-like device in their room it’s more likely to be a computer or a tablet.
When those smartphone, computer, or tablet touting kids become adults, how many of them are going to spend $300-400 on a TV? Many of them will be just as happy to, instead, spend that money on a computer or tablet and go without a traditional TV well into their 20s.
Simply based on habits developed in the average person’s childhood and teenage years, I wonder how long it will continue to be the norm for every living room in America to house a large television set. At some point it seems that there will be a transition away from one large screen toward smaller, more personal devices for everyone in the house.
I think Apple was wise to shelve development of a television set. Not just because of margins, shipping, and physical space in their stores, but because it’s a market that will eventually die due to the proliferation of tablets, smartphones, and computers. And Apple’s already doing quite well in that market.
This move to streaming is Apple’s acknowledgement that the buying habits of a decade ago’s generation has vastly changed compared to today’s and in order for them to continue as a top player in music distribution, “all-access” streaming needs to be a part of that. I am very much so looking forward to the announcement, but Apple’s competitors are not.
Streaming music companies like Spotify and Rdio are going to have a hard time retaining customers when Apple’s service is built into the OS. It’s Apple’s fight to lose, but I wouldn’t count on it.
I would continue to take Slice Intellegence’s numbers with a grain of salt, but if Apple sells 8-9 million units in the first year (as Slice’s sales-per-day numbers suggest) I’d consider that a huge success. I never subscribed to the 20-40 million units number that many analysts were predicting. Remember, the fastest selling product in Apple’s history is the iPad and it “only” sold 14.8 million units in its first year. Why would anyone expect the Apple Watch to sell faster than the iPad?
From the official Twitch weblog:
You’ve been asking for it, we’ve been working on it, and it’s finally here: VODs on mobile! You will now be able to watch highlights and past broadcasts from all Twitch Partners and a growing number of broadcasters whose videos are HLS enabled.
I don’t watch Twitch as often as I used to, but I’m glad they finally added the one feature I wanted most. It’s kind of amazing that it took them this long.
(Via 9 to 5 Mac.)
John Moltz makes the case for the Apple Watch as a cooking companion. He points out that Siri isn’t perfect, but the ability to set timers and add things to his grocery list with messy hands is what pushes it over the top. When I eventually purchase a Watch of my own I expect I’ll use it nearly every time I cook.
Mark Gurman, writing for 9 to 5 Mac:
For the first time in several years, Apple is changing up its annual iOS and OS X upgrade cycle by limiting new feature additions in favor of a “big focus on quality,” according to multiple sources familiar with the company’s operating system development plans.
I couldn’t be happier to hear that Apple is tapping on the brakes with their software development schedule. At this point, I’m less interested in new features and just want stable and reliable computers in my life.
Craig Hockenberry suggests switching to “reverse crown” orientation which puts the digital crown on the forearm side of the Apple Watch.
Interesting tip from Daniel Jalkut regarding Siri. Apparently if you have a contact set as “My Info” Siri will display all of your information when asked who owns the iPhone. A good thing if you’re trying to contact the owner of a lost phone, but a terrible thing if you’re concerned about privacy. Daniel suggests some simple solutions if you would rather your iPhone not behave this way, my favorite of which is creating a contact that’s assigned as “My Info” with just the bare essential information.
Petter Kafka and Dawn Chmielewski, reporting for Re/code:
Industry executives familiar with Apple’s plans say the company wants to provide customers in cities around the U.S. with programming from their local broadcast stations. That would distinguish Apple’s planned offering from those already available from Sony and Dish’s Sling, which to date have only offered local programming in a handful of cities, or none at all.
This would be a big deal for my future in-laws who have toyed with the idea of canceling cable but can’t get past the idea of not watching the local news every night. And honestly, I would probably watch the local news on occasion if it was more readily available to me.
It seems as though the broadcast affiliates should be all over this since they stand to lose the most in the transition to online distribution. I don’t really see who loses in this proposal, aside from the cable companies — viewers get to watch the content they want, major networks and local affiliates get an additional revenue stream, and Apple can sell more devices. At this point it’s just a matter of getting the deals in place.
