It has become a cliche in the tech industry that the future of the Internet is mobile. Studies have repeatedly shown that more people are reading email, browsing the Web, social networking, and playing online games on their smartphones as opposed to their computers. To companies whose revenue is based on online advertising—Facebook, Zynga, even websites like Slate—that's alarming, because the conventional wisdom is that mobile ads don't work very well. If anything, they're seen as even more annoying and intrusive than the ads you see when you browse the Web on your computer.
A few months ago, a series of reports emerged that made people in the mobile advertising business think that maybe the future wasn't so bleak after all. Facebook reported that its mobile ads were getting more clicks and bringing the company more revenue per click than those it served to people via their computers. Zynga made similar claims.
But now there are signs that the conventional wisdom might have been right after all—at least for now. A study earlier this year by Pretarget and ComScore found almost zero correlation between clicks on mobile ads and "conversions," which are when someone actually downloads an app or fills out a form on the advertiser's site. Now we have a better idea why. A study by Trademob finds that some 40 percent of mobile ad clicks are either fraudulent or accidental. Of those, more than half are the result of fat-finger syndrome: People clicked on the ads when they were trying to click on something else.
A Pew Research Center study released this week is consistent with those findings. It finds that just 12 percent of smartphone users ever intentionally click on an ad, and only 6 percent actually buy anything based on those ads. If there's any silver lining, it's that these numbers aren't really that much worse than those for any other platform. When Pew asked respondents where they most like to see ads, 19 percent said their computers, while just 5 percent said tablets and 4 percent smartphones. But by far the most popular response, at 46 percent, was "don't like ads on any."