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Predators and Prey: Just Another Day on the Web

Find out why thinking of yourself as nothing more than a mouse may be your best defense against malicious Web-borne attacks and unwanted marketing.

n nature, when a new food resource emerges, it sets off a chain of events. Organisms that can exploit the new resource become successful and in turn become attractive prey for predators. The prey species then adopts strategies to resist predation, while the predators evolve and learn new strategies to overcome the prey's new defenses. This continually escalating but stalemated battle continues as long as the food source is available.

Oddly enough, this cycle is eerily parallel to our use of the Internet. By studying common predator-prey interaction patterns we can make some sense of the forces that dictate both business and consumer use behaviors online, and perhaps even find ways of looking at nature to predict predator strategies that Web predators haven't yet adopted—and forewarned, evolve more effective defenses.

The Web as a Resource
The Web appeared rather suddenly as a fast-growing collection of navigable pages that attracted a huge audience nearly immediately. In this scenario, the Web is a natural food resource, and the organisms that evolved to consume it are computer users (the prey). During the initial explosion, the resource was free, but—just as in nature—there's no such thing as a free lunch. Advertisers (one of the predators) rapidly learned to "hunt" by exploiting the Web as a new channel for distributing marketing messages. Web predators are successful when they cause the prey to visit the marketer's site (a click-through) or disgorge contact info (registration), or purchase a product.

In nature, predators and prey are locked in a constant battle. Overall, that battle is usually well-balanced. If a prey species were to win completely, their population would spiral out of control, they would overuse their resources, and then face starvation and/or extinction. If predators suddenly become too effective, the prey population drops, and the predators suffer or must find other food sources. In extreme cases (as probably happened with Ice Age prey such as mammoths when humans began hunting them) the predator manages to hunt the prey into extinction. Normally though, both predators and prey are constantly evolving, creating, and adopting new strategies; neither side can gain a terminal advantage.

Predators, of course, maximize their own success when they increase their predation success rate. Prey species maximize their success when they become fleet enough or grow sufficient armor or adopt camouflage, etc. that reduces the incidence of predation. Another defense strategy common in fish, insects, and smaller mammals is to increase the number of offspring, giving each a slightly greater chance of surviving to adulthood. Each advance in prey defensive strategy shifts the advantage in that direction. But the advantage is generally temporary; the predators typically find a way to overcome or circumvent the new defenses and balance is restored.

Symbionts and Parasites
For most people, the word predator generally evokes images of large cats, but not all predators are like lions, killing and eating one prey animal at a time. Parasites, bacteria and viruses embody a far more common type of predation. These, too have their Web counterparts. The similarities between natural and Web-borne viruses are rather obvious, and I won't belabor those. The others discussed here are less so.

Static ads and free, no-registration Web sites quickly achieved a symbiotic relationship—similar to that in other free media. Web sites must create income, and one way to do that is to attract an audience that advertisers will pay money to reach. Text banners quickly mutated into image-based banners, which were visually more appealing, even though they often unnecessarily increased download time (remember that everyone had slow dialup access initially).

The ad-supported site relationship worked (and still works) reasonably well, but advertisers, who in other media had previously been content with having their messages exposed to a target audience, discovered that they could force Web sites to track the performance of advertising, and the clickthrough was born. At last, a way to measure advertising's effectiveness directly! But their elation was short lived: They soon found that click-through rates dropped dramatically once Web advertising became prevalent. Web users developed blind spots in places where advertising was omnipresent. When static-ad click-through rates proved unsatisfactory, many advertisers began to try other, more invasive strategies.

Many moved to animated GIF images, both because the movement attracted attention, and because they could use animation to present more information in the same amount of space. Still others increased the size of their images, using the specious reasoning that increasing the size of (already) unwanted advertising would cause consumers to click them more often. Many sites began adding more ads, until the ads nearly surrounded the content, leaving only a narrow window for the content itself.

Right about this point the relationship turned from symbiotic to parasitic. Symbionts become parasitic when the cost of their coexistence becomes greater than the advantage they provide. In nature, prey populations often move away from the source of parasitic predators. On the Web, consumers—most of whom were tolerant of small banner ads—began to complain and even avoid sites with larger and more invasive ads, at least for a while.

Web site proprietors were limited in their choices because they were dependent on ad income. In most cases, the best they could do was limit and standardize ad sizes.

Even as advertisers adopted more invasive and reviled strategies, such as popup windows, DHTML-driven layers floating on (and often obscuring) content, and Flash advertising, avoidance ceased to be an option—many users and businesses had come to depend on the Web; in other words, the prey couldn't move. So, instead, the prey began evolving strategies to combat such tactics.

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