More Details on Directory Tiles

Darren Herman

30

We’ve received lots of feedback about the Directory Tiles idea I discussed on Tuesday. Some of it was supportive, some of it was curious, some of it was pretty harsh. I’m grateful for all of it, though. It shows the passion and commitment people have for Firefox, and for Mozilla’s mission. I’ve been a fan of Mozilla for a long time, but I’m still new here, and it’s been an education.

I have prepared a FAQ based on the most common questions we have received:

What are Tiles?

Every time a user opens up a new tab in Firefox, the browser displays nine boxes, or Tiles. Frequent Firefox users see screenshots of the websites they visit most often in their Tiles.

What appears in Tiles is currently based on a “frecency” algorithm: your recency of visiting a site and your frequency of visiting a site.  Sites that have been visited with the most recency and frequency appear in a user’s Tile.

What are Directory Tiles?

Directory Tiles are a new project from Mozilla, to deliver a better experience for new Firefox users.  Because a new Firefox user has no browser history, they don’t see content in tiles when they open a new tab.  Our idea with Directory Tiles is to pre-populate the new tab page for those users with sites we think they’ll find useful or interesting.

Will users know which tiles are sponsored?

Yes, the sponsored Tiles will be clearly labeled.

What is the timeline for Tiles?

There’s a lot of questions still to answer about how Directory Tiles will feel in practice, and how we choose the right set. Directory Tiles will go live once we have the details right.

How will Firefox determine which Tiles to show users?

At the outset, Firefox will be rotating content in Directory Tiles for each user to test the results.

How long will a user see Directory Tiles after they start using Firefox?

Our frecency algorithm takes about 30 days of normal browsing behavior to update Tiles.

At that point the user will start seeing content that reflects the sites they’ve recently and frequently visited.

Will Directory Tiles Profile Users to Target Content?

We will use GeoIP to ensure Tiles content is relevant to the user’s location, just as we recognize where a visitor to our homepage came from so we can localize the language, but no other user information is collected or considered.

What information will Mozilla provide sponsored content partners from the Directory Tiles?

Mozilla is putting together just the basic metrics that marketers or content publishers might need to understand the value they are receiving.  As of now, our expectation is that we’ll be delivering the number of impressions (how many times a tile was shown) and interactions (how many interactions with a tile, i.e. clicks).

Would a publisher be able to recommend specific articles in a Tile?

We’ll consider and test different approaches to directory tiles content, but whatever systems are implemented will need to be aligned with Mozilla’s mission, values and privacy policy.

30 responses

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  1. Sam86 wrote on :

    My questions:

    1) Will this feature present on ESR Releases?
    2) This feature can be disabled? (example: I live in a nation where i must use tor or i2p, so the browser must not say “Hey! look at these beautifile ads dear $ip_adress”” risking my privacy
    3) This feature will be present on Iceweasel?

    thanks

    Reply

    1. Zergrush wrote on ::

      https://support.mozilla.org/en-US/kb/new-tab-page-show-hide-and-customize-top-sites#w_how-do-i-turn-the-new-tab-page-off will currently allow you to turn it off.

      Reply

  2. Fede wrote on :

    I agree with Sam. will there be a way to disable this from a config file?

    If it is based on geoip that’d mean I’ll get sponsored tabs from other countries (and languages) when traveling.

    If Iceweasel does not include this feature then that’d be the way to go for me.

    thanks

    Reply

  3. LorenzoC wrote on :

    I hope you are aware that while most “casual users” would not mind, you are risking to alienate old time users, those who made Mozilla success possible back when Mozilla needed evangelists. Here we are seeing something that remembers me of what happened with Opera.

    Reply

  4. AndrzejL wrote on ::

    Hi there.

    I am a long term Firefox user.

    I am very much against ads but then I love my Firefox and I would rather see it display some unobtrusive ads rather then “vanish” because of lack of money… I feel torn…

    One thing that scares me – I dont see myself using other browser… I mean I probably would find something if I was forced to but… On the other hand I do not want to see Firefox turning into something that I would not want to use… Oh well… Future will tell…

    My question is: I am using a Speed Dial add-on and I do not see tiles when switching to new tabs. Am I correct to assume that I will not see the mentioned ads? I am hoping add-ons like Speed Dial will not be “banned”?

