Adblock Plus and (a little) more

The unnecesary Ars Technica rant · 2010-03-16 16:25 by Wladimir Palant

Please forgive me this (hopefully unusual) rant. It is simply that I am so disappointed. Over the years I learned that quality journalism is extremely rare. I also came to expect very little from the media (both online and offline) — most often, journalists fail at what I consider the very basics of their job, namely understanding what they are writing about and verifying the information (I very much appreciate the exceptions to that rule but they are just that — exceptions). No problem, if it is important I can usually find the original source and get myself an overview. As it is, getting me disappointed is hard. But apparently not impossible.

A few days ago I mentioned the article on ad blocking published by Ars Technica. I find the argumentation in that article weak to say the least — and so do many others. I put together a collection of interesting replies, most of which happen to put the Ars Technica article in a negative light — but that’s simply because I didn’t mention articles that didn’t bring any original points into the discussion. And I also linked to my own old article along with explanation why Ars Technica being paid for views rather than clicks doesn’t really contradict this article. I later removed that link because I found that Richard Chappell explained that point in a much better way.

One of the very first comments indirectly called me stupid and a hypocrite who simply doesn’t care about websites and their survival. Whoever commented there either didn’t read or didn’t understand what I wrote — but that’s not exactly unusual, I’m not denying anybody the right to express his opinion in my blog but I’m not going to discuss unreasonable opinions either. What actually got me upset is the fact that (as somebody pointed out later) this person is apparently a member of Ars Technica staff and a journalist.

Now I really don’t know Ars Technica. From what I heard I had the impression that it is one of the higher-quality tech news resources on the web. So I was rather surprised to see their rant against ad blocking lack proper argumentation. On the other hand, if members of their staff don’t know that you have to indicate it when you are commenting as a biased party, maybe that wasn’t so surprising after all?

Dear Ars Technica staff! I am fully aware that my knowledge of economics is incomplete at best. But I know that in a market you have to provide value to get paid. If you want advertisers to pay you should provide value to them. And: no, an ad that is downloaded but not viewed doesn’t provide value to the advertiser. An ad that is displayed but ignored doesn’t provide value. Only an ad that generates a sale (either directly because the user clicked it or indirectly via brand awareness and similar) provides value. If you see yourself being paid without providing a value than you either tricked whoever is paying you (this is often referred to as “fraud”) or it is a temporary state where whoever is paying you didn’t adjust to the new realities yet. Either way, it isn’t something to build a business on.

Feel free to come to my blog and convince me otherwise. Or maybe discuss the importance of brand awareness. Or maybe even suggest improvements that I could implement in Adblock Plus to make your life easier (without making the lives of my users miserable of course). But when your do so: please indicate who you are. Even if you are commenting as a private person rather than a representative of Ars Technica, the mere fact of who your employer is makes you a biased party in this discussion. And don’t forget: if you want your argumentation to be taken seriously you need to understand the arguments of the other side first.

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Comment [20]

  1. MoJo · 2010-03-16 17:32 · #

    I agree that the Ars guys appear to be simpletons. That is the crux of the problem here – it’s easy to see the obvious arguments about how ad-blocking is loosing them money, but not easy to make the effort to understand the more complex but ultimately far more powerful counter-arguments.

  2. Nathaniel Kofalt · 2010-03-16 18:22 · #

    This hits the nail right on the head. Ars Technica is one of the few remaining websites I trust for reasonably reliable reporting, and it saddens me to see their cheap theatrics and sloppy justification ruin that.

  3. Sam · 2010-03-16 19:09 · #

    Both you and the linked article at philosophyetc make good points that I agree with.

    My own version of this argument is that it’s actually immoral for Ars Technica to actually ask it’s users to unblock adverts, let me explain.

    Say you’re a business wanting to promote a product, you go to Ars’s website and you buy a bunch of pay per view advertising with them. The way this works for anyone that doesn’t know is when your advert is loaded on the page it’s counted as a view, the advertiser buys X many views.

    Of X many views only a certain percentage of users are actually going to “see” the advert, of that fraction only a percentage of users are going to click the advert. It’s a numbers game, you want more views/clicks you buy more ads and you spam spam spam.

    What do I mean by “see”, well some people literally do not see adverts, If you don’t think this is true then Google “banner blindness” and read the first link. Our eyes scan the page and find what we want quickly, it’s kind of like looking in your living room for your keys, there’s subtle clues that help us find what we’re looking for without searching in all areas in detail, so we look straight at the part we want.

