Ethics of blocking ads - Part 3 · 2006-12-04 12:50 by Wladimir Palant
This article continues the discussion on ethical implications of ad blocking software. The first part and the second part were mostly dedicated to ads as a business model, now we want to look at the ads as part of the customer relationship.
When it comes to defending ads people often use the term “social contract” to describe the reason why we should download and view advertisements. This is some virtual contract that we supposedly sign by entering someone’s web site and that lets us view this site’s content. In exchange we view the ads and generate revenue for web site’s owner. Sounds fair and pretty similar to what is already happening (widely accepted) on TV. Yet the internet and TV are different and these differences are important.
What we should look at: does the web site owner hold up his end of the deal? Does he really allow us to view the content of his web site? Unfortunately, in today’s internet this is almost an exception rather than the rule. And I don’t talk about the sites with crappy content, if they don’t have anything to offer — you don’t need to go there. No, there are lots of sites that have content. Somewhere. You just have to find it. “Maybe if you click away this ad… And that one… No, that was wrong, now you have to close that pop-up window… Ah, there it is, right between two huge flashing ads!” And then, did you notice how difficult it is to read regular black-on-white text surrounded by several huge ads in flashy colors? Yes, they are intended to be distractive, getting your attention is important. And yes, animations are perfect for this job (thanks to Paul Battley for discovering that one). And sound. Are your eyes hurting, is your mind melting? Too bad for you but you certainly noticed the ads.
The difference to TV is obvious: when you watch TV you are allowed to watch it. There will be an interruption where you will be shown advertisements but rest of the time you are free to watch the program you chose. Now imagine that your favorite TV show would only be granted one half of the TV screen. And on the other half you would see advertisements, the kind of advertisements you already know — flashy, loud and greedy for your attention. Would you still enjoy it? And would it still be your favorite show?
Why is it that TV was able to find some acceptable balance between content and advertisements while the Internet couldn’t? First of all advertisements on TV are regulated by law (at least in some countries, I can’t be sure about all of course). There are some limitations imposed on the advertisers to make sure that regular people don’t come short. But I think that the most important factor is more direct feedback. If a TV station abuses advertising people will switch away to other channels. And there is enough competition to make sure that a channel cannot do it for long. “Switching away” on the internet on the other hand isn’t simply a matter of flipping through your channels. You will want to find a replacement which often means lots of searching. And even then you might not find a good alternative with very many sites on the Internet being unique in some way. As a result, “switching away” only works as a feedback mechanism for the sites that don’t attract too many users anyway. And the popular sites are free to do almost anything.
How can this situation be resolved? There have been initiatives suggesting that webmasters should restrict themselves, putting up less ads and maybe less intrusive ones. Unfortunately it is naive to believe that this could ever work. Even if you assume that every person is good and doesn’t want to cause others grief, it isn’t small websites driven by individuals that are setting the trend but rather large web sites that have a corporation behind them. And for corporations there is only one measure of success: profit. In terms of profit it doesn’t make sense to put less ads on a web page than the users can tolerate (which, as it comes out, is a lot). There is a certain optimal point where the ads are already numerous enough to produce lots of income but not yet annoying enough to make a significant percentage of users to leave the site and never come back. Every corporation is looking for this exact point, because if it happens to settle down on a point that is less optimal it will give other corporations a competitive advantage which is obviously bad.
I don’t think that anything based on self-restriction can be a solution for the long-term. In the end the feedback advertisers receive from the users should be made stronger so that abuse of advertisements becomes uneconomical. And the only kind of feedback I can think of is: users should have the choice not to watch ads if they don’t like to. Right, this means ad blocking software, things like Adblock Plus. You think that reading a certain site with all its ads is unacceptable? Then block the ads. If enough users do this then the sites overusing ads will actually earn less than the ones who are cautious not to annoy their users. And if I do a good job with Adblock Plus this will eventually happen.
So, if you own a web site and rely on ads for making money, what should you do? My advise is: don’t waste your time on tricking ad blocking software, do what is best for your users instead. Make sure nobody wants to block your advertisements. How this can be done:
- Don’t embed any advertisements loading from external sources into your web page. If the browser needs to contact two or more servers, the time until the page finishes loading will increase drastically. This is especially a concern with the <script> tag that will stop processing of the web page entirely until the script finishes loading. And you can probably imagine that your users won’t be all too happy if your page can’t finish loading because of some banner server being slow (which happens all the time). If you must participate in a banner network, make sure to cache the ads on your server and serve them from there.
- Make sure the ads are useful and advertise something your users might actually want. That way users will click on your ads by choice and not because you tricked them.
- Leave your users the choice not to look at the ads — most of the time they are only there to read. Don’t place ads in the middle of the content. Find a designated place (one place) for them, make sure they are clearly separated from the main content. Don’t use any animations, Flash or distracting colors. Text ads are best though image ads should be acceptable as well if they don’t abuse colors to grab user’s attention.
- And don’t forget to provide some useful content that justifies the ads. After all, there must be something why people should come to your site?
Do this and you will have many happy users — and hopefully also lots of clicks on your advertisements.
Update (2009-06-18): Another analysis of this problem and more suggestions for responsible advertising: http://www.askdrax.com/2009/06/advertising-on-web.html
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