    Kind regards and big thanks to Mozilla for THE best browser there is.

    AndrzejL

    Reply

    1. Darren Herman wrote on ::

      Andrezjl, thanks for the comment. We are still working out all of the details. It’s still early on our side and as you can imagine, we’re taking all the feedback from the comments and informing our roadmap. Thanks!

      Reply

      1. AndrzejL wrote on ::

        You are very welcome.

        Cheers.

        Andrzej

        Reply

  5. Bodertz wrote on :

    Will the x still be visible for those who don’t want to wait 30 days? Because depending on what you advertise (or link or whatever), I may not want a few tiles to be wasted.

    Reply

    1. Darren Herman wrote on ::

      We are still working out all of the details but to the current roadmap, ‘x’ will be available.

      Reply

  6. Tony Simek wrote on :

    Unfortunately your ongoing management of this rollout is not calling to light the obvious. Many people are going to walk away from the Mozilla community and remove Firefox. The revenue you gain through ads will hopefully be enough to offset the reputation damage, disaffected users, and likelihood that an alternative browser will capture the users you are going to lose.

    Reply

  7. Ayesh wrote on ::

    Another long-time FF user and a lover here.
    My first impression about this change was very disagreeing but after some thorough reading and some assumptions, I think I’m a supporter now.

    I am web developer myself, and I have contributed to some local charity projects. Even though there are humans who are willing to contribute, and no matter you are a non-profit organization, not everything comes for free.

    Google is Firefox’s main revenue stream as for now, and all the contributions (in terms of money) are hardly comparable to Google’s search referral revenue. While I keep supporting FF in every way possible, I think the tiles will help the future of Mozilla foundation (Love you guys!) in long run.

    I’m assuming FF will keep use’s privacy on top and:
    – Will not leak any personally-identifiable information to advertisers.
    – Will not record my history and any other data beyond the sensible limits.

    However, since we are talking about Open Source, I believe the best approach would be to make it possible turn it off.
    Lets try to make the browser still ad-free if users insist. May be turn them on by default, with a switch to turn them off. AdBlockPlus or some other addon will probably add this feature and Mozilla will not discourage that addon ? We don’t want to distract users from a ad-free fork of same loved FF right ? :)

    Reply

    1. Darren Herman wrote on ::

      Ayesh, thank you for this constructive comment. We’re taking much of what you wrote into account into the roadmap. Thank you for your continued support.

      Reply

  8. Robert Murphy wrote on :

    I’m disappointed at this decision. It throws away one of the advantages (and primary reason) for using Firefox. I used to use Gnome (now KDE), used to use Ubuntu (now Arch) and have been down this path before. Too bad I’m getting habituated to projects that forget their users in pursuit of an illusion. This is a lose/lose situation in just a couple of years. Trust is always the most important aspect when choosing applications and I’m beginning to feel this is now in question. Don’t bother with explanations as I know they will be self-serving. I will continue to use Firefox until I don’t. Too bad…

    Reply

    1. Darren Herman wrote on ::

      We hope we don’t lose you Robert. Our goal is to get to trust thru transparency. More on that in coming posts here. Thank you for our continued support.

      Reply

  9. Derek wrote on :

    “We’ve received lots of feedback about the Directory Tiles idea I discussed on Tuesday. Some of it was supportive, some of it was curious, some of it was pretty harsh.”
    This statement implies that a roughly equal amount of supportive, curious and harsh feedback was received.

    “Publisher Transformation with Users at the Center”
    This title looks like it was written for advertisers. Also, what is the IAB?

    This announcement should’ve been pushed back until more of the details were fleshed out and it should’ve been written with the user in mind.

    Reply

    1. Darren Herman wrote on ::

      Hi Derek, thanks for stopping by our new blog. The IAB is the Interactive Advertising Bureau (www.iab.net). We are still building out our roadmap and much of the feedback here from folks such as yourself is helpful. Thank you.

      Reply

  10. Dan Simmons wrote on :

    I have seen lots of harsh feedback. Is there any chance of a link to something supportive?

    Reply

  11. Pogo wrote on :

    What about private browsing, where new tabs always have blank tiles? I hope you’re not planning to fill those with ads, too…..

