Why I'm Not Running an Ad Blocker

Nobody I know likes web ads. Sure, there may be the occasional one that draws in your interest and entices you to click, but on the whole people don't get all lovey-dovey about those gaudy flashing rectangles that hint at salvation from the multitude of modern ills.

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Ads serve an important purpose though: They bring content to your screen without the need to put your hand into your virtual pocket and part with your cash. Ads allow website owners to earn money for their content, to leave their day jobs and focus on even better content, benefitting the internet as a whole. My sites all run ads, and with the income from them I no longer have to go work for The Man. Instead I can spend time improving my websites, improving the user experience, making sure things don't break and so on.

So you've probably guessed that I am very much in favour of web advertising. I confess I installed AdBlock back in the day and was very pleased with it, then moved on to uBlock when AdBlock started causing issues with larger pages, but recently I've disabled the uBlock extension in Chrome and will only be using it to block sites that truly piss me off. Why? Because blanket ad blocking is wrong and will limit content on the Internet.

In Defence of Ads

When you go to a website that uses ads for funding, you are looking at and using someone else's work. The ads are a part of that work, part of the design even. You might argue that it's your bandwidth and your processor cycles being used up by the website and its ads, but the fact remains that you chose to click that link in Google's results, or type that web address into your browser because you wanted that content.

To then block the ads on that site by default, never giving the owner the chance to present them to you, basically says that you're going to take this content without rewarding the owner. At best you're a leech, no different from the type who sit in a coffee shop all day using free wifi. You might claim "I don't click on ads anyway", but how do you know this if you never see the ads? You don't - you're making blanket claims and not backing them up.

So the next argument is [the sites] should move to a subscription model. That's certainly a possibility, but how many sites do you, the reader, actually subscribe to (with actual money - just being a member doesn't count) in order to access? I'm willing to guess that the answer for a lot of people is very close to zero. In the UK, newspapers are exprimenting with Paywalls and the general consensus is that it's not working - casual visitors just don't want to part with money unless it's abstracted away in the form of fractionally higher prices on the things they buy.

People will spend £3 on a drink in Starbucks every day but look for ways around paying £0.79 for an app on their phone. Is it because the drink is tangible? Is it a status thing? Either way, a revenue model is needed for those casual customers who won't pony up the cash. Ads fill this demand quite nicely.

As a web developer, the main issue I have with the various ad-blocking titles is that they are on by default, blocking everything from the word go. Once users get into this mindset of never seeing ads, there's absolutely zero incentive to switch the ads on again. It doesn't matter how unintrusive advertising becomes, users don't see it and have no opinion on it. Something needs to change.

A New Kind of Ad Blocker

A discussion with a couple of equally dodgy geezers recently spawned a few thoughts about how ad blocking software should really work. Being on the ad publishing side gives us insights into how things should be done.

Off by Default:
No ads or websites should be blocked by default, otherwise site owners will simply seek to block users of ad blocking software or limit content for those users. If you block all ads, there's no incentive for the site owner to improve things, only to retailiate. The MO of the ad blockers should be "allow, with the power to block" rather than "block, with the option to whitelist".

Minimal Interference:
It should only take a couple of clicks to block the ads and reload the page. Click once on the browser extension and once on "Block and Reload". Job done. By the same measure, software or extensions should not have to maintain lists of ad companies and their domains, code etc. Just work with the sites that use the ads, not the ads themselves.

No Permanent Block
When you block ads from loading on a site, you need to give the owner an incentive to clean up their act. A temporary block (one week, one month) does exactly this without the user having to remove the ads every single time. After the block expires, the ads reappear and if they're still excessive they can be blocked for another month. When the ads are less annoying, people will allow them.

Webmaster Feedback
It's imperitive that the owners of sites see the damage that their rogue ads cause. Every time a page is sent to the block list, the URL of the page should be fed back to a reporting page where anyone can check the status of a site or domain and where the worst offenders are highlighted. No webmaster will be inspired to clean up their own act without hard figures on how many people are blocking their ads.

I fear, though, that the genie is already out of the bottle. Users of the blanket ad blockers will see no incentive to change their software, because why would you go back to seeing ads if you didn't have to? Similarly, none of the writers of ad blockers would be willing to change how their software works since they are already heavily invested in their current business models. Finally, site owners will see no incentive to clean up their ads for the same reasons, and will instead move to penalising the users. Round and round it goes.

Long term I see sites trying the subscription model, but I'm sure more and more will return to advertising when people won't pay. After that it's back to blocking the blockers.


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