Is Ad-Blocking Software the Elephant in the Web’s Living Room?

Mark Evans recently articulated an issue that’s been in the back of my mind for a while. What happens to the web if ad-blocking software becomes commonplace?

Anyone using Adblock wants to eat their cake (access free content and services) and have it too (no advertising). Sorry, but you can’t have it both ways. You can’t gorge yourself at the Web buffet without paying for it in some way such as seeing advertising.

Mark wields some fairly alarmist and provocative language, but he’s generated some interesting discussion in the comments associated with that post.

Hobbyists, Beware

If things online advertising revenue goes south (and we’re talking Patagonia here) as Mark suggests they might, that would be a disaster. I’m wouldn’t be overly worried about web companies who rely on advertising revenue. I’ve talked with plenty of Web 2.0 entrepreneurs who have creative plans to make money that don’t rely on serving ads.

I’d be more concerned about the hobbyists and site owners who have enjoyed (usually small) rewards for their work through Google AdSense and the like. They’ve experienced a significant paradigm shift in recent years, and that’s probably inspired them to keep doing the often excellent work they do online. Here’s a commenter from Mark’s post:

I have provided free content on improvisational theatre [ed: wow, thorough site] for more than a decade, and Google Adwords is the first remuneration I have ever received for this labour of love. It actually helps out with the endlessly thankless task of giving your stuff away ;).

Remove the ad revenue, and you might end up back at GeoCities? Not really, but you get the idea.

Even more problematic than that, however, is the amount of commerce that web advertising enables. Surely there are far more companies using Google AdWords (et al) to generate leads than there are companies depending on advertising for revenue. We’ve had technology companies who get 90% of their leads (and therefore revenue) through their AdWords campaign.

TiVo or Newspaper?

In thinking about this potential problem, we first need to think about how the average person conceives of web advertising. Is it like ads in the newspaper or ads on television? TiVo and the mute button enable people to ignore TV ads, so the ad skipping genie is out of the bottle.

How come readers tolerate ads in newspapers? I don’t think many of them regularly think about how the ads subsidize the price of the paper. By the same token, once they discover the power of ad-blocking software, you’re never going to convince people that they should just turn it off.

If Microsoft ever decides to add (and turn on by default) ad-blocking in Internet Explorer, beware. It will have a huge impact on the economics and, therefore, the landscape of the web.

Bonus links: While looking for an appropriate photo for this post, I encountered two other amusing billboards.

UPDATE: Mark wrote a follow-up article, citing Nick Carr’s post on the same subject.


  1. What would happen if ad-blocking software became commonplace? I think stupid ad-makers and ad-providers would quickly perish, while reasonable, relevant and targeted ads would likely flourish.

    When I visit, I’m not looking to buy a new Dell computer, and it annoys me that they take the time to load a glitzy flash ad to try and sell me one. That gets ad-blocked.

    When I visit, it’s because I’m interested in gaming, so I don’t mind their two large, visually-heavy banner ads, because they’re almost without fail relevant to my interests. That doesn’t get ad-blocked.

    Similarly, Google AdWords and that ilk have a much lower chance of being blocked than hit-the-monkey-and-win-a-prize-esque banner ads. Ad-blocking software enables the user to tailor their browsing experience to their own needs, and to punish ad-providers who are just out to make a quick buck by visually spamming as many people as possible, and hoping for a few click-throughs.

    You mentioned the remote control, and I really think this is exactly the equivalent. No-one should feel morally bound to watching commercials on TV, lest they upset some economic balance. Nor should they feel obliged to subject themselves to stupid advertising online for the same supposed reason.

  2. Ross: If you’re designing ad-blocking software, why wouldn’t you design it to block every ad? That’s what the designers of the Firefox extensions did.

    You’re right about users being able to tweak their settings, but any software developer will tell you that 9 out of 10 people never do. It’s default settings all the way.

    You sound like a far more sophisticated and savvy user than the average person. The average person is going to simply think “why wouldn’t I block every single ad I can?”

  3. Darren, I use Adblock in Firefox, and it definitely doesn’t block every ad. The most annoying/evil ads are gone (mostly), but custom ads and Adsense survive the cut. Not sure how the default settings are, but I didn’t tweak it. Let the useful/relevant/interesting ads through, and block the annoying evilness. Works for me.

