A plea for usable websites

by Francois Joseph de Kermadec

A few days ago, when reading my daily number of Apple-related articles on the Internet, I stumbled on a web page from a respected computer magazine (not a Mac one), talking about iPods and how great they were. Since I always enjoy seeing what people like and dislike with the same product, I proceeded to read...

However, there was a slight problem... After two mere sentences, the text ended abruptly, with no apparent way to go further. Since this was not a "preview" of a paid site, I looked desperately for an appropriate link and finally found it, at the very bottom of the page, right after 4 piled up banner ads. To make things easier, the link was in pale blue over a white background, surrounded by flashing "click me", "you won" and "you have mail" GIFs -- probably a way to make the user look for a longer time, increasing the exposure of the ads.

Then, I looked more closely at the structure of the page. It appeared that, even though the site was a legitimate one from a big money-making company, only a small frame in the center of each page and the buttons bar at the top came from this company. In a desperate effort to increase ad revenue, the webmasters has literally framed any usable content with banners or buttons, making the site not only ridiculously slow to load but also unbearable to read -- after two minutes of GIF-powered brainwashing, I had to turn images off completely to focus on the review. The size of the frame allocated to usable content was so small that the short column about iPods was cut in 6 or 7 pieces ! Imagine the size of this site on the server !

Unfortunately, poorly designed sites and visual SPAM are so common on the Internet that they would not be worth a blog. What worried me more is the amount of coding, scripting and cookie-ing that went with all these ads. At least 3 ads providers had teamed up to deliver so much "interactive content" to "potential customers". Simply by loading the page, my browser's CPU consumption doubled and I was sent around 20 cookies, refreshed on a regular basis to make sure that I would not be presented with the same ad more than once...

Safari, Mac OS X and my cable provider all worked together and digested this incredible amount of junk pretty well... However, I cannot imagine what may have happened to someone surfing on a Windows XP machine, with dial up -- there were a few pop-ups, pop-unders and ActiveX niceties lying around, according to what I saw in the code of the page.

Advertising on the net may be necessary (I am not really convinced of that one but let's pass) but we seem to have reached the point where sites are literally built around ads, not the reverse. I have nothing against one or two banners on a page if it can help someone run a great site. However, too much is too much, even for the most enduring Internet users.

Many people I know use anti-ad systems, that effectively get rid of 90% of the banners they are seeing, if not more... Sure, this solves the problem temporarily but it is far from a good solution : since banners are less effective, sites are beginning to pile them up to ensure that the remaining users who do not block them will compensate for the others. SPAM (through mail or even IM) is growing since a certain population of the online advertising industry needs to find other ways to express itself...

What if, just for fun, sites cut in half the amount of ads they include ? They may be pleasantly surprised... If the goal of advertising is to seduce people and convince them to buy a product, you may as well do it gently and with style : it will be all the more effective.

Until next time, dear Mac users, enjoy thinking different !

15 Comments

roastbeeftonight
2004-06-15 09:44:42
laptops and flashy sites.
Since getting my powerbook, I actually get a little peeved when I see ads on websites using 80% of my cpu. Take this site for instance. The HP ad that is currently in the right sidebar is making my cpu run at about 75% according to my cpu activity monitor. Just to make the stupid globe move up and down. Basically if I surf sites like this a lot, I'll get far less battery time so companies can spam me. Is this part of the cost of surfing the net now?
roastbeeftonight
2004-06-15 09:45:56
laptops and flashy sites.
I should mention that the HP add is on the comment post page and not this page...
brian_d_foy
2004-06-15 11:09:30
More ads are Flash now
Just when browsers and third-party programs can do a pretty good job blocking images, more sites are using Flash (or Flash-like things) to serve ads. We need another leap in anti-ad technology.
JohnQPublic
2004-06-15 13:09:32
Same here re: HP ad
I see that behavior too with the HP ad on the post page. My CPU usage is currently near 100% solely because of this ad. Given this article and the fact that the problem extends even to O'Reilly's pages themselves, perhaps the O'Reilly folks could take the first step by doing away with garbage like this? I have no problem with ads appearing, but I do have a problem with them making my system almost unusable. It makes me less likely to visit the pages or site again. I would like to hear from the O'Reilly folks about this.
F.J.
2004-06-15 13:16:02
Same here re: HP ad
Hi !


Thanks for taking the time to post a talkback !


I have no control over the formatting of the site. I just wanted to let you know that I did not experience this issue using Safari on my PowerBook. In fact, the O'Reilly Network is, with the Apple site, one of the sites that loads most quickly for me.


You may want to look into cache corruption issues first and make sure that Safari is properly set up. Indeed, slight corruption can sometimes cause Safari to consume more processing power than it should. Simply deleting its "Caches" folder can help a great deal.


Thanks again for your reply !


F.J.

styro
2004-06-15 14:42:25
Your answer is at http://www.privoxy.org/
Install this rather smart web (cleaning) proxy and all your problems are gone! I see no ads ;-)
mbrewer
2004-06-16 05:40:05
laptops and flashy sites.
You're right. Safari is sucking up 21% of the CPU on my dual 2Ghz PowerMac G5 right now. How can a simple Flash animation require so much work?
roastbeeftonight
2004-06-16 10:30:04
Same here re: HP ad
The add is not on this page, it's on the comment post page.
Yes, otherwise O'Reilly is a well designed, clean fast loading site.
It's a flash add.
Flash is a known CPU hog.
It's not a "cache corruption issue."
It's got nothing to do with Safari.
It's the flash plugin.


roastbeeftonight
2004-06-16 10:37:12
Your answer is at http://www.privoxy.org/
What web cleaning proxie?
JohnQPublic
2004-06-16 10:41:46
Thanks!
Great tip! Works well.
brucest
2004-06-16 10:42:14
laptops and flashy sites.
Thanks for the comments. We are currently looking into improving the performance of the flash-based ads on our sites, and we have contacted HP's ad agency about this specific ad that seems to be especially problematic.


Bruce Stewart
Editorial Director, O'Reilly Network

JohnQPublic
2004-06-16 10:50:57
Right...
...it was definitely Flash...Privoxy took care of it and others that have been causing me problems. F.J., thanks for your reply...I was not blaming you by the way. :-) I'm glad your article brought attention to this problem. Hopefully it and the talkback helped others besides me find solutions.
F.J.
2004-06-16 11:47:05
Right...
Hi again !


You're very welcome !


Don't worry, I did not think that you were blaming me : I just thought I should share my experience so that you have more elements and points of view that could assist you in the localization and resolution of the issue.


I am glad to hear that things are better now ! :-)


F.J.

F.J.
2004-06-16 11:48:29
Your answer is at http://www.privoxy.org/
Hi all !


Although I cannot comment on Privoxy, just keep in mind that proxies can sometimes interfere with applications that rely on your network connection and do not expect to find a proxy.


F.J.

styro
2004-06-22 15:01:52
Your answer is at http://www.privoxy.org/
Proxies do not interfere with applications.
Privoxy will not interfere.