Ad-supported content products must continously ask themselves this question. Is their primary focus creating a great user experience or in creating content optimized for advertising?
Saul Hansell at the New York Times (via Michael Parekh ) takes a look at this issue in a blog post about Zillow. Hansell is disillusioned by the typical pattern that occurs with new sites. Initially, they focus on the customer, then over time become more and more advertiser-driven, reducing the quality of the customer experience. Or, as he put it:
There has been a sadly predictable transition as idealism morphs into the cruel realities of running a business. The comparison shopping engines, like ComputerESP (bought by CNet’s Shopper.com) and BizRate (now part of ShopZilla), stopped displaying things in the order that most favored consumers with the lowest prices or whatever else the consumer wanted first. Instead, they tried to find ways to favor advertisers, like listing paying customers first or simply ignoring sites that didn’t pay for access.
This balance between the needs of consumers and the needs of advertisers is not something that newly emerged on the web. It's been there for decades in trade press, directories (where a logo or preferred positioning is sold to listees) and even in the conference industry.
Zillow, is trying to break that pattern, by keeping their products consumer-focused. Other mortgage shopping sites, such as Lending Tree, are lead-generation engines. You can get quotes from multiple sources, but only by agreeing to have your contact details shared with lenders, who follow up with various levels of aggressive sales efforts. In the Zillow system, consumers remain anonymous. You can get quotes from multiple lenders who receive the key information needed to provide a quote (zip code, rough credit score, etc) but without the need to provide their identity. Consumers can send questions back to lenders, with Zillow as the intermediary, thereby remaining anonymous until they decide they wish to contact the lender directly.
I've always believe that if you create a great user experience, you'll attract consumers and make your site attractive to advertisers. At the same time, I know of many products - websites, magazines, conferences and more, which started by focusing on the needs of their target consumer, but later compromised the user experience by letting the advertiser drive all of their decisions. Zillow's Rich Barton seems to understand the need to avoid the temptation; let's hope they keep that approach even if they're missing their revenue targets.