"Ad blockers: A solution or a problem?" - an example of what is wrong with adverts

Section: Articles

Note 1: This post was originally posted to Tumblr.

Note 2: Ironically, I originally linked to the print version of the ComputerWorld article, but later found the link was broken. The reason? Computer World have removed print view so that they can spread the article over four pages to push more ad views into the space of a single article!

In January 2015 I read an article from ComputerWorld titled "Ad blockers: A solution or a problem?". As ComputerWorld are an online magazine who run many adverts on their pages then they have an obvious bias. As such, this article seems to have been written as an "oh dear, think of the publishers" piece. As a Netizen who enjoys the benefits of AdBlock Plus and Ghostery, and who even has AdBlock Plus on his Android phone, I saw the other side of the article.

The following are a selection of choice quotes from the article, along with my interpretation and response.

Ad blockers can make websites cleaner and faster for users, but they can also take a nasty bite out of advertising revenue. How popular are they, and what can site publishers do about them?

Working with them and not annoying your visitors/users/customers so that they feel they need them would seem to be a start.

"Do you see larger ads, or sponsored ads today that take over the entire page for three seconds? Absolutely. But they're not the spammy, irrelevant messages that most of us think of from five years ago."

Define "irrelevant". If I want to read an article about some new discovery then my intent isn't to sign up to your magazine. One interesting article does not a subscription-worthy publication make. Hitting me with a 5s "interstitial ad" delay for your subscription is irrelevant, intrusive and annoying. It gets blocked because you don't understand your visitors.

"You have a third party disrupting a business transaction. They are throwing a monkey wrench into the economic engine that's driving the growth of the Internet," the IAB's Zaneis says.

Which business transaction? If the business transaction is selling my eyeballs then shouldn't I have a say in whether it gets blocked or not?

Also, if advertising is the engine powering the growth of the Internet then I'm concerned about the future Internet. It sounds like it'll end up as an undesirable dystopia where the focus is on how much you can sell a visitor for and how much you can convince a user to give you private information to trade in, rather than one where there are benefits to the user.

"Ad blockers block our internal analytics, so we're being hindered in understanding what our readers find interesting."

Because looking at your web server logs, which show what people ACTUALLY requested, regardless of whether they're running JavaScript or not, is just too hard.

"Ads must be static — no animations or blinking banners, they must be separated from content and clearly marked as ads," [AdBlock Plus] says.

That's not viable, says Rob Beeler, vice president of content and media at AdMonsters LLC, a research and consulting firm that serves advertising professionals. "It's technically possible to adhere to their guidelines, but the CPMs [cost per impression] I would be able to get would be so low that it probably isn't worth it to most publishers."

So the only way to make good money is to con people into thinking adverts aren't adverts? Well, that's a nice confession from the ad businesses!

In fact, he doubts that most publishers can afford to take "such extreme measures" as abiding by the conditions of Adblock Plus' program, especially when the digital advertising market has been moving toward high production quality ads with rich text and digital video.

Read: "the digital advertising market has been moving toward annoying adverts that are more and more like the crap you have to put up with on your TV (unless you record it and fast-forward it on a PVR, or watch a channel like the BBC in the UK)

ClarityRaytakes a more active role. Like PageFair, it provides a tool that lets publishers monitor blocking activity to show them that they have a problem — and then sells them a remedy. ClarityRay offers a service that CEO Ido Yablonka says fools ad blockers into allowing ads through. "Ad blockers try to make a distinction between content elements and advertorial elements. We make that distinction impossible," he says.

Well, that seems like a good marker of which sites to avoid!

As one would expect, Yablonka is a vocal advocate for the publishers who are his potential customers. "Content owners should have final control over the page," he says.

WTF NO! What planet is this person on? Content owners have final control over what they send to viewers, but viewers can then choose how they view it. Magazines can't stop me skipping pages full of adverts, or folding those parts of the page down, or generally ignoring the adverts, so why is online any different? I own the browser and the monitor, and I pay for my end of the Internet connection, so I have the final say in what I see (if I have the technological means).

Alan Chapell, president of consumer privacy law firm Chapell & Associates, says the rise of ad blockers has created a tug-of-war between publishers and ad blocking product developers, with users in the middle. "There's confusion around who owns the user," he says.

And this is the crux of the problem. No-one "owns" the user, other than the user themselves. Any thinking on those lines underlines where the problem is. We're people to be interacted with and engaged with, not items to be bought and sold.

Once consumers decide to block ads and experience the cleaner Web pages and faster load times that ad blocking delivers as it filters out bandwidth-hungry animations, video and other advertising content, they're less likely to want to give it up.

And this is the crux of improving things. Keep it fast, keep it clean, and keep it beneficial and people won't mind. Stick with the old-fashioned "we must be in the middle of stuff, getting in people's way so that we're seen" and you'll be discarded as a relic of a bygone age. Actively work around whatever people do to prevent you being annoying and you're only more annoying, so you'll lose the very people that you want to profit from. How can any sane businessman believe that is a good plan?

Disclosure: I run a website. In fact, I run several websites. They're run from a VPS (a Virtual Private Server*), not just a cheap $5pcm "shared hosting" account. I don't run ads. I've vowed never to run ads. I want the content to be online, so I'll pay for it. If it becomes really popular and expensive then I'll find non-intrusive ways to raise the money.

Disclosure 2: I do have two affiliate links I use on my site, which are only ever used in context**. I also have Amazon links that have never earnt me a penny - probably because I didn't push them too hard and they're on rarely visited pages of my site. I'm happy with the idea of affiliate links and other ways of "monetizing" websites, as long as they don't bias the content.

* renting an entire physical server in a rack, only it is virtual rather than physical

** One for my web host, which is used when I mention our host, and one for a wargaming store that offers great discounts, which is mentioned in an article on getting great deals on Games Workshop models.