Intrusive ads can be infuriating in the online age, but could avoiding them damage your favourite sites? Rob Leane did some diggingAny user of the internet will tell you that adverts can cause sizeable annoyances. In-your-face pop-ups, noisy trailers and splash-pages that keep you from the content you’re looking for are among the most headache-inducing intricacies of the surfing the web. For those whose jobs involve flicking between articles or researching topics online, indiscrete promotions can be a hurdle in the way of getting the job done, and can cause rages in the best of us..
Is it such as surprise, then, that since web browsers gave techsavvy types the opportunity to build their own software and alter the online experience (plug-ins, they’re called), removing the ads was one of the first ideas to find big success? Not particularly, and the popularity of such projects speaks volumes of the widespread irritation at unwelcome publicity campaigns. If so many people elect to ditch the adverts, something must be wrong with the experience, surely?
The team behind Adblock Plus certainly agree with that statement. The free-to-download content-filtering extension has been knocking around since 2006, and Michael McDonald’s original AdBlock (which ABP forked off from), dates back even further. Under Wladimir Palant’s direction (McDonald transferred the company name to Palant in 2006), the Cologne-based company has gone from strength to strength. Initially, banishing adverts from Firefox was the main target, but the plug-in has expanded in availability to include Google Chrome, Internet Explorer, Apple’s Safari and even Yandex in the last five years..
The success of the plug-in – which is funded by donations – has been phenomenal; “we have over 60m active users worldwide,” ABP’s Operations and Communications Manager Ben Williams told Micro Mart. “The extension has been downloaded over 350m times. In the UK we have about 2m active users, which translates to about 3.5% of the online population there.”In truth, this sizeable growth hasn’t even come as a huge surprise. Said Williams:“Why wouldn’t you download a free app that can get rid of annoying ads anywhere on the Internet, thwart tracking and help you maintain your online privacy?”Initially, it’s hard to argue with the idea. Doesn’t the internet user have the right to pick and choose what they see online, after all? “Yes, I think every user has that right, and I don’t think it’s a recent idea,” Williams replied. “Rather, sovereignty of screen goes back to the Internet’s beginnings in the 90s. As control waned developers made solutions that got the Internet back closer to where it started. But back then they and other techies were the only ones who knew about these tools.”“That’s changed. As ad revenues declined, advertisers increased the number of ads as well as their annoyance level. This led more people to seek out tools like Adblock Plus to regain control… and/or sanity.”The fact that internet frequenters have downloaded – and continue to use – Adblock Plus in their droves tells us that this attempt to regain control and sanity has been particularly well received. But everyone hasn’t been able to agree on that..
Advertising income has held up the journalistic world since time immemorial. You’ve probably never picked up a newspaper, magazine or even a theatre programme that hasn’t included a few adverts to keep those involved paid for their work, and to cover the costs of printing and distribution. That hasn’t changed in the modern age, with the rise of online ads benefitting the websites that need to pay their staff for content..
The only difference is, whereas with a newspaper an advert was normally just a handy spot to rest your cup of tea, online adverts can actually be removed with software like Adblock Plus. Ignore an advert in a paper? No problem, everyone still gets paid. Remove ads from a website? Not as cool, considering that ad revenue these days is based on how many times an advert actually gets seen, not the mere fact that it is online for however many days..
Gary Rayneau, the Deputy Managing Director of Advertising at our home company, Dennis Publishing, described advertising income as “imperative” to running Dennis websites. “Advertising is the sole revenue stream for the vast majority of Dennis sites,” Rayneau added.“We have a duty to our readers to produce quality and free to access content, we also have a duty to fund this content through advertising that is appropriate for the particular site,” he elaborated. “In turn, we also have a duty to our advertisers to offer effective solutions – and rightly so given they fund the site and pay our wages.”It’s beginning to look like a Catch-22 situation, then: publishers and websites need adverts to survive, and a decent chunk of us web users don’t want to see them. How much of an effect would it have if a regular visitor to a Dennis site (let’s say, someone who visits our stable-mates at Den Of Geek five times a day) blocked all adverts using a service like AdBlock Plus?Rayneau’s approximation was that “on a micro level, if one person installed an ad-blocker, across their lifetime of activity on our sites you could definitely estimate that would be enough revenue to pay for a freelance feature [meaning a freelance article, like this one]. On a more macro scale, if 25% of our readers installed an ad-blocker the site would very quickly become untenable without cutbacks.”“If too many readers blocked ads,” Rayneau summarised, “there would be a number of affects; the quality of the journalism, photography and production would vastly drop, the site may become subscription/fee based, users who didn’t block ads would potentially be served more ads to take the strain of the costs, and the likelihood is the site would cease to exist.”That’s scary information to hear if you’re someone who visits a lot of websites (or indeed, someone who gets paid by websites). As Adblock Plus and other similar services continue to grow, it sounds like our favourite websites could suffer, unless a happy medium is found..
