Advertising, the Internet, and guilt trips

The Internet, Advertising, and Guilt Trips

Last month, Ars Technica decided to run an “experiment” in which they denied site access to browsers that employed an “ad blocker”, followed by an impassioned plea to turn off your ad blocker. The impetus for doing this was that an estimated 40% of site visitors were using ad blockers, and since Ars uses ad views (as opposed to click throughs) for their ad metrics, users with ad blockers were denying Ars ad revenue, thus ’stealing’ site content.

Even by Ars’ own admission, the reaction to this act was “mixed”. Many people whitelisted Ars, some even subscribed. However, there were some commenters in Ars’ original announcement (which, unfortunately, are no longer online), who weren’t too happy about it.

The reason may have been the way in which content was denied: Ars simply served a blank page. There was no indication as to why, or what could be done to remedy the problem. It wasn’t until Ars published their plea that it became known what was happening.

Perhaps if only Ars swapped the order of events, things would have turned out better.  Had the post explaining how ad blocking was affecting the company come before the “experiment”, then active visitors could have prepared to avoid the blank pages, or at least known why the blank pages were being served. According to comments in Ars’ post-experiment post, all some needed to whitelist the site was to just be asked to do so.

I do enjoy Ars’ content, and read their RSS feed daily. I reluctantly decided to run my own experiment and whitelist arstechnica.com, and continue to do so to this day. I find that their advertisements aren’t distracting (for the most part, there is the occasional animated Flash ad), but I feel as if I was guilt tripped into doing it.

In the month since whitelisting, I haven’t regretted doing so. The ads served by Ars do not detract from the content for the most part, and are usually related to what I’m reading (they’re usually tech focused). I  As long as the substance AND STYLE of the ad matches the article. I don’t mind seeing animated or video advertising if I’m on a site that provides video content, but if I’m reading a article with static text, then the ad should be static as well, not Flash or an animated GIF.

How many animated advertisements do you see in a newspaper or magazine? Unless you’ve been dipping into Timothy Leary’s personal stash, the answer is “none.” Put simply, Ars Technica is an online version of a magazine. The advertising present on arstechnica.com should basically follow how advertising works in print magazines and newspapers. Print ads don’t flash or jiggle, make sound or appear in the middle of the page like magic; neither should ads serving static content.

Print ads also don’t have the ability to see what magazine or newspaper I read next, providing you ignore the possibility of following the trail of filler cards that fall out of a print magazine. There are some online ad purveyors that do like to follow where you go, much like a cyber stalker.

After whitelisting Ars, I noticed I wasn’t seeing ads on every visit. On some visits there would be a banner ad, usually in-house references to other Condé Nast sites, in the header; on other visits the banner area would be blank. I confirmed my whitelist settings, then realized I was still blocking JavaScript. Ads served from the nefarious doubleclick.net were being blocked because I specifically do not allow JavaScript from that domain to be executed because of their aggressive use of tracking cookies.

I don’t mind a web site tracking my visits. I very much mind when a third party, such as an ad server, tracks which sites I visit, and for how long. This is what Double Click did prior to their acquisition by Google. In the days prior to ad blocking extensions, I avoided doubleclick.net by using the host file trick to redirect doubleclick.net references to localhost, so nothing would appear, JavaScript and cookies wouldn’t be downloaded, and my actions wouldn’t be tracked. I’m still not convinced they’re behaving like a good net citizen, and I refuse to whitelist them.

Unfortunately, Ars uses Double Click. And being that Double Click just doesn’t serve ads, but JavaScript as well, the NoScript extension in Firefox blocks the JavaScript download, which prevents the ad from loading. (The fact that the ad won’t even display if JavaScript is disabled is troubling to me, and it should be troubling to Ars as well) Even more unfortunate, NoScript will not allow you to whitelist scripts for only a single site. In order to view the Double Click ad on Ars, I would need to allow doubleclick.net JavaScript on all sites I visit. I’m not willing to do that.

Shortly after the Ars “experiment”, I started having troubles accessing some stories on my local newspaper’s site. Most of the time, visiting sacbee.com (The Sacramento Bee) would result in seeing a story. However, every now and again, I would get a very confusing message about needing to be logged in to see a story:

Note that further down the page it says that I am, in fact, logged in. Regardless of what I did, including logging out and back in, and a forced refresh (control-F5), I would get this message, and then only on certain stories. Then, one day, completely by accident, I used a browser without any JavaScript or ad blocking (it was Internet Explorer, which I use only by accident), and stories that had previously been showing the above error were showing fine.  I tried with Firefox again, and the very same story I’d just been viewing was still being blocked.

It turns out that sacbee.com also uses Double Click, and it appears that either Double Click or their clients (in this case, sacbee.com) are “pulling an Ars” and refusing content to browsers with ad blocking.  I was able to confirm this by turning off the ad blocking and JavaScript blocking software in Firefox, and the previously blocked article suddenly started appearing.

I’m willing to work with sites and whitelist them if their ads are relevant and not distracting, but don’t expect me to start practicing unsafe browsing practices just so I can see your ads. There are some newspaper sites (ahem) that trigger XSS (Cross-site scripting) alerts when JavaScript blocking is turned off. That is a security risk, and I’m not willing to allow that risk just to see ads. If the Sacramento Bee, or any other site serving potential malware, doesn’t want me viewing their pages unless I allow my malware defenses to be lowered, then I won’t view their pages.

Aside from showing advertising in dissimilar media, I don’t like advertisements that slow down page loads. The next time you find yourself waiting for  a page to complete downloading, look at your browser’s status bar, and see if it’s waiting on an advertiser. I find that most page “hangs” are due to advertisements. Having content blocked by waiting on a overloaded ad server is infuriating, even more so if you’re being told it’s bad to block ads.

I certainly want the sites I use and enjoy to continue producing content and services, and if that means viewing advertisements, I’m all for it as long as my guidelines are met. Ars appears to be meeting those guidelines (for the most part), so I’m willing to help them out. A great example of how I believe advertising should be done can be found at Instapaper. Instapaper is an offline web reader that offers excellent Kindle integration, and I find it an invaluable resource. Instapaper displays a single, small, relevant ad, served by The Deck, an advertising company I find to be reputable (check out their web site to understand what I mean by ‘reputable’). Any site thinking of using advertising should look to Instapaper (or any of The Deck advertising clients) as an example.

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