    Reply

  12. Michael wrote on :

    Hi

    Can you confirm that once the user has built up a sufficient history that all the initial advert tiles will be replaced with most-frequently-visited sites – in other words that you will not permanently be reserving some of the spaces for advertising purposes?

    Reply

    1. Michael wrote on :

      Hi Darren

      Did you have a reply for me, please?

      Reply

  13. Paul Morris wrote on :

    “Our frecency algorithm takes about 30 days of normal browsing behavior to update Tiles. At that point the user will start seeing content that reflects the sites they’ve recently and frequently visited.”

    I have to say… 30 days is a really long time. As soon as a new user has visited 9 different sites you could fill all 9 tiles based on recency/frecency. Any 9 sites a user chooses to visit would tend to be more relevant to her than pre-loaded tiles (sponsored and unsponsored) which she had no choice about. So just in terms of the expressed goal of providing user value (over blank tiles) how are we doing here? Why wouldn’t a user conclude that Firefox was artificially delaying for the sake of revenue?

    29 days in: “Why is Firefox still showing me these sponsored tiles? I’ve been using it for a month now! I’m going back to that other browser that shows me sites that I actually visit…”

    (In any case it’s good to see the additional details. If this goes through, I think providing a way to opt-out (or better yet, opt-in), with everything clearly explained, will be helpful on the trust issue.)

    Reply

  14. John wrote on :

    Okay took some days to finally find a place to post an opinion about this.
    Ad tiles are fine, way to go for mozilla who needs money to operate. HOWEVER do please make an option to tick that off. It’s little different story, but last time when firefox got rid of option to disable js users got really disappointed and angered (until many found extension to use that option again). It still makes me feel bad that firefox didn’t bring that option back natively and wonder why mozilla makes people have less and less options.
    Now, this time please give users an option.

    Reply

  15. Ruben wrote on :

    Hi there,

    I just found out about the idea of showing ads on the New Tab Page.
    As a Firefox and Thunderbird enthusiast, I’m glad to see Mozilla is investigating additional revenue streams to support its noble goal of providing us with an independent, secure, customizable and modern browser. As AndrzejL already pointed out, I guess I’d rather see a few (unobtrusive and removable) ad tiles than see Mozilla fall short of resources.

    However, please make sure to stay true to Mozilla’s core values of privacy, transparency and user choice at all time. Firefox FTW!

    Reply

  16. Dee wrote on :

    I’ve used Firefox since its very early days as Phoenix in 2002, and Mozilla-based browsers beforehand going all the way back to Netscape in 1995. I led hundreds of users IRL and online to become fans of those browsers over the years while giving them free advice & customized lessons based on their interests.

    Your post has me deeply worried for the survival of both Firefox and Mozilla. Firefox was already in danger: poor developer choices had alienated a substantial percentage of users, recently it was proven (for the first time) to be the least secure browser rather than the most, and the upcoming visual overhaul is driving even loyalists like me away. As a result, Mozilla is treading on very thin ice: any ads, tracking, or similarly intrusive monetizing schemes will decimate Firefox’s userbase — and most of us have been around long enough to know these schemes always expand in scope.

    Incidentally, I am writing this from in SeaMonkey while I learn what needs to be done to make it more like classic Firefox before I start switching anyone else to it. It’ll be easier to whip this thing into shape than it’d be to make Australis palatable…

    If Mozilla needs funds to hire new staff or for similar purposes, it would have a much, *much* better long-term result with an annual Kickstarter-style campaign similar to the ones run by game designers. The most basic have minor logo thank-you gifts for donors suitable for the amount donated (many would donate $100-200 for a reproduction of the old Firefox plushie), and many reward extremely generous donors with the chance to have a specific (reasonable) feature coded. To encourage more donations, some developers set a list of donation totals and agree to fulfill a different pre-selected popular community request at each level, with the difficulty reflecting the sum — this is what your budget would likely benefit the most from.

    Please spend some time reading recent discussions of Firefox on tech forums such as Ars Technica or Slashdot, and get a better idea of what your userbase’s current attitudes are towards Firefox or Mozilla in general. You’re akin to a general trying to command an army without having a map of the region the way things are right now…

    Reply

  17. Tobias Markus wrote on :

    Why not let users opt-in from the installer whether they want to see tiles or not? I think this really restores user choice IMO.

