Debunking the myths of the attention Web

The attention Web has recently arisen as a serious alternative to the click-driven Web. It is built on a growing scientific consensus that the time and attention an ad accrues significantly affects recall and recognition. Rather than valuing the act of clicking on a link to a page, what a visitor does once they get there and the attention an ad is able to attract affects its value. For publishers, this promises a business model for quality content and for advertisers a level of trust and transparency around the efficacy of their advertising. However, several criticisms have been raised that should be addressed.

Myth: The attention Web punishes short-form sites
Unlike impressions, which incentivize transitory content, critics contend that the attention Web rewards long-form content over short snappy media. However, this misreads the data.


Look at this graph from Yahoo’s research team. Attention has an accretive impact on recall and recognition but with flattening returns. This means an ad with 20 seconds of exposure outperforms a 10-second ad exposure, but two 10-second ad exposures will outperform a 20-second exposure.

This suggests that publishers can successfully adopt a strategy of infrequent long exposures (and then flip ads at the right moment) or frequent shorter exposures. It’s the total amount of attention one can accrue from a user that is more important than any individual visit. Short content with frequent visitors or long content with less frequent visitors can flourish on the attention Web. Those who fail are those who create content that captures neither attention nor loyalty.

Myth: The attention Web doesn’t speak to advertisers’ goals
A second complaint is that total exposure time (the cumulative amount of attention an audience spends with either content or an ad) fails to address advertisers’ desire for large audiences. This is untrue. To grow total exposure time, one must both capture a large audience and keep its attention. Both conditions are necessary for success, and this better aligns content creators with advertisers’ goals than gaming clicks. Moreover, this criticism also fails to understand the sophistication of data available on the attention Web.


In terms that may be familiar to TV media buyers, advertising on the attention Web is measured in terms of people, frequency and impact. It combines an advertiser’s desire for large audiences with the trust and transparency that when they did reach them, that audience had a reasonable chance of recalling the ad. Unlike the click Web, the attention Web can track the lifetime exposure of an individual to a campaign so one can see the difference between a site that delivered 1 million people for three seconds and the site that delivered 1 million people for 30 seconds. Being willfully blind to the difference just means more wasted ad spend.

Myth: Publishers will game attention by writing longer content
An average piece of content loses 30 percent of its visitors before they have even scrolled a pixel, and the drop off after that is significant. Thinking that people will hang around for bad long-form when they have the sum of human knowledge, their entire social group and every form of entertainment known to man only a browser tab away is … optimistic.

Publishers who believe that they can game the system by making a four-minute read into a six-minute read will find their returns far less than the publisher who focuses on keeping their audience beyond the first 30 seconds. It may well be that the best way to “game” the attention Web is to simply create content that is good.

There are serious questions to explore around the attention Web, but let’s move past the straw men and deal with the substantive issues. That’s the only way we get to a better Web.