Blockery is theft!

So, the background level of corporate / self-righteous complaint about ad-blocking software has boiled up again, to the extent that some webmasters, whether independent or corporate, are threatening to prevent site access to users who might be blocking adverts.

Now, this is one of those knee-jerk reactions that just opens up a whole world of dumb, for numerous reasons:

1) Many users are, rightly or wrongly, so morally opposed to on-line adverts that they will flatly refuse to click any ad links. Forcing them to view these just wastes your, or your advertising network's, bandwidth, and their time. Eventually you'll just push them away.

Why does this matter? Do you care about non-paying viewers? Well, this sector contains a significant proportion of technically savvy users and opinion-formers. Chances are, if your site has a community element, they may also be significant contributors there. You may, quite possibly, be pushing your best users away.

2) Some of these adverts are so intrusive as to severely degrade the user's experience of the site. Adverts that automatically play audio when you arrive on a page, for example, are going to send people straight away again - if they can hear them. In this case users may actually be doing you a favour by preventing these from blocking the audio and sticking with the site, rather than just turning tail. Office workers, who may well have a legitimate reason for visiting your site - say you're a technical review site or IT magazine - are not going to put up with sites that embarrass them at their desks.

3) Some adverts are actively harmful, and users are seeking to protect themselves and their systems by blocking them. These ads fall into two types.

Firstly, adverts that act as a conduit to install adware or other malware. I had something of a fight earlier today with a piece of in-page software that was determined to make me believe that my PC was infected with malware, and refused - for my own good - to let me navigate way from the invasive page. Now I'm sceptical at the best of times, and the fact I'm using a mac, not a PC, was a fairly conclusive giveaway. But, had I been on a PC, I'd have seen what appeared to be a popup from the system tray, followed by a number of system warning dialogs, and an automated scan starting. No doubt this would have then "found" something which would have required to me to install an application - possibly after payment - onto my system to "fix". What that app would have really done to my system I leave as an exercise to the reader. In any case, I think you'll agree that the advert was morally beyond the pale.

And this wasn't on a disreputable webpage either. It was on a respectable blog host who happen to use a (theoretically also reputable) third-party advertising supplier. This supplier, however, seems to be incapable or uninterested in maintaining their reputation and quality of their adverts, and so open a channel for disreputable advertisers to attack the end user. In most businesses, damaging your end-users or their property would be seen as a Bad Thing. I can only assume that adversing suppliers have some strange new business model in which this doesn't matter. Which, in turn, makes them, for all their vaunted professionalism, no better than spammers.

Secondly - damaging the end-user? How can an advert harm a *human*? We'll leave aside the case of bad, untested, forged or misprescribed drugs for the moment, and go for the direct approach. Some humans are very sensitive to flashing or flickering lights and colours, and to particular patterns of movement such as apparent fast or shaking movement. I'm mildly photosensitive - flashing lights at certain frequencies can give me a headache or, at worst, call me to gray out. And I'm not even particularly sensitive; I'm far from clinically epileptic. These ads could do some real damage to some people. The presumption of advertisers that allow this has to be that they simply don't care about human health.

4) If we now accept that some, if not all or most, users actually need to block some or all adverts, the policy of trying to "kill off" these users seems particularly foolish. But the dumb goes even further. It's at best hard to know if a user is blocking adverts, so the sites are either going to have to rely on fallible heuristics or sledgehammer tactics. One I've heard widely suggested is entirely blocking the Firefox browser from some sites, since it makes it moderately easy to block many forms of adverts. The problem is that Firefox is widely used by the technically savvy opinion makers who might buy your content or recommend your site - keep them away and you might as well just shoot yourself in the server rack. Ultimately, site owners are not going to be able to keep even the 'wrong' users away without a lot of collateral damage.

So, ad-blocking good, ad-blocker-blocking bad, right? So, where do the sites get their revenue if users aren't going to see the ads? Surely they'll all shut down, bankrupted by all those evil ad-blocking users, and won't that serve us all right?

Erm... No. Not unless the site owners have a complete failure of both intelligence and imagination - which is, admittedly, not unknown. Site owners, in conjunction with ad networks and users are, however, going to have to do some thinking - starting off, in the case of the ad networks, by policing their houses rather more carefully, and acting much more quickly against rogue, lying, or damaging adverts. Site owners need to recognise that they are a customer of their ad providers, and that they should not be making themselves look uncaring or foolish by accepting damaging adverts. Ad networks need to recognise that they, as businesses, have certain legal and moral responsibilities, and will also harm themselves if they fail to meet these. And users need to be involved in a trusting interaction with sites; if they are getting benefit from a site, then it is reasonable to expect them to give something in return. New income models may need to be found - pro accounts, paid features or non-invasive ads may be a couple of examples, but there's definitely room for some imagination here.

In the meantime, sites and ad networks need to stop trying to ram increasingly harmful, irritating and irrelevant adverts down their users' throats, and I thoroughly encourage site readers to contribute to this progression by actively blocking invasive material - ultimately it will be in everyone's best interests if we can all outgrow this ridiculous online advertising war.
Posted by parsingphase, 2007-10-28 17:24

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