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SE had very high standards for ads on Stack Overflow, ads were curated, generally static images and well-behaved. I found the stance SE took on acceptable ads admirable, and they certainly left some money on the table by keeping the standards this high.

There are now ads on other sites in the network now, and those are not manually curated. These new ads are really far from the kind of ad allowed on Stack Overflow.

A single ad in the sidebar is usually larger in terms of bytes transferred over the network and uses more memory than the entire rest of the page together. I don't even want to know how this looks once multiple ads on a site are enabled.

Which ads you get depends on a lot of factors, so the experience might vary a lot for different users. This is what I saw from Germany in an incognito Chrome session, mostly on Workplace and Arqade refreshing the page a few times. Animated ads were pretty frequent for me, the heavy resource-intensive ones were rather rare.

It't a bit sad to monitor the page load for an SE site in the dev tools network tab where the actual site is heavily optimized and loads in 15 requests, and then there's the waterfall of almost 100 requests for a single ad that take seconds to complete.

These ads certainly don't meet the standards SE set for themselves in the past, ads were supposed to be "excessively considerate, ludicrously on-topic". So either the standards have changed, or the ad providers don't meet the request standard, or both.

  • I literally never see ads on Sci-Fi or Arqade, why's that? I don't have an ad blocker and Tracking Protection isn't on for SE on my computer. – Stormblessed Jun 15 at 13:45
  • @Stormblessed Conversely I just today encountered a few animated ads for online casinos on SciFi.SE, which is how I even became aware of the bigger issue to begin with. At 200+ rep levels ads are significantly reduced. But there's still the right sidebar (in the place where there's the community ads, too). The ads I saw were on question pages, though, not the main site frontpage. – Christian Rau Jun 15 at 13:58
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  • Oh, I only get Community Ads. I guess I never really use any of the sites where I don't have 200 reputation (I only ever do anything on Scifi, Politics, Arqade, and Meta) – Stormblessed Jun 15 at 14:01
  • @Stormblessed What I'm saying is that you still see non-community ads even with reduced ad privileges. I have >200 reputation, too, afterall. I guess you've just been lucky (or not part of the epxeriment SE is apparently running according to that linked Workplace discussion). – Christian Rau Jun 15 at 14:03
  • @Christian Actually, I'm probably just hopelessly unobservant :P. I didn't notice the HNQ list literally for like six months after I started using Stack Exchange regularly. – Stormblessed Jun 15 at 14:04
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    I use Stack Exchange on a Chromebook and the only way it's usable is with an ad blocker. I don't click on the ads anyway, so Stack Exchange is not losing any revenue due to my having the ad blocker enabled. – JL2210 Jun 15 at 16:17
  • @ChristianRau AFAIK, while the ads experiment is in progress for those sites, the "Reduced ads" privilege is disabled. – Meta Andrew T. Jun 17 at 11:07
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    Related question on which a CM mentioned that animated ads and ads served from networks would not be permitted. – thesecretmaster Jun 18 at 2:28
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    SE used to be special, but guess they run out of money so can't be anymore. Now. when it comes to ads, they're as bad as any other site. I'm almost sure next step is "Premium Account", letting people pay to get extra privileges. IMO, if it's those things or close SE down, I'd rather see them close down. – Shadow The Dragon Wizard Jun 18 at 6:51
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    Seems like adblocking on SE is becoming a IT security necessity like it is on other sites. – Magisch Jun 18 at 7:03
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    at Stack Overflow, they have a feature to report inappropriate job ads. Would be neat if it could be extended to cover troublesome ads – gnat Jun 18 at 9:18
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    @gnat wishful thinking... anyway, I stopped getting the "evil ads" now. Do you still get any? (/cc anyone else reading it) – Shadow The Dragon Wizard Jun 18 at 9:22
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    @MadScientist We are actively working with OpenX about reducing the ad size allowences and requests. Thank you for your feedback, it has been very helpful! – Juan M Jun 18 at 16:33
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    @gnat feature request for flagging ads here: meta.stackexchange.com/q/329700/162102 – Monica Cellio Jun 18 at 22:17
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Reading this question I decided it would be worth checking if the situation is indeed so bad. Spoiler alert: IT IS.

I tried opening a page on Science&Fiction using Edge. I was prompted with an ads for a bus/pullman service.... nothing I will ever be interested in since I think it was for a country far off where I live.

That said, what is far more worrisome is that apparently the ads quickly caused a full page redirect to a classical scam site "You are user 1000000 and just won an IPAD. Enter your SOUL in the form to claim it".
The link was that of a site called (link posted as a picture to avoid people clicking on it by error while still leaving the info for the staff to check)

enter image description here

I think I don't need to add that having unrelated static ads that add noise on a page is a thing... having actual malevolent malvertising ads that attempt to redirect you to other pages is a far more serious problem... outside of a silly test I am using umatrix and probably will never see the effect of this issue but other may be not so lucky.


