Product Management Technology

Can Web Advertising Make You More Productive?

Note: Right after I posted this, Google Contributor completely changed so this is no longer possible.

The Idea in 150 words:

  • When I’m surfing the web I want to get something done — but ads want me to do something else (like buy something). I can’t get upset at the ads because that’s their job
  • My attention is a valuable and scarce resource that marketers want to purchase. Essentially I am paying for content with my attention
  • Paying for content with micropayments might be a solution but that just takes the ads away — getting people to “pay for nothing” (or the elimination of something) is a hard value proposition
  • I figured out how to use micropayments to replace Google Display ads with my To Do list. Building on an idea Matt Cutts had on his blog, I used Google Contributor and Remember The Milk to substitute advertisements with my To Do list
  • Now I have my To Do list follows me around the Internet. It’s just like a persistent targeted ad that won’t leave me alone. It’s Awesome!
  • Here’s what it looks like:

Now for the extended version

The Problem

When I’m browsing the web, I’m trying to learn something or get something done. Advertisers are looking to get me to buy something. South Park did a great (NSFW) send up of this where the boys are investigating the advertising industry and keep ending up at the ice cream parlor and instead of finishing their task.

We’re in an attention economy right now. Time is our most valuable resource. As Randy Pausch of Last Lecture fame said in his Time Management Lecture, “Americans are great at managing their money, but significantly worse at managing their time.” Which means that most Americans would rather pay for their content with their time (free with ads) than their money.

Why Are Ads So Annoying?

Because it’s their job. An advertisement’s job is to change behavior and convince people to buy something. This can be in increasing awareness, interest or desire in the product. However it’s being done, it takes me away from my task and thinking about the product.

Sometimes my goals are in line with the advertisers. If I’m looking for cool toys for my kids, a suggestion for a similar product from Amazon or an ad from Google could be incredibly powerful. Unfortunately, many advertisements are low quality and look more like the ads in the back of old comic book magazines.

What most web advertisements feel like the ads in the back of comic books

Fixing the Problem

A Page Starts by Looking Like This

The Page Without Alteration

Option 1: Eliminating Ads

In order to avoid these annoying ads, many people have switched to ad blockers — essentially taking the content but avoiding paying for it with their attention. This doesn’t work long term as the ad supported sites will be starved by revenue.

A better model is micropayments. Instead of advertisers paying for each page view, the consumer would pay for it. These models are very hard to put together, requiring both the consumer and the website to buy in.

Ad Blocker

Option 2: Replacing Ads with Something Else

One of the most promising micropayments platforms is Google Contributor. Google Contributor allows consumers to “buy back” their ads from Google. This allows Google to leverage its massive relationships with websites. Matt Cutts has a great description of Google Contributor on his blog, but the key points are:

1. You support the sites you visit
2. You see fewer ads
3. (And this is the cool part) you get to decide what to show in that ad space instead of ads

Google Contributor still feels like a bit of an experiment at this point. The main reason is that there’s nothing that people are really replacing their ads with of value. Right now Contributor defaults to a “Thank You” message that’s blank with other options like pictures of cats. People don’t seem to like the absence of paying for things very much — it feels too much like paying to be bored. Even though there’s a huge amount of value in actually being bored.

Standard Google Contributor

Option 3: Replacing Ads with Something Useful (My Favorite One – This is Where Things Get Really Cool)

As I said before, the purpose of advertising is to get you to change your behavior. But instead of letting the ads change my behavior to buy things, why don’t we use ads to focus me on what I want to do. Wouldn’t it be great to have your “To Do” list follow you around the internet instead of ads. These work for 2 reasons:

  1. Advertisements are great at following you around the web and interrupting you. Instead of interrupting you to buy things, you get your To Do list — reminding you of what you need to get done
  2. To Do lists can be context sensitive (e.g., when you’re at your computer, these are the things that you’d like to do)

Google Contributor With My To Do List!

What I’ve Learned:

While this is just a small prototype, there’s a lot of things I learned from it:

  1. It’s quite useful. I’ve only been using this for a few weeks but it really does get me laser focused on my To Do List — especially when I’m mindlessly surfing the web
  2. There are a few issues with using Google Contributor for this purpose but net-net for $5 a month to get less distracted by extraneous things AND actually let me focus on the things I want to get done — that’s HUGE. All this while contributing to the media that I want to thrive.

How I Set It Up

Note that Google Contributor no longer works this way so this is here for more historical reasons.

Detailed Instructions for Connect Google Contributor to Remember The Milk:

Create a List
  • Log in to from your web browser to set the cookie to access your URL. Note: You will not be able to log into Remember The Milk from inside a Contributor window — this seems to be a security feature to avoid capturing data from an ad.

  • Find the URL of your To Do list by going to and displaying your To Do list

· Point the Google Contributor custom URL to the Remember The Milk list

· Now your To Do list follows you around the web!

Some Further Improvements

  • Some sites like the New York Times get a very high CPM and have pretty good ads. You can eliminate contributor contributions by clicking on the + sign…

  • Finding the right To Do list is difficult. Remember The Milk is pretty good at this but there might be better ones. doesn’t seem to follow a drag and drop prioritization, so you’ll need to move items up and down in your list using the “prioritization” flag. This is particularly important because most ads will only show between 2 and 5 list items.
  • The trickiest thing is finding a To Do list that will display nicely in the ad space. m.rememberthemilk does a nice job by using very little room on the top and no navigation. To get this really right, you’d likely have to call and API for RTM and do a custom display.
  • Ideally, it would be good to customize the way that the To Do list displays based on the display size (e.g., if the space is too small, don’t try to display the To Do List).
  • I only need to see my To Do list once per page. If I have more than one ad on a page, I might want to have an inspirational quote in the other ad space.