A battle for the internet's soul

'The net lets us discover the ad-free - but not opinion-free - world. A lot of us seem to like it'
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The Independent Online

Have you heard of Martin Sorrell? He's the hugely experienced adman who predicted, a couple of weeks ago, that any economic recovery would be "saucer-shaped" rather than showing some dramatic lift-off. Some thought he was just being Eeyore-ish, and that surely things in the advertising world would only get better, faster, if not necessarily cheaper.

Well, personally, I wonder about advertising. I think some of it has gone for ever from the old media, such as billboards, and transferred to the internet – though not in the boring form of adverts, not even those annoying pop-ups or pop-unders you encounter on so many commercial web pages.

So where has it gone? I think it has disappeared. We aren't going to listen to adverts so much any more. Smart companies will realise that. Advertising something won't make it any better. Most of all, if we decide that it's no good, then we have a way to find out – because so much information has now been drawn in behind the web, on to databases and into the files that get served up when you enter a query.

Want to know what people online spend most time doing? No, not that. It's "seeking product information", says Forrester Research, which has a reputation for reliable commentary. That point was made to me by Jeffrey Walker, the chief executive of Accrue, a company that makes web-analysis software: companies use it to see where people are going on their sites, and, more importantly, which parts are failing to draw the crowds and the buyers. Accrue mines the rivers of data at the bottom of which lie all those abandoned virtual shopping trolleys.

However, Mr Walker doesn't think ad spending has really gone away. "The internet hasn't replaced print ads in the substantial way that people might have hoped." He was pretty adamant. At first. And then he commented: "Of course, for job ads, well, those have been hammered by the net. Nobody looks for a job today without looking on the net." And then there are things like PC Direct, the venerable British computer magazine that used to be inches thick with ads from mail-order companies. Come the internet, and the ads all went online. PC Direct shut down.

But even that doesn't get to the bottom of the sea change I see. When you're checking out a holiday, is your first act to look it up on the net? It was in our house – and I'm not the one who books the holidays. We used all those databases, and especially Google, because its listings reflect how well other people rate pages; if lots of people link to you, you're reckoned to be a prime source, and pushed up the listing.

Google has in fact become the repository for the group experience of virtually everything, including web pages, Usenet discussions (which contain a lot of troubleshooting data, and not just about computers) and images. If it ever moved away from that model, towards the pay-for-placement system a number of rivals have taken up in desperation, I think a big light would have gone off on the internet. Because what people really, really like about using Google, and a growing number of sites, is that they know they are getting the opinions of real people, without the spin of marketing. There is a real battle going on for the soul of the net, and the amusing thing is that the companies think they're winning, because a few of them are charging for access to sites, or for stuff that was free during the net landrush.

That overlooks the fact that there are 3 billion websites out there, and for every company that puts a tollbooth in front of its site, a dozen more personal ones spring up with the fruits of individual or collective efforts. I've never been troubled by not having access to The Wall Street Journal's site; there are more, and fresher, insights from first-hand experience circulating on mailing lists. And I'd rather browse Popbitch for its gossip and scoops about the pop world than Victoria Beckham's pay-per-yawn site. (You'd forgotten about it, hadn't you?)

Look, too, at how eager American viewers are to escape TV adverts. That has on its own boosted sales of the Replay TV box, which automatically skips them.

What the internet lets us discover is the ad-free, but not opinion-free, world. A lot of people seem to like it. Which makes me think that, as he often is, Mr Sorrell is correct.

The writer is Technology Editor of 'The Independent'