On ad blocking

Nilay Patel has a piece at the Verge on the availability of ad blocking plugins for the web browser in the new version of iOS.  She has an interesting theory of what motivated Apple to allow ad blocking, that it was essentially to attack Google’s revenue model.  But the overall piece seems to take the attitude that ad blocking will be the death of the web.

I currently run ad blocking on my desktop and laptop computers, and I plan to run it on my iPad and iPhone when it’s available there.  I don’t run ad blocking because I’m ideologically opposed to seeing ads.  On the contrary, I actually resisted doing it for a long time.  As a consumer of web content, I’m fully aware that a lot of it is expensive to either produce or host.  I have no trouble with web sites finding ways to make money, particularly when it allows me to read their stuff for free.  If I enjoy their content, seeing ads seems like a reasonable exchange.

The problem is that too many sites allow the ad producers to run rampant.  While I don’t mind seeing ads, I despise having them pop up randomly, hogging the display for a predetermined amount of time before I can move past them, taking up a large chunk of the screen real estate including sticking around as I scroll, autoplaying videos, and other invasive techniques.

None of these things make it any more likely that I’m going to buy the advertiser’s products or services.  What they do is piss me off at the advertising company and make the host site far less appealing.

While I know not all advertisers do these things, enough do that I finally felt it necessary to block ads.  I do periodically check and whitelist sites whose ads aren’t obnoxious.  For example, I have no problem with Google’s targeted text ads, as long as they’re marked appropriately.  And I firmly believe in rewarding a site that keeps its advertisers under control.

I suspect my attitudes on this aren’t that unusual.  For years, we all read magazines where half the pages were advertisements.  We usually passed over the ads unless one of them caught our eye, generally because they were advertising a product or service we might find interesting.  This paradigm worked for both readers and advertisers.  When it’s carried over to the web, I think it still works.  Until advertisers get greedy, and push people into blocking them.

So, will ad blocking destroy the web?  I don’t know.  It might make a lot of commercial sites economically untenable.  But it didn’t have to be so.  It still doesn’t have to be so.  If advertisers enforced some kind of reasonable standard that kept a lid on their invasiveness, and that standard was done in such a way that ad blocking packages could provide an option for users to whitelist those who adhered to it, it might be a win for everyone.

(There’d have to be a mechanism for reporting cheaters.  And, of course, some people are ideologically opposed to seeing ads, the economics be damned, but I’m not sure just how much of the population they make up.)

What I’m pretty sure won’t work is blaming ad blocking readers, as some sites occasionally do.  A better approach might be to appeal to them to try whitelisting their site, with a promise that they’ll keep advertisements under control.

20 thoughts on “On ad blocking

  1. Hurray for ad blockers! I wouldn’t need one if ads weren’t excessive, obtrusive, and so ubiquitous that they slowed down page loads. I mean seriously, it’s gotten to the point that the content of many web sites IS ads, and the “real content” that we went for seems an afterthought.

    It’s all about grabbing the user’s attention. The web gave advertisers unprecedented means to force themselves on users, so how could they resist? Just be thankful that the iSmell failed, or we may have found advertisers forcing scents on us, as Dunkin Donuts did in South Korea:


    Liked by 1 person

    1. Totally agree about some web sites being more ads than content.

      I do occasionally get sales flyers scented with perfume or cologne. So advertisers do use smells when they think it’s worth the cost.

      I once worked in food service. Decades ago, restaurants and cafeterias had architectural designs to keep smells from leaving the building, until someone woke up and realized what they were doing. Now, just about every food place pipes as much of their food aroma out as possible to entice customers.

