Ad-Blocking: A debate about ethics

23 Dec 2009
Posted by Kiran
I am an active user and advocate of Mozilla Firefox. I also am a fan of its Ad-blocking extension - AdBlock Plus. I have considered AdBlock Plus a very useful extension that allowed me to get rid of all annoying and pesky pop-ups and banner ads that otherwise clutter my browsing experience.

However, a recent blog by Vaibhav Gadodia titled "When will people stop stealing content" raised a very interesting point; it gave me food for thought. In his blog Vaibhav argues that since the advertising pays for the content, blocking those ads deprives the site owner the revenues that he would have earned had those ads been visible. Vaibhav goes on to compare the online content monetized by ads to an "honor system" of selling goods, wherein the users are free to pick up the goods as long as they drop the recommended amount into the jar.

Equating ad-blocking to stealing, in my opinion, is a radical generalization and I disagree with it. Here's why.

Let us start with the basics, shall we?

What are advertisements? The Wikitionary defines advertisement as A commercial solicitation designed to sell some commodity, service or similar.

Advertisements are meant to educate the consumer about a product and try to get the consumer to part with his/her hard earned cash in exchange for that product.

Let us note that the onus of getting the consumer to view and appreciate the advertisement and getting him/her interested in what is being advertised lies with the advertiser, not the consumer. The consumer is free to walk away from the product or the advertisement itself if it doesn't catch his/her interest.

We routinely walk away from advertisements all the time — we use the commercial break for a quick nip to the loo in between our favorite Television program; we skim over the pages containing bulk of the advertisements in our local newspapers, while going straight to the sports pages to check how the Indian cricket team is doing against Sri Lanka; we block online ads — and at the same time, if an advertisement is interesting enough, it can draw us to it and capture the mind-share that it is after.

Successful advertising has always been about innovative strategies to capture consumer interest; it has never been about annoying the hell out of the consumer.

Understanding Click throughs

Why does anyone put up advertising on their sites? To earn money of course! How do they earn money? The online advertising industry has grown into a very complex and intricate business over time. However, most of the time, publishers will earn money based on the number of times their users click on any ads displayed on their site. This is called a Click-Through. The site owners usually get paid based on the number of click-throughs their site generates.

The basic thing to understand here is that revenue is generated for the site owners when somebody clicks on an ad. AdBlock Plus is used by consumers who find those ads annoying and intrusive. What is the chance of those very consumers clicking on those ads? Next to nil, I would say.

AdBlocking is a symptom not the illness

Why did AdBlock Plus come on the scene? Why is it increasing in popularity daily? If online ads were limited to text that was actually relevant to the consumer's interest, then those could be tolerated. However, today the norm is to have huge, in-your-face, bandwidth hogging ads that take up bulk of the screen-space and serve as a huge distraction from the actual content that the user is interested in. The annoying ads are the illness. AdBlock Plus' popularity is a direct result of this illness.

The privacy concern

It is all well to say that the price of the content is the annoying ad. But when the ad-networks start intruding into the users' privacy by tracking them through unsolicited cookies stored on the users' computers, things go too far.

A quick illustration:

I visited the NTDV Website using Firefox but without AdBlock Plus enabled. After having loaded the first page, I saw that I suddenly had cookies set on my computer from five different ad networks! These cookies stayed on my computer even after ending that browser session.

The following two screenshots display cookies set on my computer after visiting, one without AdBlock Plus and the other with:

The difference is clear. Simply by blocking the unwanted ads, I am preventing ad networks from tracking me via cookies. In effect, I am protecting my online privacy.

It is very obvious that more and more users are increasingly uncomfortable about the number of splash ads and tracking cookies that are thrown at them each day. AdBlock Plus provides these users with an option to do something about it all, and they take that option.

AdBlock Plus isn't the root cause; it is simply a symptom of a problem that has been created by the ad networks themselves!

Blocking Ads is not the long term solution

Having said that, I must add that blocking all online ads is not a long term solution. If 100% of the users started blocking all ads, the free internet as we know it today will die. The content publishers do need some mechanism by which they can generate revenue for their efforts.

However, content publishers need to understand that if users choose to circumvent their ads, it is because those ads aren't having the desired effect. Site owners need to think of ways to advertise that would engage consumers and readers instead of forcing annoying and undesirable ads down their throats. They also have to decide what is of value to them: is it readership or is it ad revenue? If you believe that the content you are putting up is so valuable that nobody should be able to view it without first paying you for it, monetizing it using ads may not be the right option; putting it behind a pay wall and running a subscription service will guarantee you a revenue stream. If you choose ads to monetize content and ad revenue is of primary importance then simpler options such as scripts to block AdBlock Plus users are also available. Here is another script that you may want to try implementing on your website to block AdBlock users (courtesy Danny Carlton).

The best option would be to put up great content along with relevant and non-intrusive ads. Then, tell your readers that your advertising shouldn't cause them issues. I have personally disabled AdBlock Plus on many websites that have ads that don't get in my way.

Online advertising needs to evolve such that the advertising is relevant to the content that the user is viewing, while at the same time not being annoying or intrusive. Advertisers need to win the trust of their consumers; after all that's what marketing has always been about.