How Banner Blindness Can Sabotage the Media’s Attempt to Take Over Recommendations in Bill C-11

There is no real debate that Bill C-11 would have a negative impact on free speech. What if the media gets what it wants anyway?

Yesterday, we debunked fresh claims that Bill C-11 is not a censorship bill. Obviously, facts and common sense pretty much leads any rational person to the conclusion that Bill C-11 is a censorship bill. Of course, one of the overarching themes is the point that no one wins with laws such as this.

While the negative impacts on smaller content creators and the overall content ecosystem is undoubtedly imperilled by such legislation, what if the big traditional broadcasters got everything they want? If Canada basically condemned the industry of user generated content in Canada to death, abolished free speech, and ordered platforms to forever promote their handpicked “Canadian content” to Canadian audiences? Would this bring about a new era where big media gets its captive audience? Short answer to that is “no”.

There’s little doubt that a lot of YouTuber’s get huge portions of their audience from the recommendations section. For viewers, recommendations can appear on the home page as well as along the right hand side of the video the user is watching. It’s by no means a stretch that the large media outlets feel that they can simply pack those recommendation sections with their own content and just get all those viewers for themselves, robbing those pesky kids of potential traffic.

Of course, as widely noted by many others who know how the YouTube recommendation section works, users have a lot of controls over what is and is not related to their interests. so, when YouTube has a much smaller pool of content, it’s substantially more difficult to recommend good quality content that the user might be interested in. so, if a Canadian user were to type in “Minecraft” and gets content like ‘The Craft of Mining in the Klondike’, their natural reaction is going to be that this result is not at all what they are interested in. Users can down vote it and tell YouTube to not give them those results ever again.

Those producers of that video will now suddenly get downranked anyway in their video’s simply because their video’s are showing up in irrelevant searches. This is regardless of whether or not they even had a clue that anything like this was even happening or even had a say in the whole Bill C-11 process.

Now, this pool of content is just going to keep shrinking because of countless downvotes. as a result, completely irrelevant results are just going to keep popping up for Canadian users. They might get video results from Global News talking about arts and crafts or results from CBC talking about a mine accident several years ago. Sooner or later, users will simply get trained to simply ignore recommendations altogether. This means fewer people from Canada using the recommendations section which hurts everyone.

If you think this is somehow a theoretical outcome, this is actually a very well studied phenomenon. It goes by the name “banner blindness”. This even has its own Wikipedia entry including variations like ad blindness. In SEO (Search Engine Optimization) circles, this has been a known thing since 1998 which is a heck of a long time ago in internet terms.

This sort of thing does happen in the online advertising realm. A website finds a prominent place to display advertising and places it there. This with the hopes that some visitors will see the ad and click on it. Viewers viewing that ad would be considered an impression and a user clicking that ad would be considered a click (contributing to what is known as Click Through Rate or CTR). This is great news for the webmaster because they get money from that click – much more money then a simple ad impression. Of course, many users have started using ad blockers to block those ads for a host of reasons such as security, privacy, and decluttering the web.

However, just because some users don’t use ad blockers doesn’t mean users are just blindly clicking on those ads. In fact, as part of human psychology, humans also have a knack for filtering out stuff they don’t want to see. So, if your site is classically designed like mine, if you are not a fan of looking at the ad on the top right hand side of the page, you’ll eventually get used to simply looking at the logo for a split second, then gradually move your eyes down the left hand side of the page to get to the content. It’s like people have their own built in ad blocker directly in their brain to filter out ads even if they technically see it display on the page.

Now, as a web designer, I could redesign the page so an ad displays on the left hand side of the page or put a banner ad between the tool bar and the content and try in a vane attempt to get more people clicking on those ads. For one, the design will probably suffer a little. For another, people will simply retrain their minds to instinctively ignore the ads anyway (assuming they are not running an ad blocker). So, if I put the ad just below the tool bar, people will eventually instinctively see the logo, then skip their eyes down some 350 pixels, and skip straight to the content. It’s human nature for those who don’t use ad blockers.

Advertisements, as a general rule, are things users don’t want to see and they will create all sorts of methods to evade them – both technical and psychological. If the recommendations on the right hand side of YouTube are going to be filled with hand-picked “Canadian content” from the Canadian government, Canadian users will start getting trained to treat the recommendations sections as simply noise that they don’t want to view. As such, it’s likely that no matter where that “discoverability” system to push “Canadian content” gets placed on any platform, Canadians will start ignoring it and CTR will plummet as a result.

At that point, the major media outlets will have to hope that titles and thumbnails will simply “influence” the viewers who are actively ignoring their content because users are going to constantly do everything they can to ignore that irrelevant content. What’s more is that those same outlets will have to hope that plugin’s to explicitly remove recommendations don’t get developed in response to this.

Just because you place an ad on a prominent part of your web page doesn’t necessarily mean people will just mindlessly click on it. Similarly, just because CTV gets their news reports and special features pushed through the recommendations, overriding what would be relevant content to users, doesn’t necessarily mean that users will just mindlessly click on those video’s.

So, the big players that stand to gain the most from this legislation may not have the silver bullet they are hoping for. Between constant down voting and the development of banner blindness to the recommendations section, it’s only a matter of time before clicks get stunted and drop.

Obviously, there is the huge collateral damage of smaller independent producers of content finding it infinitely more difficult to break through and grow their respective channels. That extreme amount of damage is going to effectively end an entire growing industry within Canada. Still, it’s a difficult sell to say that those at the top of the corporate food chain are going to just magically see unlimited prosperity and captive audiences like in the 80’s when television was king, either. So, just another reason to be critical of this terrible bill.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

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