The Real Price of Internet Advertising?

October 2, 2015 at 9:19 am (internet) (, , , , )

I’ve been following some of the discussions about ad-blocking with interest.  I’ve now seen a number of comments from a range of sides on this one and am continually being surprised by some of the attitudes and opinions starting to appear in this arms race between blockers and advertisers.

Some of the facts and opinions that have surfaced that surprised me are:

  • Advertisers can buy their way out of ad-blocking.  So are advertisers now having to pay twice to advertise?  Kind of.  Or are ad-blockers positioning themselves as ‘guardians of the web’.  Kind of that too.
  • Blocking ads hurts the small people more than the big people.  Small businesses or creators or hobbyist event organisers and so on are the people losing out with ad-blockers.  The large providers will probably ride over much of this (or pay their way out) but these are the people whose enterprises (commercial or personal) are being enabled by the global reach and scale of the Internet, but it may all become fully cost ineffective if cheap, simple, high-reach advertising channels disappear.
  • Some websites are actively degrading their user experience for visitors using ad blockers.  The Washington Post apparently has experimented with not allowing articles to be viewed if you turn off ads.  And Google was removing ‘skip ad’ options for viewers of YouTube videos running Adblock Plus.

Why do people use ad blockers?  Well I suspect that many don’t mind adverts in the more general sense.  I’d say Ad blockers are arguably a blunt instrument deployed against anti-social, exploitative and intrusive adverts.

I regular get annoyed with in-your-face popups in front of an article I’m trying to read.  Is this a design failure on the part of the site to catch my attention by more subtle means?  Is it taking advantage of a captive audience?  Not sure., but that is a good reason for ad-blocking if the industry can’t regulate itself better.  And the drive for more intrusive ads is increasing – especially with more automatically playing video ads and the like on mobiles.  It is not want you want or when you want it.  End of.  That does not win friends or makes people warm to your products.  Maybe it is time for more obvious ‘commercial breaks’ in Internet use rather than a constant drip-feed of annoyance.

I also find it insulting when ads are designed to trick and fool you into clicking.  Whether that is placing link buttons right next to close X icons, especially successful on small screens I assume.  Or the plethora of ads that include the words ‘download’ as very visible buttons when you are attempting to download a document or software from sites such as sourceforge. Or maybe it is just in the general placing of ads so as to maximise accidental clicking. If the revenue is based on trickery, subversion and relies on accidental clicking/swiping/selecting to survive … then that is an industry in trouble indeed.

But the major reason right now for utilising ad blocking for me is as a defence against malware.  I regular read the detailed analysis published by a range of security vendors on how they’ve uncovered a complex malware serving system taking advantage of some of the large-scale advertising networks.  The bidding and auctioning processes for serving ads, coupled with many levels of redirection and URL shortening, and linked with content-delivery networks, not to mention links off to marketing and tracking databases, has created such a complex set of third party dependences for even the most trustworthy of websites that no place seems safe anymore.  Yes, you patch, keep plug-ins up to date, run AV checks, but it must surely be impossible to keep a PC clean of unwanted software these days and a major vulnerability is exposure to ads on sites you use and trust everyday.

Do I mind about the tracking?  Well again it depends. If done sensitively, then why not – there are benefits to seeing things of interest.  But I have no faith in such a lucrative business acting in the interests of us, their users – their ‘product’.  We have not opted-in to the use of free services in exchange for privacy – at best it is a false-choice due to the overwhelming network effects and dominant positioning of the large Internet companies.  We all know they are very good at staying below the ‘creepy line’ in knowing about you and providing just enough usefulness to keep us hooked to their services.  But with more hooking up between online services and offline data brokers, and not even thinking about any kind of future Internet of connected sensing and data gathering devices, things only look like getting worse before they get better.

So whilst the ad blocking war continues, being played out as a warning of the end of free services for consumers if they all block ads – I think the real win situation can only be when some of the above are fixed – lose intrusive ads, keep consumers in control of when they click or not and not trick them, ensure ad networks can not compromise trusted websites, and support responsible tracking of consumers with real opt-in.

I think only then will the need for ad-blockers go away.  I don’t think ad blockers have ever really been about blocking advertising – they have always been about maintaining control over the exploitation of a consumer’s Internet experience.  And for that, they serve more the purpose of an anti-virus, pop-up blocking, privacy supporting, malware-prevention, PC cleaning tool to me.

And in a world where people still fall for telephone ‘Microsoft support scams’, still install rogue Facebook applications in the hope of gaining a Dislike button, and still believe they can change the world via a status update (or at least think it will keep their Facebook data being sold off or made public), the need for protection like this shows no sign of going away just yet.


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