“What, the Sponsored Stories?” I responded. “I think they’re kind of cool, they represent a new front in social advertising.”
“No, there are display ads on the right-hand side and left, in-between posts on the feed — it’s so annoying.”
I looked up puzzled — did I miss some advertising news in that massive update the other day? I swiveled over and took a look at her screen — indeed, there were display ads for iContact (likely from a retargeting campaign as that’s our email newsletter service) and others flooding her Facebook account.
I immediately knew the culprit — I opened up the “add-ons” option tab and viewed extensions. Surely enough, Yontoo Layers had been installed and was active. With a click, the extension was deleted.
She couldn’t recall downloading or adding the extension, but the display ads on Facebook started appearing after she downloaded Firefox 5.0 a few months earlier. Just to test, we downloaded the recently released Firefox 6.0 and took a look at what extensions appeared — while the install software asked if we wanted to update a few extensions, Yontoo was not one of them. When Firefox started, we opened the extension folder and there was no sign of Yontoo.
My coworker simply thought Facebook was serving more ads, but it was actually advertising networks owned by Yontoo serving ads on a layer inserted into the browser. An interesting page on the Mozilla support website suggests a several dozen people have had the same problem — after installing Firefox, a slew of display ads appear on their Facebook ads, even in the news feed itself. They trace it to the Yontoo Layers extension and an app built off of it called PageRage.
However, the extension doesn’t appear to be automatically downloaded with Firefox — it’s not even one of the top featured add-ons on Mozilla’s directory.
I was was tipped off about Yontoo a while back and started looking into it, even writing and calling Yontoo’s press people, but I never received a response. I wasn’t trying to do an exposé, but find out more information about the service — for example, the user base, average monthly impressions, stuff like that. And yes, I wanted to know about Yontoo’s relationship with Facebook and Google — and whether it had gotten into any legal skirmishes with the two Internet giants.
Yontoo Layers is a very accurate name — as a browser extension/app, it adds a layer of content to web pages. “Yontoo Layers works on any site on the Web, although the functionality comes from separate applications called Layers Apps which provide specific functionalities depending on what site you are on,” the website explains. Yontoo layers can be downloaded and installed as a browser extension for Internet Explorer, Firefox or Chrome.
The most popular/infamous tool built off of Yontoo Layers is PageRage, which allows users to add “skins” to their Facebook pages — it’s reminiscent of MySpace layout builders. PageRage makes clear on its website that it is not affiliated in any way with Facebook; when downloading the program, it installs Yontoo Layers first and then the specific PageRage app (so if you install Yontoo Layers alone or with another app, you won’t immediately begin seeing ads on your Facebook page).
In addition to enabling the building of custom skins, PageRage offers thousands of pre-designed skins, including ones featuring pop artists — apparently the Ke$ha skin is the most popular, followed by one for the Real Madrid football (soccer to us Yanks) club. That should give you an inkling about the kind of audience that the service is aimed at/primarily used by — teenagers.
They’re probably the only age group that might be able to put up with the barrage of display ads that come with Yontoo’s services. Even then, maybe not — if you do a Google search for Yontoo and Facebook, the majority of the results that don’t come from Yontoo itself are posts from various message boards regarding how to delete the app.
It must be noted that Yontoo pages offer clear instructions for getting rid of the service as well as how it works (though it may take a moment to wrap your head around). I say Yontoo pages because PageRage is listed as being developed by Theme Your World LLC, which is under the umbrella of Yontoo Technology Inc. It’s the same with every other Yontoo Layers developer in the Yontoo app market — they are LLCs under Yontoo.
After I got over my fear of the software possibly eating my computer inside out via viruses, I installed Yontoo and PageRage to get the full experience. I picked a least-tacky skin I could find (well, on the first page) and hopped on Facebook.
There was my skin customizing the Facebook page, and there were display ads… EVERYWHERE. I had flashbacks to the days when pop-ups ruled the Internet, which is probably why many people have mislabeled Yontoo Layers and its apps as viruses (PageRage even has a page explaining that it’s not a virus). According to many older complaints, the layers and the ads drastically slowed down site performance, but Theme Your World/Yontoo claims it has improved loading times. I didn’t notice a real lag, just a whole lot of ads.
There’s another catch — the only way that others can view your Facebook skin is if they also have Yontoo layers. So you basically have to shill the service to your friends, which is not a bad way for Yontoo to expand business. The problem is simply the value proposition — in exchange for these kind of pathetic Facebook customizations, you’re subjected to a bombardment of ads. Who is going to suggest that to a pal? (An enemy maybe…)
PageRage does offer an ad-free premium service — but pay for a customized skin? What is this, 2005?
PageRage is just one Yontoo app and some of Yontoo’s other offerings seem to have more value. Drop Down Deals promises to highlight relevant coupons on e-commerce sites, while BuzzDock enhances search engines by adding drop-down menu featuring search results from other services (such as YouTube, Twitter and eBay — Yahoo! was listed but seemed not to work). Just like PageRage, BuzzDock is supported by ads, so text ads are served on top of Google, Yahoo! or Bing search results pages. When using the app, I couldn’t tell which ads had been served by the search engine and which by Yontoo. BuzzDock can also be used as a web-based service built on top of Bing.
Initially, the tipoff I was given suggested that Google and Facebook should be in rage because Yontoo was encroaching on their ad business by serving ads on top of their pages. It’s a gray area — Yontoo Layers could be viewed as the next step of toolbars, which can also serve ads on top of pages, though limited to the space the toolbar takes up (though there are user-initiated expandables).
On the other hand, I couldn’t find any example of a Yontoo ad blocking an ad served by the initial site. There is another app called OverApps (programmed by Web Widgets) which replaces ads with apps from Facebook, Twitter and other social media services. A bar appears above a display ad inviting a user to replace the ad with the app of his or her choice. The ads are still being served (and arguably getting more attention) and revenue goes to the publisher.
Yontoo Layers is user-initiated and inside the browser — you could argue that it’s not really appearing on the website at all, just within the user’s browser. Think about it as an extension that’s monetized by serving pop-ups. I can’t find any reports of Facebook or Google trying to ban or block the service.