I didn’t give much thought to Facebook’s new Instant Articles feature until I noticed John Gruber’s take on it. He wrote about it from the perspective of an independent publisher and how efforts like it could impact his livelihood writing on Daring Fireball.
I’m intrigued by the emphasis on speed. Not only is native mobile code winning for app development, but with things like Instant Articles, native is making the browser-based web look like a relic even just for publishing articles. If I’m right about that, it might pose a problem even for my overwhelmingly-text work at Daring Fireball. Daring Fireball pages load fast, but the pages I link to often don’t. I worry that the inherent slowness of the web and ill-considered trend toward over-produced web design is going to start hurting traffic to DF.
Soon after John published, I started seeing a multitude of articles from other independent writers discussing the ramifications of Instant Articles and, ultimately, what online publishers need to do to maintain relevancy. Federico Viticci is concerned about a world in which every social network has its own Instant Articles-like feature, Peter-Paul Koch blames the proliferation of web development tools that bloat page sizes, and Om Malik explains that Instant Articles has refocused our collective attention on network performance and speed.
The web is still a wonderful place filled with a never ending supply of great content, but people will stop showing up once publishers push them away with enough terrible experiences. Although speed is what keeps getting everyone’s attention and is something publishers should definitely keep an eye on, the overall act of reading content on the web has lost its luster.
What I think it comes down to is greed. Online publications are often quick to sacrifice user experience in order to increase page views which they expect to increase revenue. Publishers are struggling to keep their revenue consistent, or even worse, ever increasing in order to account for their growing staff. And the only way they’ve found to increase revenue is by encouraging user “engagement” — typically adding a bunch of “call to action” or “social” features.
But, there’s a problem with the underlying thinking that increasing your ad views will translate into increased revenue. What seems to happen is the cost per impression paid to publishers has continued to decrease and its a matter of simple economics. As the supply of ad space increases the actually cost to advertisers per impression naturally goes down based on supply and demand. By covering their websites with advertisements and then making every attempt to increase page views, online publications are thrusting themselves into a world in which online ad space is worthless because of its ubiquity. I think the ad networks that are addressing this best are the single-ad-per-page networks like The Deck and Carbon Ads. They turn the traditional online advertising model on its head by not allowing publishers to cover their websites with ads. This increases the amount of attention each user pays to the ads allowing them to charge premium prices for each spot.
I don’t expect most online publications would be willing to move to an advertising platform like The Deck or Carbon Ads, though. These single-ad-per-page networks are just too radical of an idea for most of these companies. Instead, I expect most of them will slowly transition to publishing content through mediums like Facebook Instant Articles, and it will work for a while. Advertisers will be quick to jump onboard because its a new and exciting mechanism and there’s natural scarcity given that only a select few will adopt it early on. But, in time this medium will eventually succumb to the same pitfalls we see today on the web — obnoxious advertising and bad user experiences. It’s not going to happen all at once and probably won’t take place for many years, but eventually the slow erosion in quality will take place and Instant Articles won’t look all that different than the web of today.
I’m not worried about the future of online publishing. I expect one of three things to happen (or a combination there of) which will ensure that independent writers will continue to be able to make a living. The first possibility is that tools will eventually be built that allow writers to continue writing as they do today, but have their content seamlessly funneled into whatever ecosystem they want it in. Whether that be a service that reads a website’s RSS feed and turns it into an Instant Article or an application platform like Glide that will allow writers to produce content designed for viewing inside of an application, developers will build what’s necessary to allow writers to continue having an audience wherever that may be.
The second scenario is that this move from the web is simply a fad that will eventually die just as AOL keywords and a myriad of other technologies have in the past. Web developers and online publications will at some point (hopefully) realize the error of their ways and start producing web pages that are a bit more user friendly and readers will return to their web browsers again. Compound this with future increases in bandwidth speeds and there might not be a need to move to another publishing platform.