    Reply

  18. Dorbus wrote on :

    I am so tired of being the product for everything on the web, nagged by ads and sponsorships and being tracked and monitored.

    I would gladly pay an annual subscription fee for Firefox just to keep it neutral whilst providing you a revenue stream. I’m gone from Firefox once there’s a hint of marketing in my browser that I don’t want.

    Geo-tracking for relevant ads? That’s a slippery slope.

    Reply

  19. Dan wrote on :

    I find this disturbing … for so very many reasons.
    The basic intrusion that adverts are,
    the escalating intrusion that advertising invariably becomes,
    being among the top half of the list.

    We have lost, for the moment, Net-Neutrality and with that loss our ISPs are drooling over the possibility of charging schemes that include AT&T’s new patent to sense ‘types’ of content connection and charge extra on a type by type basis.
    (search youtube for recent “Net Neutrality” videos to start the trail of references)
    Advertisers are a Huge drain on what our ISPs are calling ‘Bandwidth’. Adding to that is, even to this Beginning extent, is unacceptable.

    I left Ubuntu the second my desktop started showing adds from Amazon based on my In-Computer Searches for files. They violated my privacy and my rights to make extra money for themselves. You are on the brink of that same rabbit hole.
    I also left behind Gnome-desktop on my Debian systems the second they introduced gnome3 and took control of my personal configuration. You are not As close, but still approaching, That rabbit hole.
    I began stripping anything ‘Google’ off of my browsers the very first time I got bubbled by a Google search and now use multiple Google-blocking ad-ons.
    There are other illustrations of the anti-individual (anti-consumer) downward slide path you are thinking of stepping on to but these will do for now.

    Knowing the hubristic tendencies of CEO’s and their Boards I am going to start looking for an alternative to Firefox. It was good while it lived, any form of ‘Stepford-Firefox’ is not for me.

    Reply

  20. Mikkel wrote on :

    The first time I see an ad in my Firefox I will know that it has lost its sense of mission. I will then close Firefox for the last time and go find a suitable alternative. There is surely a usable fork out there.
    I’d rather live with a lesser browser than have my browser track me even the slightest for ad purposes.

    Reply

  21. Spencer Williams wrote on ::

    I have used Firefox, heck Netscape even, since the first Browser Wars and Mozilla is my dream company to work for. Firefox has always stood out as one of the browsers that was simply that: a browser, and did not compel you to participate in marketing or advertising. That is what I’ve always loved about Mozilla’s projects and the community. The direct engagement with individuals in order to improve the world and no ulterior motive of, say, total monopoly.

    When you throw advertisers into the mix, you slowly start to see your own philosophy inter-meshing with theirs, and before you know it, you’re targeting the dollar like they are very understandably prone to do, instead of the individual, which is what makes the Mozilla Corporation unique from many other companies.

    I’m not happy to see Mozilla go this route and I will certainly do what I can to eradicate sponsored content and data surreptitiously sent to third parties from what has long been our beloved haven from all of that.

    Reply

  22. Austin Hartzheim wrote on :

    Most of my concerns have already been mentioned in the comments above, but I hope to tie a few of the ideas together and make some suggestions about how to move forward.

    Putting users first:
    Advertising is, generally speaking, the enemy of a good user experience. And, with a community as diverse as the Firefox user base, choosing broadly appealing default tiles is a monumental task. Like many long-time Firefox users, I want to see Firefox succeed and have the funding to do so. But, there is many practical steps to be taken to avoid violating the high expectations that are set by the Mozilla community.

    I can understand why many people are concerned about what could conceivably become a wall of advertising. One way of limiting this reaction early on is to make a commitment to leave space for the user. For example, limit the number of sponsored tiles to the first row only. This has the effect of reducing the clutter that could occur if nine advertisers are competing for attention. Also, it emphasizes that there is still space left for the user (who will quickly notice their own sites filling in and eventually overtaking the advertising).

    Limiting the space to three sponsored tiles will also force a selection of higher-quality sites. The selection criteria should include a variety of factors such as commitment to privacy and user experience in addition to funding utility. An example of this is the Duck Duck Go search engine. While I do not know if they would be interested in sponsored placement (or if a contract with Google prohibits prominent display of another search engine), they are a viable, privacy-enhancing service that long-time Mozillians and new users would likely be able to accept as a sponsored tile. Also consider that a call to donate or other Mozilla-based tiles would be acceptable defaults.