      Of course, if you don’t like the smell of what they’re offering, you won’t be happy when you drive or walk by. (This often occurs for me near seafood places.) I also know I don’t like smelling that stuff when I’m on a diet. I would definitely consider it intrusive to have it imposed on me in a train, where I couldn’t get away from it.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Speaking as the owner of a web-based business which is dependent on adverts of one kind or another, I have a vested interest in users not blocking ads. However, I have a number of observations.
    Firstly, I completely sympathise with your annoyance at sites that are simply vehicles for intrusive ads. There are a lot of those, and they include some of the biggest sites on the web. That’s a problem. It’s a big problem, as it creates a desire for ad blockers, which in turn threatens the business model of all sites supported by advertising.
    However, iOS is irrelevant to most advertisers. It is incredibly difficult to monetise mobile users in any meaningful way. In my case, we don’t even attempt to display adverts to mobile users on our site, so for us the iOS block is irrelevant.
    But a more general blocking of ads would damage my revenue stream and my business. It would also kill Google’s main income stream. It would in fact kill the internet as we know it, if ad blocking became the norm. The fact that the main web browser, Chrome, is owned by Google, suggests that this won’t be allowed to happen.
    But there are ads and there are ads. I have always used ads that are a lot more subtle than many in the industry. They are mostly text adverts. My aim is to make them useful to readers, as well as revenue-generating. I find that these two factors align perfectly. Most websites seem to have no understanding of how to “do” ads, in my opinion.
    Since Google largely controls all web advertising, it’s really up to Google to exercise control over the kinds of adverts that are displayed. Perhaps this is a wake up call for Google to ban pop-ups, pop-unders, pop-overs, autoplays, etc. Responsible sites (like mine) have never used such ads, as they are so obviously detrimental to user experience.
    Finally, you may not be aware of this as an end-user, but Google adverts are terribly poorly targeted. Even though I read continuously that Google knows everything about our private lives and can serve ads that are uncannily targeted, I find that the reality is rather different. I have spoken to Google reps about this, only to be greeted by indifference and shrugs. There is actually a huge gap in the market for an enterprising ad company to serve useful ads to users. Yahoo used to do this rather well, but stopped a couple of years ago for reasons I could never discover.
    In short, I share your frustrations, and hope for a better solution. One thing I have learned from running internet businesses for nearly 20 years is that the internet always changes, and it usually changes very rapidly in ways no one expects.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Good points Steve. It’s worth noting that iOS includes iPad users, who usually see the regular desktop version of the site. Indeed, it’s on the iPad that I’ve found the lack of ad block the most painful, sometimes holding off reading something on an ad swamped page until I could get to my laptop.

      That’s surprise about Google. A while back, I helped someone get set up with a Google ad account, and was surprised by how much more customer friendly Google was in that context. It was evident who their real customers are. We constructed an ad and were able to specify which terms it should appear next to. It worked. Her site traffic increased, but it was expensive.

      You run a web business? What’s the URL? I’m curious. (No worries if you prefer to keep your WordPress and business life separate.)

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I despise advertising and would be delighted if sophisticated ad blocking chased away all those trying to make money off the interweb. Then it could return to its roots as a way for people to share information, especially technical information.

    Wikipedia — arguably one of the best sites on the net — survives wonderfully through volunteers and donations. And I’d pay to subscribe to a site that provided ad-free content that I valued.

    Simply put, if what you’re offering isn’t interesting enough to charge subscribers or energize volunteers — if the only way you can make money is through advertising — then, in my book, you don’t deserve a business and if I had anything to do with it would be run out of town tarred and feathered.

    I really, really, REALLY hate advertising. I would gladly see an internet without it.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Yep, agreed. I’m totally hard line when it comes to advertising. I’m generally bitterly opposed to the whole love of money thing, and see it as something of a moral issue.

        A part of the problem is that advertising so often tries to generate needs that don’t exist. Another is the lies and misdirection. And then there’s the obnoxiousness as they try to grab your attention. I despise it all. It’s a level of falseness in pursuit of money, money, money that utterly revolts me. I live in a world so besotted with materialism that companies who project 17% growth and only achieve 12% consider it a 5% loss. Money makes people insane. It’s made the world I have to live in insane, and I hate it.

        If I need something, I go looking for it. I don’t need people pounding on my “door” going “Hey look at me!”

        So, yeah, totally: Death to advertising and commercialism on the web!

