data visualization | Publishing | Technology

This is why your news site takes so long to load

We were struck this week by The New York Times’ fascinating interactive chart, which ranks 50 top news websites based on their mobile load times for editorial and advertising. It was put together as a way to help us understand the recent uproar surrounding ad blockers. (Three cheers for The Guardian, which comes off looking like public television here.) We loved the way this graphic got its message across, but we also found ourselves thinking that there’s a whole other level to this issue.

Take a look at the charts near the bottom of the page, which show the total amount of data used by three sites, broken down by type: mainly video, images, html, and scripts. On a basic level, the Times is showing the extent to which ad blockers save you time and bandwidth. But wouldn’t it be fascinating to see not only how much time and bandwidth gets spent waiting for ads to download but also how much time gets spent waiting for your your personal data to be sent to advertisers? After all, it’s not so much screen real-estate, or even your time and attention, that publishers are selling (although to be sure, that is being sold) — no, that model has deepened significantly since publishers first went online. For online advertising to work, news sites are required to load third-party Javascript to access what is essentially a map of where you’ve been clicking around online. When you’re sitting and waiting for a page to load, you’re waiting for ad content (and also fancy web fonts), but before that content can even begin to load, you’re waiting for advertiser scripts to figure out what ads to show you. It’s only then that they even send the ads — a process that (so long as we’re not talking about video) is actually pretty quick.

Put simply, ad blockers aren’t just preventing those annoying ads from loading on your phone. They’re also stopping the scripts that put the loading process on hold in order to dig into your data and figure out which ads to show you. In other words, the whole debate about ad blockers isn’t just about ads; it’s about your data.

For more on how web advertising works, here are some in-depth links:

J+D team posts are a conversation between Heather Chaplin and Irwin Chen, blogified by Lindsay Abrams.