Blocking Ads—The End of The Internet? Or Evolution to a Better Experience?

Who doesn’t hate ads? I mean, I TOTALLY HATE ADS. Maybe not all ads, in fact there are a lot of ads that I find helpful and informative. But when an ad interrupts me, makes me stop doing something I enjoy and asks for a decision right there, the decision is that I hate that ad and whoever was involved with it.

The rest of the content, in this case, is about the conflict between advertisers and users, many of whom use adblocking software to get those ads out of the content they want to consume. Some writers have claimed that using adblockers is immoral.

Most of the content you find online is paid for by advertising. It didn’t have to be that way, we could have gated content where you pay up front and aren’t subjected to advertising. Sort of like Netflix or HBO versus regular television. But the internet includes a bias towards free information, which means advertising supported information.

The battle between advertisers and users long predates the internet. When video cassette recorders gave television viewers the ability to record shows and watch them later, the devices also allowed the users to fast-forward through commercials. The broadcasters got upset, tried to get the courts to block the sale of these devices, but the courts declined. They did not rule on the legitimacy of skipping commercials, instead pointing out that the devices had “substantial noninfringing uses.”

Early internet advertising models generated a lot of controversy because there was a sense of purity that was being violated. Two controversial models were the pairing of ads to search results and the pop-up ads. For the most part, the people who hated the first model were writers and pundits who saw themselves as defenders of the internet. But search advertising proved to be acceptable to most users, and it was the only business model that supported important innovations like Google and, much later, Facebook.

Pop ups did not generate the same moral outrage from internet pundits, but regular users hated them. Soon blocking software became available, and was so widely adopted that most major browsers began to incorporate it as a feature. Thus ended that generation of pop-up ads.

But advertisers don’t quit easily. And content publishers, though they want to serve their users, need to pay their bills somehow. So new models developed. Many ads are unobtrusive, often even useful. This is the real reason users accepted search advertising so readily, the ads are targeted at something they are actively seeking.

The ads people hate most are the ones that interrupt what they are doing and require their full attention. You’re reading something or watching a video, then something covers the whole page and asks you to subscribe or maybe purchase something else. Many visitors will instantly leave. Some will close the window, or wait it out. A very small number will comply, but that small number is enough to make publishers and advertisers think they have succeeded.

Usually, that’s because the benefit, getting paid, is immediate while the long-term harm, losing first-time visitors and reducing repeat visitors, is longer term and harder to measure.

Users don’t quit either. The next stage was the wide adoption of adblocking software that blocks almost all advertising. This stage is so comprehensive that many publishers are now pushing the idea that using adblocking software is actually immoral. That argument did not deter users from fast-forwarding their VCRs, and it is unlikely to work now.

One problem is that the adblocked internet is better in other ways. Websites load a lot faster, for instance. The software layer that injects the ads into websites actively slows them down. It also turns out that the applications that load ads onto a page can also be used to deliver malware. Using adblocking software provides a safer browsing experience as well.

The downside is that many non-intrusive ads that users don’t mind, or even sometimes find useful, are also blocked. But, according to numerous reports, including this NYT article, some advertisers are working on solutions. Some of the larger platforms are working with the major adblockers to allow non-intrusive ads to bypass the software. The adblockers then become the gateway, deciding on what kinds of ads might be acceptable. Another firm is developing software that gets around the adblockers. But they also claim a commitment to providing only acceptable, non-intrusive ads.

What happens now? If the new wave of ads that are side-stepping the adblockers sticks with a commitment to honor the user experience, maybe we have evolved. Perhaps advertisers will learn to stay within these boundaries, though certainly some will be looking for a way to test them. But the incentive, at least on the part of the large platforms, will be to hold to this new compromise. A large scale circumvention of this agreement on the part of advertisers will inevitably trigger another large-scale response, and it may again involve blocking all ads, not just the bad ones.

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