        Liked by 2 people

      2. Oh, BTW… I bought the WordPress upgrade in large part to have an ad-free blog for my readers. I’m so opposed to ads I’ll pay so my readers don’t have to put up with them. And I’ve run a personal website since the mid-1990s that is (and always will be) ad-free.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I agree on the WordPress thing. I bought the upgrade for that as well, and for the custom hostname and design. Although I have nothing against others who stay with the free package and the ads. Many can’t afford the cost.

          I agree that the manipulativeness of marketers is distasteful. But I know small business people who honestly get the word out on their services through advertising. They’re not discoverable until people know about them, and they’re not known until they do the advertising. People always say do social media instead, but by itself that only works if people already know about you.


          1. There is honest advertising, and if that were the limit, I’d be okay (but just okay) with it. One of the best billboard ads I ever saw was just black type on a white background (might have had a product picture). It read: “If you smoke, try Carltons.”

            That’s honest advertising, and I always respected the ad (if not the product 🙂 ).

            The thing is, 99.99% (at least) of all ads are just noise to me, so I’m opposed to the idea in general.

            There are sites devoted to connecting people with services they actually are seeking. My vote would be for those. Getting in my face when I don’t need you just makes me resolve to go elsewhere.

            Quite frankly, if more people had my hard line attitude, we wouldn’t have all the crap advertising we do.


          2. Heh, yeah. I have friends in the industry, so… I know!

            He’s right that single ads don’t really manipulate, let alone control, but the entire body of that industry does. Media in general manipulates us (or influences; close to the same thing in my book).

            I would dispute his assertion that advertising and marketing drive the economy and industry. Well, it does: The advertising and marketing industries. But industry and economy pre-date advertising (at least as it’s done today).

            He didn’t mention my “favorite” brand of puffery: “No other brand does it better!” Yeah, and no other brand does it worse either.

            As I said, I’m fine with simple, honest advertising that doesn’t bust a gut trying to get my attention. The problem is that most of it isn’t that way.

            Even the subtle, legal ways of lying by omission or misdirection are still lies in my book and all the worse for being so sneaky. If your product really is better, just tell the simple plain truth.


  4. I read a piece that said if it became too bad, they could move towards more Native Advertising and ads done with the site’s own javascript, which would be much harder to block. Although truth be told, I’d be fine if AdBlockers made the “free”-with-advertising business model untenable in favor of ones with Patreon-style setups, crowdsourcing, subscriptions, and microtransactions. “Free”-with-advertising lets a lot of bad sites thrive.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. A lot of content providers are moving to subscription models: NY Times, Wall Street Journal, etc. I think the problem they’re encountering is that there’s almost always a free alternative to get the same information. At most, they might have a day head start on it. Still, that might be where the web overall is headed, at least the commercial segments of it.

      On Patreon and crowdsourcing, my father published shareware software in the 80s and 90s. Shareware was an arrangement where you got the software for free, then if you found it useful, you were supposed to pay for it. Lamentably, the ratio of paying customers to overall users was always miniscule. Given that experience, I can understand why most businesses are skeptical of voluntary payment systems.


  5. The maker of Peace, a bestselling ad blocker for iPhones, has pulled the app just days after its launch saying the app’s success “‘just doesn’t feel good. Ad blockers come with an important asterisk: while they do benefit a ton of people in major ways, they also hurt some, including many who don’t deserve the hit. Peace required that all ads be treated the same – all-or-nothing enforcement for decisions that aren’t black and white … If we’re going to effect positive change overall, a more nuanced, complex approach is required than what I can bring in a simple iOS app.”

    Source: http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2015/sep/18/peace-app-ad-blocker-pulled-marco-arment-iphone-ios-9


    1. “…while they do benefit a ton of people in major ways, they also hurt some, including many who don’t deserve the hit.”

      Majority rule. The “ton of people in major ways” totally trumps the “many” trying to get into my wallet.

      Death to web ads!

      Liked by 1 person

    2. That’s interesting. Thanks Hariod. I suspect the conspiracy theorists are already in motion on that one.

      I actually wish ad blocking plugins would let me allow ads by default and then only block them on the sites I specify. It would be a good compromise between eliminating them entirely and putting up with the obnoxious invasive ones.

      Liked by 1 person

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