How We Block Adblockers – and Our Take on Adblock Ethics
Ad blockers – and efforts to block the ad blockers – are big news on the Internet in a debate that pits publishers against the public, with the publishers wanting their advertising to be served to their readers, and a public that is increasingly displeased with the environment that paid advertising has created on the Internet. More and more websites are hiding their content behind paywalls, or nagging their visitors to either turn off the adblockers, add their website to the website “white list” or make a cash donation. In other words, extortion. Pay us or we will put up a paywall!
None of these strategies works very well, which is creating a crisis for online content providers who subsist on their advertising revenues. Most recently, Observer.com published a report yesterday about how Wired is combatting adblockers by blocking readers who have their ad blockers on from their website, unless they pay a fee of $1 per month. Forbes has also joined the growing list of sites that offer an “ad-light” option on 30 day trial, after which the option will cost around $15 per month.
The Interesting Thing About Ad Blockers
The interesting thing about ad blockers is that they don’t actually block most advertising. They are specifically designed to block display advertising – and they can only block display advertising when the advertising copy is “serviced” by a third-party, such as Amazon or eBay. The whole ad blocker controversy is really a backdrop for a good old-fashioned protection racket, rather like virus protection schemes or fraud alert sites (which shall remain nameless because we don’t want to get sued) that post phony consumer complaints and then charge the targets of the complaints to remove the negative comments from their websites.
Don’t laugh. People are making huge sums of money off these scams and, in a sense, adblocker blockers are in this category. It took us just ten minutes to figure out the work around and many other people have figured out the same solution. It’s out there, but it doesn’t get much attention because it isn’t possible to monetize the solution. Can’t sell a process that is nothing more than copying and pasting a few lines of code….but that is the real problem. A lot of people who are trying to making their livings off the Internet either don’t know how to read (much less write) code, so they are stuck with having to use off the shelf solutions. So, whether it is ignorance or laziness, there are a lot of people out there on the Internet who can’t be bothered to use the solution we’re about to show you.
It all seems rather silly, until you realize that literally hundreds of billions of dollars in annual advertising revenues are at stake here. All by itself, Google reportedly lost $6.6 billion in revenues last year because of ad blockers. Multiply that by the literally millions of websites attempting to earn advertising revenues to keep themselves afloat (and, boy, do we ever know how that feels) and the number could easily creep up to trillions – not billions – of lost revenues. Annually.
As far back as 2011, Henrik Aasted Sørensen, the graduate student who wrote the original Adblock program in 2002, expressed misgivings over the effect the program has had on the basic nature of the Internet and how it adversely affects many of the websites that rely on advertising revenues to stay in business. As the original inventor of the Adblock concept, Sorensen never actually made any money from his work because he distributed it as free-ware and never attempted to monetize it in the manner that his successors have.)
Articles about how programs like Adblock Plus are going to destroy the Internet are mostly being written by people who don’t remember – or never knew – that, once upon a time, everything on the Internet was free. Totally, one hundred percent free of charge content….if you could find it. That was the rub. Before the World Wide Web reared its ugly head, finding anything on the Internet required a significant expenditure of time and effort. Then, the web browsers came along to automate the search process….which is exactly when we found ourselves paying for the formerly free content we once enjoyed.
We also have to make a sharp distinction between “the Internet,” which is that information superhighway we have been hearing about for decades now, and the “World Wide Web,” which is the mechanism that manages the vast majority of the content that appears on the Internet.
The Sordid History of “Adblocking”
In 2006, the adblocker project was taken over by another developer, Wladimir Palant, who renamed the product Adblocker Plus, rewrote the code and built a company around the product which he monetized with a marketing scheme that some critics have called “virtual extortion.”
The marketing scheme works like this: big advertisers, like Google, Microsoft, and Amazon, pay Adblock Plus exorbitant fees to “white-list” their advertisements. Adblock Plus reviews the ads the advertisers want white-listed, and lists those that meet their criteria, allowing them through Adblock Plus. According to one report, major corporations are paying as much as 30 percent of the additional revenues they would not have collected if their ads were blocked. Another report indicates that only 10 percent of the companies that have been white listed are paying anything at all.
Adblock Plus gets away with this kind of double-dealing, playing both ends against the middle, because they distribute Adblock Plus free of charge to consumers who want to block advertising from their computer screens, and they distribute it free of charge because that creates a market for their “white-listing” operation.
Now, another company, Sourcepoint, headed by Google alumnus Ben Barokas, has just raised $10 million in seed money to build and market a program that will make it impossible for adblockers to block publisher’s advertisements…for a fee, of course. Barokas, who cut his teeth with Admeld, an advertising servicing company, was greatly frustrated by the adblockers because they were adversely affecting his business, which he sold to Google in 2011 for $400 million.
