Nothing on this planet is free. Many of us assume that the Internet is a free source of information. Is it really free? Can it really exist in the utopian free state? In today’s life, one cannot do away with ads – whether it’s in the newspapers, the television, the outdoors or the web. You may ignore the newspaper ads, go for a snack when the TV ads are flashed or go blind to the large billboards which dot urbania. The ads are there, you may choose to ignore them – but they are still there none the less, make no mistake!
The price for a free Internet
In the online world, to support their existence, websites place ads. Like it or not, Online Advertising has indirectly funded the growth of the Internet by encouraging webmasters, bloggers and writers to generate content. The better his content was, the more his traffic and consequently his revenue.
Some are well placed ads, and some ads are intrusive. The nonintrusive ads are usually static and displayed towards the sides, beginning or end of articles.
And there are others like the pop-ups or the full-page ads which block you when you land on web pages of some popular large-traffic websites. You may have to manually close these ads, and some of them are programmed to again open a related window even as you click on the Close button. Such advertisements are intrusive ads. You have to leave what you were doing, to close these ads. These ads, which pay a lot, can be very irritating and are used by websites whose focus making more money, rather than providing you with quality content. The cost of such intrusive and annoying ads can be very high, says Microsoft Research.
Surfers vs Online Advertisers vs Ad blockers vs Publishers
Argument for Website Publishers
Maintaining websites needs money. While sometimes the main aim of a website is to make money, there are many bloggers who do it just for passion and dissemination of information. In either case, once the sites become popular and traffic increases, there are maintenance costs – if not anything, the domain name and hosting costs to begin with. Then come Authors fees, SEO, software costs, freeware developments fees, CDN expenses and so on. The list could be endless. Of course, many of these are available free on the internet, like the WordPress blogging platform, but others require money. The website income thus helps support the website, the owner as well as his family.
Argument for Internet Surfers
The web surfer does not care about these things. He/she just wants information free and without any clutter. His argument typically is What appears on my desktop is my business, and I am not here to see your crappy ads - not realizing that the information he is reading has cost money to someone to generate and display. There are people who want information and use the Internet for a purpose. From students to teachers to researchers to people looking to find solutions to different problems including Windows – everyone searches for information on different blogs and websites.
The Ad Blocking community
The age-old method of blocking ads by modifying the Hosts file was not something everyone could do. Things changed when various ad-blocking software, add-ons and plugins were released as free downloads. They started becoming popular. For instance Adblock for browsers, with more than 200 million downloads, is being downloaded 170,000 times a day, says its developers Eyeo.com.
A recent report by PageFair.com said that ad blocking was growing at the rate of 43% every year and that 100% of web surfers could well be having some sort of an ad blocking software installed by 2018. This figure does look too hard to digest, especially since PageFair.com is a company that helps websites identify how much money they are losing due to ad-blocking, so it is understandable that they may exaggerate, but it is a sign showing the direction in which web could well be moving. There is also a free plugin for WordPress users that can tell them how many percent of their users use some sort of an ad blocker.
Approximately 16% of visitors to general interest websites are blocking ads. The worst affected sites are those that target more technically savvy audiences, such as games and technology sites like this one. More than 25% of the visitors to these sites block advertising.
Google with its products AdWords & AdSense is by far the most powerful online advertising company. Google with a market capitalization of around $ 300 billion, comes 3rd after Exxon and Apple. In 2012, it made around $44 billion from online advertising, 68% of which came from Google’s own sites, 27% from its ad network and 5% from other sources. The stakes are thus high for Google. It cannot see the online advertising business shrink or die – no way! I am mentioning Google here, since it is the largest online advertising network.
The war begins
To counter Ad Blockers, some (currently negligible in numbers) websites came up with the idea of blocking content to visitors who use ad blockers. That is, if a website detects that the browser is using an ad blocker of any type, it will give a message asking the users to disable the ad blocker, so that they can view the content. Many such Anti-Adblock scripts are freely available on the net, including a free WordPress plugin to block Adblock users.
Arstechnica some time back, experimented for 12 hours by blocking users who had ad blockers installed. Dating site OKCupid used to ask ad-block users to donate $5 to support the site. I do not know if they are still doing it, but these are just a few examples. Reddit too, I believe offers their users an ad-free experience for a small monthly fee. Could this pave the way for a subscription model then? There are already some news sites and blogs who ask you to pay, to be able to read beyond the first paragraph or two.
