The Web Ads Question

Tim, in a recent blog post, has tackled a subject that touches a sensitive area of Web surfing: ads, and the ethical validity of blocking them. The issue is that an increasing number of Web surfers are taking advantage of ad blocking techniques. For Firefox and Seamonkey there is the well-known Ad Block Plus extension. Internet Explorer can do it with the inPrivate mode. And Konqueror can block ads, too. (And way before, we had Junkbusters). Suffice it to say, the issue of blocking Web ads is not recent.

This is an important question, because advertising is, in many cases, the sole source of revenue for webmasters of many informative and useful Web sites; and even if it is not, it is an important source of income that alleviates the cost of bandwith, equipment, and many other expenses involved in making available online content.

On the other hand, Web ads are clearly annoying to many; that’s why ad blockers are so popular today, and that’s also the reason why many less-than-reputable advertising networks are in a perennial arms race with ad blocking softare, with each one trying to outdo the other.

  1. And this points out the main reason why most people try to block ads: they are annoying, yes, written in bold letters. While the initial Web banner ad was generally nice, it began to be annoying because of the cheesy animations… and it has been downhill ever since. The size has changed —they are bigger— and ads became generally more and more and more annoying. We began to see ads in Flash, ads that incorporated sound, ads that broke HTML standards compliance, interstitials, and so on. We have now those stupid moving ads, blinking, appearing in pop-ups, flashing, and making noises. Don’t ever get me started on inappropriate ads, those of the NSFW kind, that too many times have appeared on supposedly safe sites.

  2. Another problem with the use of the ads is the ad networks. If ads were just a linked element from the same Web site offering the advertisement, that would not be a problem. However, they usually come from ad networks; and believe me, the enormous lag they add to navigation is, in some cases, unbearable. The pun that says that the World Wide Web became the World Wide Wait is the responsibility, in great part, of ad networks. Just think of it yourself. How many times have you stared to a blank page of a site, supposedly loading? You wait, and wait, and wait… that is, until you decide to enable ad blocking and them all of the site loads like a charm. The ad networks would like to serve ads in your site, right, but the performance of their servers is downright abysmal.

  3. Finally, another reason why so many people choose to block Web ads is privacy. By using cookies —third party cookies— Big Ad Network Brother is able to track your surfing habits; they can learn that you have browsed OverthrowGovernment.com as many times as you have browsed MyLocalNews.net. They can learn about your sex, your age, your preferences, and other information that can be potentially all linked back to you. This bulk of data is used to serve ads that are “relevant” to you (yeah, right), and also is sold to any interested party.

I really don’t know why is that the state of Web advertising became so terrible. People is fond of comparing online media to printed media; but you open a magazine and the ads down there don’t blink at you, or require extraneous plugins (Flash), or make annoying noises, nor make a scan of what you read and then phone home… you get my idea? And ad rates in printed mags are usually way higher than Web ads! that’s right: the advertisements pay much less in the Web for the latitude of being more invasive than ever.

Because of all these reasons, I have ad blockers available on all my graphical browsers. Note that I said “available”, not “enabled”. When a Webpage becomes too annoying, I enable ad blocking, and I can continue browsing with no problem at all. However, I recongnize that this is not a definitive solution.

Whan should we do when confronting this reality? Should we move to a “walled-garden” model (i.e., subscription model with no ads?). In my opinion, the walled-garden approach is never a good one. Under this approach, I think a Webmaster would stand a far lesser chance of making decent money from a Web site. In addition, the epic freedom of information and the global exchange of ideas would end, taking with it the chief reason why people surf the Web today. In extremis, the Web would implode and die.

We must recognize, then, that the only way that stands any chance of long-term feasibility is so far the persistence of Web advertising. However, if this alternative is to be fully realized without the widespread blocking of today, Web ads must evolve. They must load fast, should not impose an unreasonable load in system resources (such as is the case with Javascript-laden ads, heavy images, Flash or other plugins, etc.), should not be annoying, should be appropriate, and should be far more respectful of end-user privacy; and all of this, while representing solidly the message the advertiser wants to be delivered. But it looks like we are just too far behind on realizing this dream…

So, what should one do to cope with annoying help ads? Here is some advice taken from my personal experience.

  1. Block all plugins by default. Enable them on-demand only. Especially, do not forget to install the Flashblock extension in Firefox, and enable on-demand only loading in Konqueror. Really; Adobe Flash is the scourge of the Web and, besides YouTube, I did not see too many useful examples of it. However, there are valid exceptions and that’s why I am not advising its uninstallation. Keep it around, but restrained. In this way, you will block all annoying Flash-based ads, while still retaining the ability to use the technology when it is really appropriate. Do this with a clear conscience. I feel no pity for advertisers who feel that it is their right to abuse your system resources, annoy you with sound, or put you at risk from Flash malware just for the privilege of showing you an ad. If they want to show us an advertisement, let that be in plain HTML.

  2. Block third-party cookies. In this way, you prevent Big Brother advertisers from stealing your personal data while you still allow the parent site to set cookies that might be useful for site navigation.

  3. If the animations are becoming just too annoying, disable them. Firefox, if I remember correctly, has a setting where animations are allowed to cycle once and then stop. But Konqueror in this case is the best: animations are allowed; but there is always a right-click setting of “Stop animations”. In that way, animations are allowed until they become too annoying, and then they can be stopped on demand by a right-click.

  4. Finally, if all else fails, you may resort to ad-blocking; but remember, the Webmaster depends on the income of the ads to maintain the site. Consider leaving the site if you find the ads unbearable.

The issue of Web ads is really complex, as I have tried to show here. Let’s pray that the advertising industry —an industry known for its lack of values, their ruthlessness and their extreme greed— begin to use some common sense, and choose to behave.

2 responses

  1. I tend to think, on average, blocking of ads is less extensive than marketers’ complaints indicate. I’m not sure there is any way to measure it, since doing so is the same technology you discuss as worthy of blocking. I do know the majority of folks I help with their computers don’t even want to talk about it because they just don’t care.

    Broadly, it’s two entirely different kinds of people. Those of who care are a very poor audience for ads in the first place. We are skeptical and don’t buy into marketing baloney. Indeed, we tend to think if you have to promote it, whatever it is, it’s probably not worth having. Folks who don’t concern themselves with blocking ads are more likely to accept marketer’s claims, and will tend to be the majority for as long as there are humans.

  2. Eduardo, I think that sounds like the best thought out use of ad blocking I’ve ever read. In your case, you end up helping out those sites, like OFB, that don’t run the really annoying ads. I’ve always made a concerted effort to avoid so-called extreme animation and the like on my sites.

    And, certainly, disabling all Flash from loading works well, because you’re blocking the good and the bad.

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