    People who dislike adverts down to their very core, basically those of us using adblockers like ABP are going to be the ones who basically ignore adverts, in fact some of us may hold it against an advertiser when we’re subjected to their annoying adverts constantly.

    So when Ars make a plea to their user base to unblock adverts all they’re doing is they’re creating a larger percentage of the ad views to be essentially useless, more adverts are served but of those additional ones served most of them are going to be ignored and some might even cause negative brand associations with the potential customer and actually deny business.

    If I was advertising with Ars I’d be really pissed off reading that article knowing that I essentially have a greater percentage of my paid for views going towards an audience that doesn’t want to see them.

    Reply from Wladimir Palant:

    The other problem is that this Ars article once again inspired users to ask for “download but not display” feature. As I explained above, this means basically committing fraud and won’t help the websites in the long term. So I have been consistently rejecting requests for this feature for years. But other projects (Chrome Adblock, whatever) might not be as choosy. I wonder who will be the first to complain that advertisements aren’t paid that well any more because of ad blockers that download them but don’t display…

  4. IceDogg · 2010-03-16 23:49 · #

    Ok, I don’t claim to be any expert but I have to disagree with some of the assumptions here (meaning at this site, not just this article). Why do advertisers pay for ads that no one clicks on/buys from and or ignore? Because it’s a form of brainwashing. Why do you think you gravitate to a certain product that after thinking about it, you really know nothing about . Repeated exposure to anything makes it more familiar and thus (in the case of advertising and products) more comfortable buying.

    For example. I go to buy a speaker. Now I’m not a perfectionist when it comes to my music. If I hear it and it’s clear then I’m good with whatever I get. So, I don’t spend the hours researching and reading info on music hardware that I do on other PC hardware like hard drivers,motherboards, monitors and so on. However I have seen repeated ads (if only subconsciously) for product X. Now I’ve never really looked at these ads..I ignore them. But my mind still sees them. This is where the brainwashing kicks in. We like product X, we are unsure why, but we like it over product Y for some reason. So which do we buy? I don’t really care if it works the best ever.. but the product makers DO care very much which I buy. Every dollar counts. And if you magnify this times the number of people it influenced by ads it’s TONS of money for them.

    Now, they (advertisers) know this and have spent millions/billions of dollars learning the best techniques for doing this brainwashing. They will claim to not want to pay because of so called click though rate or whatever it’s called. Or even claim fraud but out of the goodness of their hearts will still advertise with you for a reduced rate. Umm no that’s only a negotiation for the cheapest rates possible. They do know what they are doing folks..they are not idiots. They spend so much money or behavior annalists they know us better then we do. Believe it!

    They may even pressure some sites that they advertise with to post these types of articles or takes drastic measures to stop the blocking of ads. BECAUSE they know they are brainwashing us even if we ignore or otherwise wouldn’t click/buy from these ads. They are smarter at this game then any of us.

    Ever buy something and wonder why when you get home? You didn’t really need or want it. They call it buyers remorse. It comes from brainwashing and then you opening your eyes afterward. That’s what advertises would call a failed job of it. It’s suppose to be so good that you never feel bad about the product. Some people have it so bad that even when the product goes completely wrong they fight for the product in forums and with friends. They have ‘drank the kool-aid’ completely. They become evangelist for the product and will go down with the ship, so to speak.

    Sounds like I’m arguing with Ars Technica, but far from it. I’m arguing that ads are much eviler then any of you know/believe. A necessary evil? I think not!! Would the Internet die without them? NO change YES. Good or bad? I don’t know what would come, but guessing I would say some of both. Just like now. But in the end if brainwashing has been eliminated or at least slowed or no longer excepted, it’s got to be a better safer place.

    Webmasters: We do respect you and don’t blame you wanting to earn a living, but quit letting advertise exploit us, please. And use you to do it!

    This is only a users opinion and don’t reflect the maker of Adblock Plus or any other ad blocker. Sorry to come across as a radical, but I know this to be true. I would rather not have the Internet anymore then to continue to be brainwashed. Thanks for your patients and time.

    Reply from Wladimir Palant:

    Yes, that’s the “brand awareness” I mentioned in this article. It works by influencing your subconscious without you being aware of it so it might have the desired effect even on the people who explicitly don’t want ads. Whether it does and how much of an effect isn’t something I know – studies seem to have a hard time measuring this factor. Oh, and of course it is morally questionable – but that ship has sailed long ago, advertising (any advertising) is rarely about making a rational decision.

