Philippe Masset

Engineer at Buffer.

We need ads

August 2013

AdBlock logo

Ad-blocking

I'm a lifelong user of AdBlock, the same organization that recently launched a crowdfunding campaign to get rid of ads.

First a real life-saver on websites that were literally half ads, half content, AdBlock has become a source of comfort when browsing the web. No more ads, just plain old content.

Even if the website I was visiting made a clever use of ads, making them not-too-unbearable, they were still hardly adding any value to what I was seeing; so enabling AdBlock on every website didn't look like a bad decision at all. Moreover, what's one less impression among several millions every day?

And even though I'm running websites myself, some with ads, I've never been really compelled to stop using AdBlock on the whole web.

I've seen the online news outlets and magazines cringing about the use of AdBlock – and I've seen my own advertising statistics slowly decrease – but at no moment I thought about leaving no-ads-land.

It's only today, when reading the AdBlock campaign's headline, that I finally realized something wasn't right.

7 in 10 Internet users still see ads.
Help us tell the world about AdBlock.

Only three tenth of Internet users have ad-blocking software installed, and it's already so bad for publishers?

Not only that, but while most ad-blocking horror stories talk about publishers and lost revenue, advertisers could also get hurt by this ads blockade.

And I'm not only talking about online advertising agencies/platforms like Google Adwords – every single business, large or small, will too suffer from the inability to deliver ads to people on the web.

Replacing ads

Knowing that we've used advertising, whatever the form and medium, since the beginning of times to be able to communicate with people as businesses, it's no surprise that the aforementioned businesses will have a hard time surviving without advertising.

Thus, if online advertising was to disappear, businesses would have to use other online marketing techniques. That could mean blogging, email marketing, or more subtle ploys such as sponsored stories, which are already being used by Facebook and Twitter.

Sponsored stories make sense as a marketing trick, but when regular ads will be forbidden from the web due to the massive use of ad-blockers, marketing material will have to be subtler and sneakier than sponsored stories – and that'd be immensely worse than regular ads.

So here, let's say it: ads are a necessary evil.

There's currently not enough alternative forms of online marketing, and there's just too much demand for even thinking about dismissing online advertising.

AdBlock, even if intended in a humorous way, believe so themselves:

We're going to use ads to get rid of ads.

They'll basically be using the very same thing they're trying to get rid of in order to share something with the world.

Ad-filtering

Since ads are useful, they shouldn't have to be all blocked. But seeing that there are publishers and advertisers out there who couldn't give a damn about their users' experience or privacy, some definitely should.

So, if every Internet user is going to use software to make his online experience better, it shouldn't be ad-blocking software. It should be ad-filtering software.

Since ad-blockers' goal has always been to make the web a better place, I don't get why they weren't filtering ads from the start, instead of plainly blocking everything that looked like one.

Some will argue these pieces of software already offer filters and exceptions to allow ads on certain sites and pages. But these features are opt-in, and everybody knows that apart from power users, very few people use them. Most users install the extension, take advantage of its block-everything-policy, and forget about it.

Filtering out the annoying ads – and only them – is the solution, but easier said than done.

Adblock Plus, another ad-blocking browser extension, offers just that: ad-filtering. Even though there's been a recent outcry about Adblock Plus taking money from large corporations during the white-listing process in which they decide which ads are acceptable to be shown to their users, the "acceptable ads" feature itself looks like an elegant solution to a complex problem.

But money can't be a factor in which ads are considered acceptable, and which are not. I'm not saying that's what Adblock Plus is doing, but that the whole process has to be more transparent. You can't be the gatekeeper of online advertising if you're not at least a bit immune to big money.

Finding a solution

There are two sides in the current online advertising madness: publishers and advertisers alike on the first side, and users on the other. But none of these two sides can really do something about getting the web rid of intrusive ads.

Advertisers and publishers

Advertisers need to share something with people, and publishers make that possible through their websites. In between, advertising agencies allow these entities to connect, and set ground rules for their relationship.

Sometimes though, publishers are more focused on revenue than good practices. And because some advertising agencies don't care, and the others can't closely monitor every one of their customers to spot malicious ones, the publishers-and-advertisers side can't be fully trusted.

At no point in time will we be able to trust that every single ad on the web and the way it is arranged don't denature a website or harm its user-experience.

Users

Most users don't necessarily hate ads, but they care about having a decent browsing experience.

In an Adblock Plus user survey from 2011, 71.3% of respondents said they wouldn't mind allowing ads if there were "no annoyances (animations, sounds, flashy colors)".

If the burden of filtering out annoying ads (and only them) was on users, they'd have to use today's ad-blockers, modified so as to reverse their whole behavior: instead of blocking all ads and whitelisting some, displaying all ads but blacklisting some.

Put too many ads on your site, or show annoying ones, and you'll end up in their blacklist.

Users filtering ads when they feel they're abusive is ideal in that it's a very subjective matter. But it's also a tremendously time-consuming endeavor, and would require every Internet user to fall prey to abusive websites once before having a chance to filter their ads out.

Gatekeeping

If neither publishers nor users are going to help getting rid of intrusive ads, someone else will have to. Another entity, strategically positioned between publishers' websites and their users, will have to filter out abusive ads.

I'm unsure how such a gatekeeper would have to take form. A non-profit? A community of developers and concerned users?

Either way, this entity would have to behave according to some principles in order for everybody to trust it with such a responsibility:

  • Transparency: The software involved (probably a browser extension) should be open-source, and all decisions to (dis)allow some ads should be publicly available. Such a list should also be open and available in machine-readable formats.
  • Trustworthiness: Money should have no saying in decisions about the software or the list of filtered ads, and all situations that could lead to conflict of interest should be avoided.
  • Democracy: A centralized list of ads to filter means users won't have to do that tedious job themselves. However, they should be able to participate in every software- and list-related decision. Crowd-voting, crowd-thinking... everyone's voice has to be heard and account for something.

It would also have to take over currently well-established ad-blocking software. The first step in that direction would be to educate their users into realizing that unobtrusive ads needn't be blocked.

In the previously mentioned survey, 45% of participants said they were already allowing ads on at least some of their favorite websites. At the same time, 53.4% are more or less convinced that "all websites should provide their content for free and without ads".

A lot of work needs to be done in that area, even if users are generally more open to helping websites they like than what ad-blockers usage statistics lead us to think (2012 ClarityRay report, 2013 PageFair report).

Also, depending on what would be defined as unobtrusive ads, and seeing the state of online advertising today, the software might have to behave like today's ad-blockers by filtering out most of the ads – at first. But given a high adoption rate, it would ultimately encourage other publishers to make use of non-intrusive ads as well.

A lot of questions regarding this software's intricacies and features remain open, but I'd be willing to start working on such a thing. I strongly believe that we needs ads, and if at least a handful of people do to, it's worth giving it a try.

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