At Empire Online, the website version of the popular film magazine (which is housed at Bauer Media), the same strains are felt. Empire Online is “predominantly ad-funded,” said Empire’s Online Editor James Dyer, so advertising revenue is “very important” to the upkeep of the site.“Ad blockers let you cheat the system and essentially both have your digital cake and eat it,” Dyer added. “It’s not hard to see the appeal, but if everyone did it then a lot of sites would probably disappear, and the end user would suffer in the long run.”“Ultimately ads are extremely annoying, often intrusive and slow down page loading,” Dyer admitted. “When ads are unobtrusive, and have no negative impact on performance while in no way obfuscating the consumption of editorial, then they’re fine, but this is rarely the case.”“If I had my way we’d have NO obtrusive, content blocking ads and no unstoppable pre-rolls either,” he added. “Anything that interferes with the consumption of content is a negative, frustrating experience for readers and can only reflect poorly on the reader’s perception of the advertiser in question.”Suggesting the potential source of the problem, Dyer added that “sadly, advertisers don’t see it that way and would rather pay big money for ‘high impact’ (read: extremely intrusive) creative ads that frustrate users. I understand that subtle display formats are largely tuned-out by users, but the negative impact of frustrating them is surely even more problematic.”All across the board, then, it sounds like the growth of ad-blocking is a cause for concern among websites, publishers and editors. Should usage of Adblock Plus grow significantly further than that ‘3.5% of the UK’ statistic, it feels, based on these interview quotes, that the consequences could come thick and fast. Did Mr Dyer tap into something with his comment about unobtrusive ads, though?It’s something that the team behind Adblock Plus has been working on. When asked about the concerns that their service could be damaging to websites and small businesses, ABP’s Ben Williams explained that “they’re the reason we started our Acceptable Ads initiative.”This initiative allows websites to ask for their non-obtrusive advertising content to be white-listed and shown to users of AdBlock Plus who have opted to support the scheme, as long as said advertising content meets some prerequisite conditions..
These stipulations (which are, admittedly, a work in progress) include: ‘static advertisements only,’ ‘preferably text only, no attention grabbing images,’ ‘ads should never obscure page content (e.g. require users to click a button to close the ad before viewing the page)’ and ‘advertising should be clearly marked as such with the word “advertising” or its equivalent,’ among other requests.“Increased ad-blocking was threatening websites, and we set out to find a way we could help curtail this threat,” Williams explained. “The result is our initiative, which lets website owners apply to have some or all of their ads whitelisted if they meet the aforementioned criteria. So far the initiative has produced lots of happy websites with acceptable ads and users who can turn off the feature if they dislike it.”This is certainly a start, and marks a significant and impressive compromise on the part of Adblock Plus. Additionally, some particularly sharp webmasters of the world have found ways to detect the use of Adblock Plus and put up a message in place of the ads explaining how integral their advertising income is and asking users to reconsider blocking them..
Arguably, neither option is perfect, and as Empire’s James Dyer pointed out, advertisers are willing to pay more for the obtrusive options, for fear of being phased-out by website visitors. Adblock Plus users can also choose to opt out of the Acceptable Ads initiative anyway. Resultantly, websites are still missing out on some income, which (as Dennis Publishing’s Gary Rayneau pointed out) could cause real problems over a user’s lifetime usage of a site..
It’s worth considering that websites that may attract advertisers of films, television programmes, tech products or books probably rely almost entirely on image-based adverts, which would make them partially illegible for Adblock Plus’ Acceptable Ads initiative. This initiative may not be the perfect solution, then, but it’s impossible to argue that it’s not a step in the right direction..
More so than newspapers or magazines, the online world is a discursive realm, where users can react to parts they don’t like by blocking them outright, regardless of the consequences the offending website may eventually face. The result is a conversational state between websites, advertisers and users. It’s a far more democratic system than printed media, but hopefully a happy compromise will eventually be found. After all, it benefits everyone (advertisers included) if the internet works in as smoothly and userfriendly a manner as possible.