  5. Havvy · 2010-03-17 09:28 · #

    I study praxeology, and I can say without a doubt, that ABP is not anti-ethical. You could call it immoral, but morals are subjective. (I could say that those who like cats are evil for example, but there is no objective reasoning for it)

    When it comes to the Internet, a client sends an HTTP request to your server, and you return that request with arbitrary text. Nowhere is there an agreement made before the release of data what that user is allowed to do with that data. No contract is made, and no, a terms of service is not a contract. The TOS merely delineates a policy you have on choosing what actions you are going to perform. Technically you could have a point saying “Blocking ads is not allowed”, but unless you have a way of telling that ads are blocked, you cannot follow through with your policy. Until the day comes that you can follow through with it, users are allowed to block ads. Note that this does not give them any legitimacy in hacking into your files, and changing them so nobody gets ads.

  6. Sam · 2010-03-17 12:27 · #

    Thanks for adding your comments to mine Wladimir.

    I’m still internally battling with the idea of downloading adverts but not displaying them. Traditionally I’m against it, it just makes sense to block them by not requesting them to begin with.

    However the more I think about the situation the more I realise that the root of the problem with adverts is a little deeper, in my mind it uses the same kind of strategy as email spam does. It’s just broad brush spam which massively offensive and inefficient, it sacrifices irritating the masses to reach the few who are susceptible.

    So sometimes I think that killing at least the pay per view model would be great, modifying the ABP extension to download but not display adverts would take the problem away from advertising websites (who just want to make $$$) and shift it to the advertisers themselves by showing the model of tracking the views is flawed and so a bad investment.

    If I had extension programming knowledge and a little more spare time I’d probably work on an ABP branch or similar tool which not only blocks adverts but also makes random advert requests in the background every x many seconds to cause a massive increase in “fake” advert views.

    Anyone remember the Lycos (I think) makelovenotspam screen saver application which basically made requests to spammers servers, acted like a large DDOS program essentially driving their bandwidth through the roof. I’d love to see something like that return to massively disrupt the advert business model.

  7. Sonophay · 2010-03-17 16:56 · #

    What we need to understand is that first, people in a viewing mode are not in any approximative need of viewing ads, and therefore cannot be subverted from doing so without ethical ties. The incessant need to try is telling—it tells us that advertisers need users and web sites need to adjust from the throes of an earlier state of being. It does not mitigate this point that ad blocking renders the loading of ads null and void; a moot point.

    This brings us to the concept of reverse negasis. Reverse negasis is a relatively simple concept which basically states that in a relationship where there is a trusted (or indeed semi-trusted) party, and a party in need of content provision, the latter must obviate him/herself of the objective desire to remove his/her attention from that which propels the former to induce further complexity into the relationship. It is this need that ties web site administrators to the need for a further view of the facts.

  8. charlo · 2010-03-17 21:18 · #

    Fully agree with this blog article and many comments. #4 is very relevant too even if its subject was already covered, as mentioned by Wladimir P.; it is still good to remember to people pretending to be insensitive to ads they, actually, are not (I won’t rush into a store after seeing an ad, huh ! I am so strong !). As for the “who I am”, as boring as it is, I am just a poor english-speaking nobody considering ads are evil and advertisers can eat sh.. and die, first and before any economic consideration. Yes, very extremist at this time being and not commendable, if I care.

    Ads blockers are a useful weapon, I think. And ABP a very polished one for what it does. Now I would like to think aloud about the comment made by Wladimir P. to comment #3 (“So I have been consistently rejecting requests for this feature [(download but not display)] for years“). I never thought about this one. At first, I was against (a way to maintain an advertising-business-model). But thinking a bit..

    W. P. seems to be against it for some morale and respectable reason. It could be used against law. Not by the extension author, not by its users, just and only by an ads-website encouraging to use such a feature to get the butter and the money from the butter (err.. is it english-understandable ? “user audience and money from my advertiser”). Probably breaking some point in the contract. Still, I wonder. In a way, it can benefit in a short term, to some websites (“frauding” their financiers). Now, what if it became widely used ? especially due to the fact it would counter-attack adblockers-blockers ? Wladimir says “I wonder who will be the first to complain that advertisements aren’t paid that well any more because of ad blockers that download them but don’t display…”. I wonder too. And I think.. it could be good. It would mean advertisers are becoming suspicious. Giving less money, as said. Hurting it, and sold websites. And I like that.