Update: I am no longer able to reproduce the issue with the redirecting ads. That said, I cannot really tell if that is because the bad ads were removed or just because now I am being served ads from a different provider.

Up to yesterday I saw ads that apparently weren't geo-localized - hence me seeing and advertisement for a bus service for a different country. Today ads composition is pretty different:

  • many ads are about SE and are clearly serviced by Google advertising platform
  • the rest are serviced by minor ads networks and apparently now the ads I get are specific for my country. They are still animated and still somehow annoying, but so far they didn't seem to engage in redirection attempts... They are still somehow resource intensive, too.

Now I am wondering why there are two different strategies being uses for ads. I assume there is a reason, but the fact that most of the ads are now coming from Google and only a small percentage of them are coming from other minor providers seems almost if we are trying to reduce bad ads by reducing the number of times they are serviced... Wouldn't it be simpler to at least just stick to Google Ads platform (which also has the added benefit of having a built-in feature to report a bad ads)?


Update: there are some rumors going on the chat - apparently some users experienced ads that attempted to trick them into downloading .exe files. Sadly, I don't have any more info - will try to update if further reports or pictures of the affected ads become available.
As you may guess if this is true, it would represent a far more critical security issue than anything that has been reported so far.


Update: While I couldn't find any proof related to the attempted executable files download, I was able to track down proof that some ads have attempted to use AUDIO. See here for full info.

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    uBlock user here. No issue on my part so far. Once upon a time I was hoping for a way to whitelist SE in uBlock. Stuff like that ain't happening anytime soon anymore. – John Dvorak Jun 17 at 16:39
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    Ads should not be redirecting. This is one that I will report. Thank you for sharing this! – Juan M Jun 17 at 16:45
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    @SPArchaeologist This issue has been resolved. Additionally, we're moving away from that ads provider and will be filling inventory from another source. The experiment continues to yield important results and your feedback helps us to tweak and adjust what we do moving forward. – Juan M Jun 18 at 16:31
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    Reporting ads to Google doesn't work; I've seen ads that I've previously reported. – Monica Cellio Jun 18 at 22:19
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I'm a user on one of the sites where the experiment is being conducted.

As I understand it, ads on Stack Overflow are curated for both relevance to a technical audience and ad quality, including a "no animation" rule. That's not what's happening in this experiment; I'm seeing ads for all sorts of things that are completely unrelated to the site, almost all of them are animated, and many of the animations are obnoxious (bright things moving around, looping, etc). I reported the first few to SE, but then I realized the magnitude of the problem and stopped trying.

These ads are served by Google. I clicked on the "X" in the corner of one and it took me to an "I don't want to see this ad again" page where I could choose a reason from a list. The options did not include "the ad itself is obnoxious", so I chose "I'm not interested in this product" and thought that would mean I wouldn't see that ad again, but it was back the next day. This was early in the experiment, when I thought we'd be seeing a small number of curated ads. Individually dismissing them all, even if that worked, isn't feasible, I now know.

If Stack Overflow Inc. can make money by running SO-style ads -- curated for both relevance and ad quality -- then I'm all for it. Many of our sites have large-enough communities with clear-enough niches that it makes sense to do it if they can handle the curation. But turning a chunk of real estate over to Google to use as they'd like isn't working; these ads are too invasive. At the very least, we need a "no animation" rule. (Tasteful animation is possible but rare.)

I do want to see the community-chosen ads, so I don't want to just use an ad blocker to suppress everything. Also, even if I suppress the obnoxious ads, having such ads on our sites makes a bad first impression on visitors. At a time when the company is concerned about user attrition, we shouldn't be pushing people away through our advertising choices.