    Maintaining privacy:
    My experiences with Mozilla products have shown that user privacy and security are held in high regard by the developers. Mozilla has a long tradition of putting users first where other browser vendors would have preferred profits. While I trust that whatever approach is taken will account for user privacy, I would like to remind you that there are people who have higher needs for privacy, especially in the global community.

    As Sam86 points out, there are users who are concerned about their internet traffic fingerprints, myself included. As a first step, there needs to be transparency about when the browser will be making network requests to download the tile information, what information will be sent, how the information will be encrypted/used/stored, and where the requests will be sent. Still, there needs to be action beyond the transparency in the form of an opt-out option during installation (or even better, opt-in). To have complete user control over privacy, it must be possible to deactivate the sponsored tiles before viewing them – before network requests are made to fetch the tiles. This is an option that Ubuntu is missing with its own advertising.

    Additional privacy concerns include the location where any network requests will be sent and how the thumbnails/tile images will be generated. Preferably these will be downloaded over an encrypted network request to Mozilla’s own servers. Even better, the images could be included in the installer so that there is no recurring network traffic to update the advertising. Also, there needs to be transparency about any click-tracking that will occur: how will it occur (a redirect? appending an identifier to the end of the URL?).

    Beware the backlash:
    As Robert Murphy pointed out, this has been done before. When Ubuntu began including Amazon results in its dash, there was an uproar in the community. I have refused to use any version of Ubuntu since the advertising was forced into the software. With the level of user objection and the uninfluenced decision to include the advertising anyway, those who abandoned Ubuntu were right to do so. Canonical showed that it would rather be a profitable dictator than an advocate for its users. This is where I expect Mozilla to be different – largely because it is beholden to its users not its pocketbook. You are already doing a decent job at responding to criticism openly, but I do not yet believe that this project will be abandoned if the community so desires.

    I should be clear that this proposal is drastically different from that of the advertising in Ubuntu and it is early enough to minimize the backlash. One of the main reasons is that the scope is much smaller. As I understand it, the sponsored tiles will be phased out over time (and if they are limited to a small number, as I proposed earlier, they actually add functionality to an otherwise barren portion of the Firefox interface). But, if the first public version goes to far by including distracting clutter, or subsequent releases creep in that direction for the sake of maximizing income (as Dee mentions, these schemes are apt to do so), the tolerable threshold will be crossed and the backlash will be experienced.

    Alternatives:
    I do have a few alternate suggestions of how to fill the “new tab” page that address many of the privacy concerns above.

    One option is to display a button labeled “Show suggested sites” that will load the sponsored tiles. Some testing would be required to find the best language to convey the idea that you can populate the list with sponsored websites to get started, but the opt-in nature is worthwhile as it would counter almost every objection because the user chooses to activate this feature.

    Another option is to make a few lists of suggested sites and have them be accessible through a menu on the left where the user can choose by category. For example, there could be categories of sponsored content for news, social networking, and entertainment, in addition to a section for the most visited websites. One of those lists will take the default position until the personalized suggestions have been generated for the most visited websites page. This interface idea was inspired by Firefox OS’s “What are you looking for” search box and app categories and could be a useful way to include apps in the browser as well.

    Final thoughts (with less organization):
    An opt-in user is a happy user. If the above concerns are addressed, I would happily support Mozilla by opting in to the suggested tiles. Other users might not be so generous, but that is why it is critical to maintain an open dialogue with the community to ensure that their concerns are being met.

    A diverse community is a difficult community to please. Many older Firefox users will not appreciate sponsored tiles from fad social networking websites. Likewise, younger users might not have developed an interest for news coverage. This community spans divisions that are far too numerous to capture with geoip lookups. This is the primary motivation behind my suggestion for a category-filtered “new tab” page.

    This is an interesting opportunity to show what privacy-preserving advertising looks like. Do Not Track was an interesting campaign, but it has thus far caused little change among the primary ad networks. This is a good time to show that advertising can function while preserving user privacy.

    Finally, whatever you decide to do, be transparent about it and listen to your users. As you have already seen, there is a lot of criticism of the sponsored tiles in general. Do not assume that you have a silent majority on your side (or that there is a silent majority who is apathetic about the entire issue of advertising).

    Reply

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