    Using such a feature probably is not a panacea. There would still be the other problem: not direct adverts, but the tracking (“this IP address downloaded this file”). But in my opinion, the indirect “fraud” it may endorse is not that much relevant. Main idea being : if it is massively requested and helps a user to remain master of his navigation, it could be considered.

    pretty sure I missed many points, sorry for that.

  9. Kayla · 2010-03-18 21:04 · #

    Your rant mostly seems to focus on a definition of value that is probably true-er than the one in use in advertising agreements, but is also probably less practical to use for those purposes.

    Web sites, by and large, cannot guarantee sales through ads, just as TV networks or anyone else can’t. TV networks sell ads on the strength of the viewership of their content, but there is no guarantee that any of that viewership will want a sale. The ad-purchasers play the numbers game, hoping that enough views will generate some sales.

    For websites, they can serve up a different ad to each visitor (impossible to do with current TV technology), and they do! But the advertisers need some way to ensure they get the number of views they hope will convert into a sale.

    Or, in other words: Value is whatever my contract with the guy with the money says it is. If he wants to pay me to show ads to people who won’t click through them, who am I to argue?

    Reply from Wladimir Palant:

    And the number in the contract is random? Or rather based on some expectation of the value provided? I bet it is the latter. And that expectation is based on some statistics, previous experience with this website etc. Sure, advertisers know what they should expect from a certain number of views. But if you start gaming the system (increase the number of views without an equivalent increase in sales) the advertisers will eventually notice that these views are worth less to them. Here I can sincerely recommend clicking the “chunky impacts” link in Richard Chappell’s post.

  10. Alan Baxter · 2010-03-19 16:24 · #

    I couldn’t agree with you more, IceDogg. That’s one of the reasons I don’t own a television and listen to the radio only for traffic reports.

  11. Markus · 2010-03-20 18:14 · #

    I’m probably stating obvious things that others have pointed out already, but sometimes things piss me off enough to make me rant a bit as well, and this one-sided Ars Technica rubbish had me going:

    First and foremost, this is my computer, and my internet connection that I pay for. I am in control of what gets through that connection and to my computer. I, and no one else. If I do not want to have ads displayed, then that is my choice, for my reasons, and no one else has any say whatsoever about it. If I don’t want to read ads in magazines, I am allowed to skip over them. If I don’t want to watch commercials on TV, I am allowed to zap out of the program, and so on and so forth. Any advertising, anywhere, always has to either rely on the mercy of the target audience to actually notice the advertising, or otherwise use devious tactics to smuggle them into my consciousness. If I want to blend that out and protect myself from that, then that is my fair right. If that’s a problem for the advertisers, well tough luck. Go and find a better business model. Your problem, not mine.

    Secondly, privacy. Tracking of stats and user behavior is running rampant these days. Data mining is an ever growing problem that not only the most paranoid users begin to care about. We need tools that give us control over such things and that protect our personal privacy. Adblockers, which really are content blockers (advertisers get their panties in a knot over the “ad” in the name), do just that, and “ad hiding” wouldn’t suffice at all here. “Ad hiding” betrays the advertisers and the users alike.

    Thirdly, security. Content blockers do block malicious or otherwise harmful stuff. Notably, there have been several instances lately where bad guys managed to sneak in infected flash ads into otherwise perfectly regular and trustworthy automatic ad distribution networks used on everyday websites. Obviously, advertisers cannot guarantee that their annoying flash ads aren’t hurting me. Again, I have every right to protect myself from that.

    Period. Rant end.

  12. IceDogg · 2010-03-20 23:52 · #

    Thanks Alan. I don’t go as far as you do. I do own a TV although I use a DVR. I listen to radio, but not very often. Most of the time I watch one of DishNetworks radio stations (no ads) or over the Internet.

    We are not the ‘evil’ ones here. Watch who’s side you webmasters are on. I am on yours..just not theirs (advertisers).

  13. Paco · 2010-03-22 00:05 · #

    Wladimir, I completely support your stand concerning the “download but not display” option. Blocking ads is not an ethical issue. It is just a darwinian reaction of self-defense against what human nature perceives as an ever increasing agresion. On the contrary, downloading ads but not displaying them is precisely an ethical concern: it is plainly helping some business people to cheat other business people by charging them real money for thin air. This doesn’t smell good, even if I love so many websites and hate so many advertisers.