  4. D’Arcy: Hmm…I use the AdBlock Plus plug-in, and it definitely blocks everything for me out of the box.

  5. I don’t use AdBlock, but I do use FlashBlock, because Flash ads were killing my processor load while I was trying to multi-slack.

    My sincere hope is that enough people start using FlashBlock that companies stop using those kinds of ads.

  6. I say that if the lack of advertising takes the Web down with it, then the Web doesn’t deserve to survive. The ads are more annoying than the presumed reduction in content would be. I feel no moral obligation to watch advertising.

  7. Banana: I agree, you shouldn’t feel any moral obligation to watch ads. How did you draw the conclusion that “The ads are more annoying than the presumed reduction in content would be”?

    How would you characterize the presumed reduction in content? Also, as others have indicated, there’s definitely a continuum of annoyance for the ads. Would you draw a line anywhere in terms of what kinds of ads would be acceptable?

  8. Let’s not forget one area where web ads are extremely different from TV or print ads. 99% of the time I seem to be having my every click tracked by some ad service or another, collecting information about me that I’m sure gets aggregated and sold on to whichever client wants it. Is this also the price I must pay to use the web? Am I allowed no control over what I choose to see and what I don’t?

    First came the pop-ups and I blocked those, then came the pop-unders and I blocked those. Then came the “punch the monkey” flash ads and I blocked those. Then came the flash ads that pop over the content I’m trying to read and force me to click “close” on them if I want to see anything. I haven’t installed a Flash blocker yet, but that’s only out of laziness.

    Similar to Ross’ comment earlier, I selectively block ads that I find annoying or that are implemented on a site in a way that seems designed to interrupt the flow of the page and bug the ever living hell out of me. Sites that integrate topical ads into their pages in a seamless way don’t get blocked. Sites that try every obnoxious, tacky, distasteful manner of trying to get my attention get the boot. Sorry, but this is one area of my interaction with media where I actually have some degree of control. I am going to exercise it.

  9. Well I’ll offer my $0.02 on this because I’ve actually put some thought into it (before I decided to try and blog full time, with ads being my primary source of income).

    It (ad blocking becoming commonplace) won’t happen any time soon. UNLESS Internet Explorer and Firefox both (perhaps just one, but it’d probably have to be IE to make a huge impact) build it in as a default feature.

    So long as it requires you to go out of your way and install some form of a plugin, the massive vast majority of the Internet won’t bother. And here’s why I say that – I worked for an unnamed huge ISP in their Internet division. When you install this companies ‘software’ (which is typically done by the same tech who installs the cable modem) it sets your browsers home page to their ‘portal’. This portal receives millions and millions of visits a month – because the “typical” Internet user has no idea how to change their default home page.

    That same portal has ads. And those ads get clicked like you wouldn’t believe. So my theory is that there’s such a huge number of people out there who 1) don’t know how to block ads and 2) are probably the ones that click ads the most anyway, ad-driven sites don’t have to worry too soon.

  10. Darren asked, “How did you draw the conclusion that ‘The ads are more annoying than the presumed reduction in content would be’?” For me, that’s easy: my time is too valuable (my life is too short) to watch any advertising at all. If I am *forced* to *pay_attention* to your advertising, your content isn’t worth it (or it better cure my Cancerous Immunodeficiency Necrotizing Asian SARS just by watching). Simple. (I know most people aren’t such purists.)

    When I visit, it makes me watch an ad before I can access the site. Well, fair enough; I’ll go get a coffee while your ad plays, and click through to the content when I get back. That’s like going to the bathroom when the commercial is on TV. Why then does open 2-3 pop-up windows on the page I want to see? (I don’t know what they are, because Firefox blocks them and informs me of the attempt.)

    Let’s turn the question around: Why do content-providers think they have a right to the huge hit-counts that free content brings, and then whine that they can’t make any money because people don’t pay attention to the ads? If you need the money, charge for your content, and accept that your audience is going to be much smaller.

  11. Banana: You’ve made several points about your own behaviour with regards to ads. Do you think those behaviours typical of most Web and TV users?

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