April 11, 2012

∴ Ads, Browsers and the Web Economy

A recent Hypercritical with John Siracusa and Dan Benjamin included discussion about web ads and ad-blocking software. It got me thinking about my own browsing habits. It occurred to me that I haven’t seen ads on most web sites in years, because I’ve used the AdBlock add-on for Chrome. I used AdBlock on Firefox for years before that, too.

I began using AdBlock in response to the garish, largely irrelevant and often intrusive ads website authors insisted on presenting. After a few weeks I forgot what a mess ads make of some of my favorite web sites.

John raised a good point though, that if browser developers included ad blocking as a standard feature, as they have with pop-up blockers, online content creation and commerce would be a very different beast. There would likely be much less unpaid editorial content. We’d all be the losers, because paid content doesn’t get as wide distribution as unpaid.

Users employing ad-blocking add-ons are doing the same on a smaller scale. By refusing to load ads, they're denying web authors the revenue that keeps them afloat. Enlightened self-interest alone makes that a long-term losing proposition.

John’s solution is to block most sites’ ads, and white-list only the few web sites he truly likes. If by “likes” he means those that provide great content but not in-your-face advertising, his solution mirrors mine. Here’s how I started my white-list.

About a year and a half ago I noticed an article on Ars Technica making a plea to readers who use ad-blocking add-ons in their web browser. They explicitly asked readers to unblock ads from their site in exchanged for great, free content devoid of intrusive advertising. They vowed to put up only high-quality, non-intrusive ads for businesses that have relevance to their readers. Being a long-time Ars reader, I knew they’d made good on that promise in the past, so I white-listed their site in AdBlock.

I see ads whenever I go to the Ars Technica site, but I have yet to be annoyed by them. As Siracusa points out, it’s not seeing the ads that’s annoying, it’s the distraction from the content that jars. Ars makes another offer, for fully ad-free content: monthly subscriptions. The reader has a choice.

I’ve made the same private bargain with Daring Fireball, The Loop and 5by5. I white-list their sites, and in exchange they don’t bomb me with distracting crap. Their ads, following along the lines of their overall site design, are tasteful and unobtrusive, and I don’t mind seeing them. The ads are often relevant to my interests and I occasionally click through to a product. The bargain works for everyone.

This is a great model for the rest of the web. If you want readers to allow your ads in their browser, ask. And make sure you’ve made those ads tasteful, relevant and unobtrusive.

Treat your readers as valued customers, not hogs at the trough. If your product is tastefully supported by ads, readers won't mind seeing them.