The third possibility is that some percentage of readers will disappear from the traditional web and will spend nearly all of their time reading content in ecosystems like Facebook. If that’s the case and developers aren’t able to build quality tools that change the way we publish today then many of us will have to double down on what we’re currently doing to maintain readership — engage with others in social networks, share links to our own content, build email newsletters that add a more personal touch to what we’re writing and makes it even easier for readers to reply directly to our thoughts from within the same application they read it in (their email app).
I would consider the last possibility the least likely of the above options as it assume that developers aren’t going to be working on new ways to deliver or consume content and that social networks like Facebook and Twitter are going to live forever. And that’s a bit too far fetched for me. Don’t get me wrong, its a good idea for most of us to double down on what we’re doing anyway, but developers are going to realize that there’s a need and build tools to provide a solution. And at some point all social networks fall by the wayside no matter how big or powerful they become.
This is a great tip by Stephen Hackett. If you use Alfred and ever find yourself searching Apple’s knowledge base articles, I suggest setting this up.
Adobe plans to discontinue Photoshop Touch on May 28, but will be debuting one or more applications that will replace the soon-to-be axed photo editing software. This video depicts their prototype retouching app effortlessly applying edits to high resolution images. It’s an impressive demo, I just hope that its running on real hardware and not iOS Simulator.
I really enjoyed Shawn Blanc’s impressions of the Apple Watch and loved how he succinctly described it as “just powerful enough to be useful and fun, but not so powerful that it’s distracting or frustrating.” I also think his opinion on the three most important features is spot on. Notifications, activity tracking, and complications seem like the hallmark features that Apple absolutely nailed right out of the gate.
The Initial Charge Twitter account now shares links to everything I publish here on the site. Tweets for both feature articles and Linked List items are now automatically generated and posted to Twitter thanks to the WP to Twitter WordPress plugin. If you enjoy the site, you should follow along on Twitter.
Continuing a string of great Apple rumor reporting, Mark Gurman details iPad dual-app viewing mode, multi-user logins, and the 12-inch iPad.
Mark Gurman, writing on 9 to 5 Mac:
Apple currently plans to debut bus, subway, and train route navigation as the central upgrade to the Maps app in iOS 9 at WWDC, using a user interface similar to the one intended for last fall’s launch […] Due to personnel issues, data inconsistencies, and coverage for only a small subset of Apple’s major markets, Apple decided to pull transit functionality from iOS 8 very late into development, sources indicate. The feature was apparently present in internal iOS 8 betas well into the summer of 2014, despite the lack of an announcement at last year’s Worldwide Developers Conference. Since that time, however, Apple has refined the data, added new cities, and developed a new push notifications system that will notify users as new cities gain support.
I don’t have any use for transit directions. But for many, this is a necessary feature that will be a welcome addition to Apple Maps.
Antuan Goodwin, reporting for CNET:
Two years ago, the Automatic smart driving monitor launched as a sort of “fitbit for cars,” connecting on-board diagnostic (OBD) technology to the Web to present driving data in a way that almost anyone can understand. Today, Automatic launches its Automatic App Gallery, a sort of app store for cars with over 20 apps that work with Automatic’s hardware, alongside a new developer platform and second-generation hardware.
There’s trip mileage apps designed to integrate with expense tracking software, an app that can help split the cost of carpooling, and many more available at launch.
I thought about buying an Automatic a few months back when I found out how much most mechanics charge to read data from the OBD port. But with the release of second-generation hardware, I’m happy I hadn’t pulled the trigger yet. This latest dongle supports the company’s new streaming SDK which is able to send raw, realtime performance data to select third-party apps.
I’m excited to see what developers are able to come up with on this platform. I think most drivers could benefit from having more information about their automobile’s performance and better explanations when something goes wrong — the “check engine” light isn’t very descriptive.
The second-generation Automatic Car Adapter is available from Amazon for $99.95.