  14. Zaid · 2010-03-22 19:18 · #

    Wladimir, I disagree about your position against “download but not display”. I think at some point in the near future, this type of feature would be necessary. If websites start blocking users because of AdBlocking, then AdBlocking would have to take the extra step of cloaking its operation. I think it is good strategy not to use those methods until it is completely necessary, but once it becomes necessary I hope you would make it happen.

    It would be better to think of ABP as a tool to help users get the best online experience, rather than just blocking ads. Getting locked out of websites is not in the interest of the user-experience.

  15. Luis A · 2010-03-31 11:26 · #

    I, for one, care not about the article from ARS. They’ve been pretty stupid this time in their interest to appeal to big corporations. They didn’t even bother to get their analogies right (the whole restaurant issue made me laugh).

    When it comes to counteradverstising strategy, however, I have to agree with the current stance on ABP development: downloading the ads without displaying them is not only a loss of performance and one of the most basic features the add-on has (no download == no bandwidth/cost expenditure), it is also an unethical invitation from browser developers to ad companies to keep trying to invade the users’ privacy.

  16. Tweenk · 2010-04-08 23:32 · #

    What about this:
    1. The default is NOT to block ads.
    2. When you click the ABP button, it automatically blocks ads on this domain, according to the available filters.

    This mode of operation would be useful for people that don’t mind regular online advertising like Google ads or a banner, but don’t like really obnoxious DOM popups and CPU-consuming Flash.

    There are a lot of compromise options as well: for example, block ads when more than X objects trigger the adfilter.

    Reply from Wladimir Palant:

    Yes, such “blacklist mode” has been discussed and is already possible but relatively complicated to use. I put adding a more simple user interface for it on the roadmap for Adblock Plus 1.2.1 (https://adblockplus.org/en/roadmap).

  17. charlie · 2010-05-21 11:09 · #

    In this much vaunted age of “austerity” and recognizing my own profligate habits, ABP enables me to participate on the internet without the ever present irritant of being psychically induced to buy, buy, buy, with more, more and more invasive Ads, Ads and more Ads.

  18. Mikl · 2010-07-04 01:33 · #

    Beside the morality and economics arguments, there is overall user experience like safety and usability into account. I personally started to use adblock plus b/c I was hit by a malware ad that was injected into a perfectly legitimate site.

    Unfortunately for webmasters, personal computer security rightly takes precedence so unless malware ad problem (malware ads injected by legitimate third party ad companies including Google) is taken care with much higher degree of certainty, then users have the right to adblock plus.

    Also some ads literally destroy a user’s experience. For example some ads play a full 30 sec flash commercial that brings netbooks to its knees increasing cpu cycles and shortening battery life.

  19. Silas Denyer · 2010-09-07 05:44 · #

    It is not particularly surprising that the commentators here are broadly supportive of ABP and / or negative towards ArsTechnica.

    Markus summed-up what seems to be the prevailing position: “Go and find a better business model. Your problem, not mine.”

    Markus, you seem to have forgotten so soon that ArsTechnica did indeed try a new business model – one in which “no ads” = “no content”.

    Modern advertising is as much about click-through as about page impressions. Without ads there is no click-through. Without click-through, there is (in many cases) no site.

    I may be placing my head into the lion’s den here, but I simply cannot understand why ArsTechnica’s stance here was lambasted; it is their site, they may do with it as they please and, if they wish to prevent visitors from opting-out of certain content, that is within their power so to chose.

    There is a growing phenomenon – online and offline – of what psychologists are calling “entitlement syndrome”; the comments on this blog seem to be distinctive manifestations of that condition, characterised by an expectation that the user is “entitled” to whatever they please without having to conform to the counterpart conditions which accompany the consumption of that to which they feel “entitled”.

    I certainly don’t argue that users have no right to use ABP; rather, I argue that site owners have every right to restrict those who use ABP from consuming their content without providing the expected consideration of their (sub)conscious attention.

  20. Malih · 2010-10-17 16:14 · #

    lol @ Silas Denyer (#19),

    from the point you make you should be able to conclude that the owner of this site and/or commenters on this site have every right to write about whatever they want to talk/complain about, so…

    I personally think that tech sites that have users using adblockers means those sites are successful in educating their users technologically, they should be proud.

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