So, in one corner, we have Adblock Plus charging advertisers to allow their ads through the wall that Adblock supposedly erects around an Ablock user’s computer while, in the other corner, we have companies like Sourcepoint selling programs designed to blast through any ad-block program. The inevitable result of this mashup is going to be a slew of lawsuits, as the makers of Adblock Plus and the makers of ad blocker blockers sue each other for everything from alienation of affections to restraint of trade.
And who’s in the middle of this mess? You. Me. Us. The Internet users whose eyeballs are being held hostage by these billion-dollar businesses.
Why Internet Advertising is Worse than Television Advertising
Right off the bat, we have a dizzying array of methods through which the advertising is served up to us, ranging from the passive, pay-per-click ads that don’t really bother you until you click on them, to splash pages that won’t let you through to the content you want until you have clicked on the advertisement, which interrupts the flow of the information you were trying to get when you bumped into the splash page.
Advertisers can purchase “splash under pages” that display over, under and around the content you want to read, and “splash over” pages that obscure the content until you take some kind of action which, if you aren’t careful, will take you to a completely different page from the one you were on. There are ads that look like editorial content (on Facebook, Twitter, Reddit and, of course, Google,) ads that look like user contributed content (Pinterest, among others,) and the list goes on and on.
And then there are the stealth advertisements, the ones that masquerade as buyer’s guides. You know who they are: “The Top Tens” of garbage journalism, with their convenient links to whichever advertisers they are affiliated with. It’s even called Affiliate Advertising, in case you missed the connection. The mind-numbing number and variety of the advertisement we are barraged with online has, you guessed it, a mind numbing effect upon the Internet user, which is all of us.
That’s important because the advertising barrage forces us to put up mental walls to protect ourselves from the onslaught of irrelevant, erroneous or downright false information. In other words, we have to put our blinders on but that sometimes means we aren’t seeing things that we should see. Important information ends up getting lost in the shuffle because human beings (and especially male human beings) are highly distractable creatures, which makes us especially vulnerable to advertising that is specifically designed to distract us.
The advertising culture is dangerous in other ways. Much of the advertising we see online is chock full of misinformation and sometimes disinformation, the effect of which is becoming increasingly obvious in the current presidential campaigns. It is becoming more difficult to separate the facts we acquired through our consumption of respected sources of information from the claptrap we are being inundated with. Once upon a time, there was joke about how, if you saw it on the Internet, it had to be true. Today, the truism is that if you got it off the Internet it probably isn’t true, and the bottom line is that we can’t be sure of anything we read on the Internet…and a lot of that is due to the advertising.
But is an Internet Without Advertising a Viable Internet
Tellus News Digest is a business 0r, at least, it was supposed to be. We are now in the process of thinking about turning it into a nonprofit educational institution (those who can do; those who can’t teach) but even that takes money. If we can’t pay writers, editors, artists and designers, we can’t stay in business….but there are exactly two ways that a website can generate income: contributions and advertising.
Now that we know all about advertising as a revenue source, let’s look at the contributions picture.
Contributions come in two categories, freewill offerings and coerced payments. Freewill offerings are used by nonprofit websites,which request charitable donations from the users of their websites.Of course. the charitable donation route is only available to nonprofit websites or websites. Others, who are not 501(c)3 tax-exempt but operate to benefit the public good ask visitors to subscribe, but don’t impose a paywall to force visitors to cough up some cash. That’s far less invasive than erecting a paywall between you and your readers….and a lot less obnoxious. True, they usually use a splash page in an attempt to coerce some cash out of their visitors, but they are usually less disruptive than paid advertisements.
The coerced payments are imposed by the paywall that some websites have erected between their visitors and their content. The New York Times uses one, and so do a lot of other publications, but those coerced contributions probably won’t stretch enough to defray the Times’ astronomical overhead and operating costs. Some paywalls allow you to view a certain number of articles per month before you have to pay up. Some allow you in if you are following a link from a citation in another publication.
However, regardless of the details, it is important for us to recognise that a lot of important information is disappearing behind paywalls, making it more and more difficult for the average person to access them. As result, we are getting more and more of our information second or third hand from the people who do have access to those sources, which we might call the “Balkanization” of information.
How We Stumbled onto a Different Solution
In the two years that we have been developing Tellus, we have tried every advertising scheme out there, with uniformly dismal results. The results are dismal because we have very little traffic. We have very little traffic because we cannot afford to pay contributors and, therefore, we have very little original content and, even if we did, we cannot afford the advertising and marketing budgets that are required to launch a website into this market. We’re also unlucky. None of our own articles have ever “gone viral” to such the extent that would put us over the hump into self-generating traffic, otherwise known as “word of mouth.”
