Why Adblock Plus May Be A Good Thing
A brief explanation: Adblock Plus is a Firefox extension that allows users to prevent page elements from loading by blocking HTTP requests according to their source address. It can block iFrames, Flash, images, and scripts. (More in this Wikipedia article)
In other words, no Flash thingies overtaking pages I'm trying to read. No animations to annoy the peripheral vision. No bouncing smilies screaming "Oh my god!". No dancing mortgage aliens (a side note: the mortgage crunch doesn't help those either). No AdWords. Pages loading much faster. I think everyone in the web ad biz should experience the internets through the AdBlock lens. It adds new perspectives.
Other reactions are similar:
Noam Cohen in the original NYTimes article: "[The feeling is like] when a blizzard hits Times Square and for a few hours, the streets are quiet and unhurried, until the plows come to clear away all that white space."
Nicholas Carr at Rough Type: "Imagine that somebody has been yelling into your ear for so long that it's come to seem normal. Now imagine that the person suddenly shuts up. That's the effect of ad-blocking."
It is really like that.
The question, of course, is "now what?" In the short run, the answer is nothing. Firefox is still in its early adopter stage (its market share is 17.4%), and adding custom features to a browser is not a common behavior among the mass online audience. (Adblock Plus creators claim 2.5 million users and a growth rate of some 350,000 users a month.) And Adblock might not be such a big deal after all since most online users are not paying any active attention to the ads anyway and perhaps are not finding them a big nuisance.
Yet it would be interesting to consider a scenario where an ad blocker (say, Adblock Plus) is a default feature of all major browsers.
This, admittedly, may be fairly hard to imagine, considering that Microsoft, whose Internet Explorer remains the dominant browser even with a declining share of 64%, has an ad network of its own. Mozilla Foundation, dependent on Google for much of its revenue, is not likely to include Adblock Plus in the default installation package of Firefox either, although the plug-in is listed as a recommended add-on. Yet, while a universal ad-blocking browser feature may not be likely to arrive soon, it doesn't mean that it never will. After all, nobody had imagined a few years ago that pop-up ads would one day vanish thanks to the default settings on all self-respecting browsers.
If it does arrive, here's what will probably happen.
1. Lawsuits. I'm not sure who will get sued -- users who activate the ad blocker, browser makers, plug-in developers -- but someone has to be since the dominant logic is that ad-skipping amounts to theft. CNet has suggested that publishers might wrap their content into a user agreement that prohibits ad skipping, outlawing the software on their property. Lawsuits are probably not going to be very effective, though, just as they haven't been successful at stopping file sharing.
2. A technology arms race. A counter-technology will be developed to allow publishers to detect and perhaps disable the ad-skipping functionality. At the very least, publishers will demand that readers turn their ad zappers off in exchange for viewing content. Advertising networks will learn how to disguise their addresses to fool the black list.
3. New business models. Some publishers will offer ad-free versions of their sites in exchange for either personal information or a small payment -- not a new idea at all and not terribly effective. Others will turn away from ad networks whose addresses are on the ad-blocker filter lists and look elsewhere. The alternatives include:
- referral links where content publishers get a cut from each sale they help generate,
- hand-coded or locally stored ads (Adblock Plus zaps only those banners that are pulled from an address recognized as belonging to an ad network),
- ads disguised as editorial content.
Most importantly, publishers will become picky about what ads they run. Adblock Plus is turned on by default but it allows users to disable it on any page. Why would you want to do that and let the ads back in? I can think of two big reasons: you really like the content and want to support the publisher, or you really like the ads because they are entertaining or useful (or you work in advertising and have to look at all those banners, but that's another story). While publishers are already working hard at cranking out good content and establishing long-lasting relationships with their readers (right?), they still have little control over what shows up in the ad slots. And what shows up is often an ad that doesn't fit the site's design, has little to do with its content or readers' interests, and is annoying with its unexpected behavior.
As long as the readers don't have any other choice but to live with these banners, publishers do not have a reason to worry about them. To please the ad-zapping public however, publishers will demand to exercise more control over advertising layout and content either directly or through a mechanism where they will select ads that are a better fit.
And it's not a bad thing. How would you rather have your ad: tolerated as a necessary evil but largely ignored, or hand-picked by an editor and, because of this silent editorial approval, looked at? This will put pressure on ad makers to create better ads in an environment where the universally low click-through rates alone are not indicative of the ads' quality or even performance (research shows that even banners that are shown but not clicked influence brand perception). It's a case of advertising Darwinism, if you wish, with the fittest ads surviving at the expense of the most annoying.
So, Adblock Plus or any other reasonably flexible ad zapper can actually be good for everybody. Advertisers will get the attention they want, readers will get rid of the ads that annoy and keep the ones that are useful, and publishers will get happier readers. What's not to like?