The game continues!
To counter this, Anti-AdBlocker script disablers are now available as free downloads. These browser plugins disable the anti-adblocker scripts which such websites use, and allow them to view the content.
Google, in March 2013, removed Adblock from the Android Store. This has had a significant impact on user growth says the developers of AdBlock.
Users trust ad-blockers to block all advertising and other non-essential bells-and-whistles like the social sharing bars, tracking codes, etc. But what is little known that some ad blocker software companies have started accepting fees for white-listing ads from select companies.
A case in focus is the very popular Adblock Plus. By introducing the concept of “Acceptable Ads“, it will now be in a position to decide who sees ads, what kind of ads and whose ads! In a survey carried out, it found that only 25% of Adblock Plus users were strictly against any advertising. Thus seems to have born the idea of Acceptable Ads. In all fairness Adblock has laid down some strict condition for getting the ads whitelisted. Moreover, one has to realize, ad blockers too have expenses to pay, have you thought of that? So where do they make money from? From using the only tool they have! Adblock Plus says this fee is about helping it to maintain its filter list.
Google and some other companies have started funding, in part, AdBlock Plus. By paying a fee to Adblock, they can get their advertisements allowed under the Acceptable Ads white list. This has triggered an intense discussion on Hacker News. Some, and not all, advertisements of some companies are allowed as per the white list. These include those from Google, Amazon, SmartSearch, gmx.fr, livestrong.com, fusionads.com, banner.t-online.de, gutefrage.net, etc.
Two problems here as I see!
The trust of web surfers who use this ad blocking software is being compromised. Some may feel that AdBlock has started selling them out, by encashing their trust. Such ad blockers will now decide which advertisements its users will see.
This could breed unfair and monopolistic practices in the online advertising world. A powerful company could pay enough to “maintain” the whitelist of such ad blockers, to allow its own advertisements, and block ads from its competitors. Who knows the definition of Acceptable Ads itself could change over time!
Ad blockers could well acquire immense power in the future!
More ad blockers would get into the game. Some may start up with noble ideas on being independent, but they may soon get sucked in by some online advertiser.
There has to be a better mechanism in place that satisfies all concerned, viz. content publishers, users of websites, online advertisers & the ad blockers.
The first method we can see is opt-in advertising. The websites can provide users with a feature to select the kind of ads they would want to see. Though the Internet marketing agencies and social networking sites already keep tracking you on the Internet to track your interests, in order to provide you with relevant ads, the procedure of allowing users to select what types of ads they would like to see will remove much confusion. You have such a practice partially implemented on Facebook. If you do not like a particular ad, you can close it and specify what interests you. This method just needs to be refined, implemented by the websites and presented to the ad blockers, so that they can check against their database to decide whether or not to block ads. In this case, it becomes the duty/obligation of ad network to maintain a database of users and their interests so that they can display opt-in advertisements. It would have to be a collaboration between the website and ad networks to identify the user interests per what s/he opted in for.
The second method too involves a little research. Browser Ad Blockers can survey which websites a user frequents. Based on the frequency of visits, the Ad Blockers can choose to allow advertisements on websites. That way, it will help both the website publishers and website users. The former can still earn while the latter knows s/he likes the content and in turn allows adverts to be loaded.
Online URL scanners monitor websites and report if they are unsafe to visit. Could the ad blocking community scan sites and block ads of only those who use excessive ads, pop ups, etc – and let go of the others who display a reasonable amount of nonintrusive ads. Could that be a possibility?
UPDATE: Google has launched Contributor program that lets you block ads.
Till an alternative model or business strategy to finance or sustain the “free” Internet is found, online advertising is here to stay. Websites will advertise, ad blockers will block, websites may block ad blocker users, users will then use the anti-ad-blocker addons now available, online advertisers will pay ad blockers to get their ads white listed, and so on.
1) Will ad blocking software companies be engaging in ethical behavior, if they were to accept money and allow ‘acceptable ads’?
2) Would you as a user, voluntarily disable your ad blocker for some sites or white list some sites, like say, this one?
3) Will a day come when a company like say Google buys, say a popular ad blocker like AdBlock? It would be a potent weapon in the hands of Google to selectively allow only their own ads and stifle out the competition.
It’s too early to speculate, and we will have to wait for Time to unravel events.
With inputs from Arun Kumar