Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

Is today’s open web really worth saving?

By Dale Lovell, Chief Client Officer & Co-Founder, Adyoulike

The open web of ad-funded media faces increasing challenges. Everyone wants to save it, but in its current guise should we even bother?

The open web is a wide term. It can mean everything from open-source code to ensuring content is free online, to maintaining access to the internet itself.

When we talk about the open web in advertising circles, we are typically talking about the public, open-to-everyone ad-funded part of the internet.

This part of the open web has been under attack, both as a destination and an ideal, for some time now.

Social media ‘walled gardens’ are not the open web. Utility and entertainment apps have taken large chunks out of the open web, too, carving out alternatives only accessible by downloading (and agreeing to) specific rules of use.

Over many years big tech has come and flourished on the open web ‘prairies,’ fencing off with barbed wire as much of it as possible. Sucking up resources – customers, data, content and innovation – in the process.

Open web publishers have been battered. In some instances, creating a genuine ‘Dust Bowl’ of publishing failures, hit by innumerable challenges and competing commercial pressures. 

The state of the open web

We don’t need to go into too much detail about the many open web challenges faced by publishers operating in the space. We know them. But at the core of the problem is monetisation. Digital ad revenue demands eyeballs, creating the need for lots of short-form content that ‘hooks’ readers in. To monetise it efficiently you need multiple ad units on a page and multiple formats.

The result for many publishers is a less than satisfactory product, offering poor content and the kind of user experience that even the most hard-nosed of revenue-seeking publishing executives can struggle to get behind.

It’s a bit of a mess. None of this is news to anyone in the industry.

We can lament all of this as a tragedy. Mistakes have been made by the industry over the last 20 years.

But there’s a growing hope among many that with the death of the cookie and the likely break-up of certain Big Tech, something approaching the ‘good old days’ of publishing can return. The open web will be saved. But should the free-content open web even be saved?

The open-ish web

The solution for many traditional publishers and those interested in longer-form journalism over the last few years has been to ditch the open web to some extent. They’ve gone Open-ish Web. From large publications such as The Times, New York Times and The Telegraph, right down to journalists themselves writing newsletters via Substack: the serious side of journalism has moved to a subscription model. Bye bye the free-content open web. Others have moved towards hybrid models and premium subscriptions: there are myriad different iterations. It’s all part of revenue-diversification in the absence of ad revenue. Some models are proving very successful, others less so.

Where once it was thought no one would ever pay for digital content, many publishers have made a worthy case for it. Research published by the Center for Media Engagement in 2020 looking at why people subscribe to news sites found that the most heavily subscribed brands are those aligned with values such as reliability, truthfulness, objectivity, and integrity. ‘People pay a brand to be confident they are getting the right information.’

By offering up content for free in the past, did we inadvertently allow society’s ‘quality filter’ to be lowered? As a collective we took the hack ramblings of someone on a blog to somehow have the equivalent ‘quality’ of a well-researched, fact-checked, piece of journalism for a quality publication? Why? Because they were all free to consume, therefore equal. 

And by doing so did we empower a whole new quasi-journalism field seeking popularity over accuracy, which then morphed into fake news and deliberate misinformation campaigns spread easily via social media?

Is this the true legacy of the free-content open web? Did free access to content offer a net benefit to society? It’s hard to tell.

When adtech companies talk about saving the open web, what is it, then, we are trying to save?

Are we trying to save clickbait content farms, optimised to programmatic KPIs, that slavishly work towards creating greater and greater impressions for us to monetise by churning out mediocre content at best, mistruths and misinformation at worst?

I don’t think so.

I am a firm believer in the concept of the open web; free information, powered by advertising, is a worthy purpose.  A web that is filled with walled gardens goes against the very concept of the web as a connecting service and information sharing tool.

But I am also a realist and aware of the economics of publishing businesses and the free-content open web publishing world, which much of the adtech industry relies upon as clients and partners, has been in crisis for some time. So how do we ensure we are ‘saving’ an open web that is fit for purpose?

The open web is dead: long live the open web

There is a real opportunity in the coming years to reshape what has become of the open web. The removal of cookies will revolutionise advertising, bringing elements such as contextual targeting more to the fore. First party data opportunities should mean there are greater opportunities for publishers to improve their digital ad revenues.

For decades publishers have found it hard to work together or agree on some of the specifics of digital advertising – something that was exploited by the big technology platforms.

This will need to change to take advantage of the window of opportunity that is opening now to reshape the open web. When it comes to technologies such as Universal ID solutions, there needs to be agreement, for example, or we risk creating a scenario of Cookies 2.0, powered by the same big tech players.

Adtech must be at the forefront of this new open web, championing premium publishers, working to improve the digital advertising ecosystem in its entirety – from programmatic ‘plumbing’ to opportunities around user experience, formats and attribution.

We also have a role to play in educating advertisers around what they can do to support this open web.

Issues such as made-for-advertising websites are being tackled; there are considerable advances and initiatives taking place around Supply Path Optimisation (SPO).

Trust in technology partners, particularly those that have direct publisher relationships, is crucial to the future of open web publishers. Trusted journalism matters. Trusted adtech partners matters too.

Some of all of these changes could have a short-term impact on bottom lines, both of publishers, advertisers and ad technologies, but the long-term benefit is that we create an open web habitat that works commercially, and that we can all be proud to play a part in.