Are Ad Blockers Bad for Consumers?

Ever since advertising has existed, we have attempted to find ways to get around it. To many people, these displays are often annoyances that get in the way of an otherwise pleasurable experience, such as viewing a film or watching a television program. Now we have set top boxes that record TV streams while skipping the ads and pirated copies of films with the advertising removed.

The Internet has its share of ad blocking software with varying degrees of effectiveness. In March 2016 the New York Times came out with a pop-up visible to ad blocker users insinuating that their practice hurts the publication’s financial interests. The question that needs to be answered here is whether publishers are truly hurt by ad blockers and – by extension – whether the users themselves suffer.

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Publishers, advertisers, and the unions that advocate for them are slightly divided on their opinions regarding ad blocker usage and how to deal with it, but most of them almost unanimously consider this software a challenge they have to face in a way that doesn’t annoy their visitors. Online publications such as Forbes and the New York Times have adopted a method which allows them to detect ad blockers and inform these visitors of their impact. According to this report by PageFair, around $21.8 billion was lost due to this phenomenon in 2015. We can expect this figure to rise due to a continuous increase in ad blocker usage.

The argument for how Adblock hurts both publishers and their visitors is that by limiting their revenue stream, they are also limiting the funds they can use to pay their staff, resulting in a drop in the quality of their content. While this is a strong argument, proponents of software that blocks advertising have their own side to the story.

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We must not forget the reason software like Adblock began to appear. In the late 90s dubious advertisers began to appear with their strident “You are the 999,999th visitor” style that utterly annoyed the vast majority of people who visited the sites they appeared on. Within this context, ad blocking software was very much welcome and still serves that role today. To be sure that no one is annoyed ever again, the software began blocking every ad it could possibly detect.

The keyword here is “detect.” Since ad blockers have a scripted method for detecting ads, they, too, can be detected by the websites that encounter them. The Interactive Advertising Bureau, a trade group for advertisers, is cited here advocating the DEAL (Detect, Explain, Ask, and Lift or Limit) methodology for websites. This basically means that websites will detect your ad blocking software, explain its impact, ask you politely to turn it off, and eventually limit your use of the site (e.g. blocking the ability to comment or view more than a few pages) unless an exception is created. There are, of course, ways to circumvent ad blockers entirely.

Ad blocking generally works by scanning the target website for any common advertising scripts. Google’s AdSense, Doubleclick, and other advertisers use embedded scripting to communicate with publisher sites which can easily be challenged by a simple piece of code that scans for the presence of these scripts on a website you’re visiting. A simple way around this (if you’re a publisher) is to establish your own advertising circulation with hypertext pre-processing scripts (PHP). The output would be in plain HTML since your site would use its own internal code to render advertisements. Another way around this is to use contextual links by affiliates. Whatever you do, though, try not to annoy people. They don’t take very kindly to that.

Has ad blocking taken things too far? Are publishers reacting immaturely to ad blockers? Tell us your thoughts in a comment!

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