Several months ago, we made the decision to turn off all of our advertising because we couldn’t stand the obnoxious advertisements that the advertising services were inserting into our pages. Some of them were simply obscene. Others were deliberately obnoxious, deliberately misleading. They also played havoc with the “look and feel” that we have worked so hard to create here, by the large holes that the adblockers inserted into our layouts when they blocked the ads that belonged in those slots, not to mention the way they slow down page loading and the amount of bandwidth they consume. And, since we weren’t making anything off them, we didn’t have much to lose.
The website improved. Dramatically. Until we turned the ads off, we didn’t realize how much they distorted our design, nor how badly they perverted our objective of providing clean, responsible content….but we still weren’t making any money.
We started thinking about how adblocking software has to operate and the answer is that, when you strip away the bells and whistles, adblockers merely prevent any website running on an adblocked browser to download data from another site. In other words, adblockers intercept the “fetch” commands the website software issues whenever a page with an advertisement is being displayed. Adblockers don’t interfere with prompts submitted by the user for third-party content, such as when click on a hyperlink. More specifically, they seem to operate by blocking the downloading of images required for the ads to run in the spaces provided.
We also looked at the “adblocker blocker” plugs-in available for WordPress websites, and they all seem to work by blocking the visitors’ access to the website when the visitors have an adblocker running until they turn the blocker off, agree to make contribution, or white list their site. That still seems like extortion to us.
We have been experimenting with a new advertising system that could circumvent all of the known ad blockers and, much to our surprise, it seems to work very nicely. Here’s proof:
If you return to our home page, you will find this ad in the left hand column, the third item down on the left. You are going to see this advertisement whether or not you have an adblocker installed on your browser because the advertisement is native to the website. It is being served internally and doesn’t import any data from the third party’s website.
Go ahead. Go back to the front page and click on the image. Better yet, just click on the link in the sidebar. Either one will take you to a secondary landing page with the same image on it. If you click on the same image again, it will take you to the Amazon page in question. (We have also tested this system on eBay and three other affiliate advertisers. Works perfectly.)
As a matter of fact, this system will only work with affiliate advertising campaigns and it requires more customization than a standard advertising campaign serviced by a third-party advertising agency. That means that the website operator has to do more work in setting up and managing the affiliate relationship, updating advertisements as offers change, and making sure that everything is working properly. In other words, this isn’t “sit back and relax” advertising. It’s “take the wheel and steer” advertising that puts you in total control of what appears on your website.
We originally used the Amazon Gift Card offer because it never goes out of style and is equally applicable to any and all interest areas but it turned out that it didn’t actually work very well. Other Amazon offerings work much better.
So, we have come up with a variant on the freewill offering that:
- Doesn’t intrude on your Internet experience; if you’re not interested, you can easily ignore it because it doesn’t interrupt the flow of your activities;
- Doesn’t cost you anything that you weren’t going to spend anyway. (The advertiser -in our case, Amazon – pays us for the rental of your eyeballs, but only if you are willing to rent them);
- Doesn’t distract you with misleading or erroneous information;
- Doesn’t encourage you to buy things you don’t actually want or need (which is, after all, what advertising is all about, the promotion of conspicuous consumption)
And THAT Brings us to Our New Dilemma
Now that we have built the better mousetrap we are already having second thoughts about unleashing our system on the Internet. We really believe that, if you don’t want to view some obnoxious advertising, well, you really shouldn’t have to. There are some very good reasons for using an adblocker, and that’s especially true when it comes to the more obnoxious types of advertising, the intrusive, offensive, misleading and downright fraudulent advertising that now saturates the Internet. That puts us in a quandary when it comes putting out this information.
Here’s the problem in a nutshell. Our method is a process, not a plugin that you install on a website and anyone with the necessary technical skills can very easily look at the source code and immediately understand how we are doing this. In other words, once we started using this technique on our website, we effectively released the details of the technique to the world.
It’s not a perfect solution. It takes a lot more work to do this than it does to simply drop agency serviced advertisements into a web page, and it takes someone who is familiar with HTML to do it right…but it can be done.
Because it is a process, rather than a plug-in, there is no way for us to monetize the idea and, because there is no way for us to monetize it, there is also no way for us to control it….but we didn’t realize this until after we had installed the thing on our website, so the cat is already out of the bag.
The Bottom Line
The truth of the matter is that our innovation isn’t really that new. It has been talked about for years on the Internet, but we are not aware of anyone else who actually installed the work around and then called attention to it, showing other people how to do it. Since we can’t use it without releasing it to everyone who wants to do it, and we can’t monetize it, the only we can benefit from it is if people come here to figure out how to do it….or click on the ads and actually buy stuff from Amazon and the other affiliate marketing channels we’re now setting up.
What’s your opinion about all this? Use the comments box.