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    The experience is hard to compare as I probably get entirely different ads based on my location and other variables. But I've seen a large proportion of excessively animated ads as well, e.g. an Adobe one with a lot of flashing images at the start. – Mad Scientist Jun 17 at 19:15
  • @MadScientist I reported an Adobe ad, though that doesn't mean it's the same ad. (Presumably they have several.) – Monica Cellio Jun 17 at 19:18
  • Can't you just whitelist the Community Promotion Ads in your ad blocker? Those are served from Imgur, right? – Sonic the Anonymous Hedgehog Jun 17 at 19:57
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    True, there's probably a way to selectively unblock the community ads. I mentioned on my site's meta (but not here) that even if I block them, I'm still concerned about the impression we make on visitors. I don't want our sites to join the ranks of sites littered with blinking moving noisy ads (only a matter of time 'till Google sends us video ads). That makes a terrible first impression. – Monica Cellio Jun 17 at 20:02
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    @MonicaCellio I've seen one video ad already, it's not a matter of time, they're already here – Mad Scientist Jun 17 at 20:05
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    @MadScientist ewww. Thanks for letting me know. – Monica Cellio Jun 17 at 20:06
  • The day I bought my phone, Google was already telling me I had a virus there and how to fix it. It told me in a way that I'm sure is a guaranteed trigger for photosensitive people. I reported both. When they removed the report button, I removed the ads. – John Dvorak Jun 17 at 20:10
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    @MonicaCellio I do not understand how you guys thought you ever could control this. Once you deal with an ad broker, you are dealing with every ad broker because they all broker ad placements amongst each other. Google looks for the highest paying ad that the advertiser swears complies with their rules, that happens to be ABC Ad Agency, who is rebrokering a slot they got from Adbrite who themselves is brokering for Kwong Shoau agency, who has a Toyota ad for that spot, but the Toyota ad isn't ready so they resell it to XYZ agency who places a casino ad. This is advertising. – Harper Jun 18 at 18:20
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    @Harper Monica is 'just' a mod here and on a bunch of other sites, just like me she's not an employee working for Stack Exchange ;) So the 'you guys' etc. in your comment seems to be a bit misdirected here... – Tinkeringbell Jun 18 at 18:31
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    @Tinkeringbell I didn't say she was. However she does often speak with the air of an insider, so it's an easy confusion to make, especially since SE has a gray area between mods and employees, e.g. One often becomes the other, and they certainly wield influence. Same happens to me with an all-volunteer org... and I am not bothered in the least. That is merely a side-effect of being a responsible person, a scarce thing in this world. – Harper Jun 18 at 18:44
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    @Harper mods have no control over how the ads are handled and I don't have any inside information about that. I don't know a lot about how ads are done on the web and where content restrictions can be applied. (I mean, I know there are brokers involved, but I don't know if sites can apply technical filters -- for example, is it technically possible for SE to prevent animated ads from getting through? Beats me.) My "insider" knowledge comes from being very active and attentive on the network for 8+ years, but I don't work for SE and can't speak for them. Sorry for the confusion. – Monica Cellio Jun 18 at 19:09
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    To be fair, on MSE it's even more unclear, since there's community mods, SE mods, SE employeers that don't have a diamond. – JAD Jun 21 at 13:42
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    It's very telling that Google and Instagram ad reporting options fail to include "Ad does not comply with accessibility standards". – autistOfSpot Jun 24 at 2:22
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+50

It seems clear that if SE wants to enforce any sort of standards on our ads, no matter what those standards may be, we absolutely cannot trust the ad providers to do so for us. Though we are still in the "experimental" phase, the number of reports of excessive animation and spammy content has been significant enough that we can be sure this will be a continuing issue going forward.

If we are to have outside ads here (which at this point seems pretty certain), then we need to have a way for users to report ad content that does not meet with our standards.

I'm no developer, but I imagine a good way to do this would be to have a frame around every ad with an button to report the ad to SE admins, not just to Google Ads. Depending on what the agreed-upon standards are, reasons for reporting could include:

  • Excessive/any animation
  • Audio advertisement (haven't seen this, but I certainly wouldn't allow it)
  • Large resource drain
  • Inappropriate/spammy content
  • Off-topic content
  • Too large/covers up site content (this may not even be possible)
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    A way to report it and a way to enforce a decision to reject an ad. If SE merely passes the complaint through to Google (or whoever's serving the ad), that won't fix the problem. After all, user reports haven't prevented reported ads from coming right back, so why would SE's reports be any different? We need a way for SE to block ads that don't meet our standards. – Monica Cellio Jun 18 at 14:33
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The single, simplest way to reduce the madness is to shingle the ads.

Think about how the Puffin browser works. It has a web browser running on a Linux server, which ghosts your web pages for you. Suppose you are on an iPad 1 and you try to load a bloated Yelp page full of active content. The Puffin client sends the URL and cookies to the Linux server, which launches an instance of Firefox, renders the page, style sheets, active content etc. — and sends back a simplified HTML4-tier version of the text, with static GIFs or JPEGs where text won't do. This is very low demand for the ancient browser.

So, SE can do the same thing with ads. Be a "man in the middle" like Puffin, having a Firefox engine running on a server, reducing the ad frame to a static JPEG or GIF, or possibly animated GIF where warranted. The ad agency sends you a video? Okay, send along a JPEG of a frame. They send along a Flash exploit? It gets stopped on your server. The ad attempts a takeover? They only get their ad frame sent along. The ad attempts to solve Bitcoins? That only affects server-side and you kill the process after it uses too much CPU.

Ads which work, work. Ads which only work with excessive/abusive behavior find their ads don't get any clicks or conversions on SE, they don't know why, but they stop displaying because there's no revenue there.

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    Since you only need to poll the renderer once per ad rather than once per view, I'd suggest spinning up a lightweight virtual machine rather than an unprotected browser that could leak exploits to SE's servers. On subsequent views, you just pipe the ad into dev/null and send the cached picture. – John Dvorak Jun 22 at 11:55

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