On Ad Blocking

At SynergyFest Mobile World Congress, I was asked a number of times whether Opera is looking at Ad Blockers and my general opinion of Ads. Here’s what I replied (with the BIG FAT DISCLAIMER that this is my personal opinion, and not that of Opera).

Firstly, yes; Opera is looking at Ad Blocking, and has been for quite a while (you’ll find lots of popular adblockers in our desktop extensions store). We know that Ads slow down the Web, and for many users, they’re expensive: the New York Times reported

Visiting the home page of Boston.com every day for a month would cost the equivalent of about $9.50 in data usage just for the ads.

Many Opera users in emerging economies pay much more of their income for web access than I do in the UK, and we want to make the web more affordable for those people.

(The fact that we’re looking at it shouldn’t be taken as a commitment to anything, by the way. We look at everything our consumers demand and our competitors implement, of course.)

But let’s talk about ads themselves. “Ads are evil” isn’t an mature argument; we need to be more nuanced than that.

For example, the other day I was reading a serious political article. Underneath it was a “related article” – just some clickbait nonsense about “The Best Breasts of 2015”, designed to sell advertising, and paginating excessively in order to maximise “hits” (whatever that means) and worsening the user experience. Now, I’ve got nothing against breasts (in fact, I’m at the age when I’m growing my own) but this is preposterous crap and deserves to die in a fire.

Later, I was reading a blog post about a band I like, and in it was a text ad, telling me that the band were playing near me the week later. I didn’t know that, so clicked through and bought a ticket – and the gig was very good.

Both were ads; one was stupid, the other was very useful. What’s the difference? To me, it was intrusiveness and (related to that) contextuality. An ad about a band next to an article about the band is highly contextual, and thus less intrusive. That it was a text ad, so light to download, made it less intrusive too, because it didn’t delay the page loading or make the screen reformat. Neither did it autoplay a heavy video, make noise or obscure the content.

So the challenge for Ad blocking is to block the crap and allow the good. I don’t know if anyone knows how to do that infallibly.

There’s also the question of revenues. We’ve been trained to expect “free” content on the web, and that’s largely paid for by ads. Before I joined Opera and became an Internet Tycoon/ over-promoted gobshite (delete as you see fit), I had a reasonably popular blog. (This very one! And still the same 2003 design!)

Because it was reasonably popular, I paid a fair amount of money for server costs etc. As sole breadwinner with two young children, those costs were a burden, so I ran ads which paid my hosting and bought me a few pints. I don’t know that I would have pulled the plug without those ads (I like the sound of my own voice too much) but other people in my situation might, and it would be a huge loss to the Web – and therefore to consumers – if independent content producers’ voices disappeared as a result of advertising revenues drying up.

So, Ad-blocking is a must, I think. But it needs to be done intelligently, and (probably) over a few iterations before we (Opera, and the wider web ecosystem) get it right. And if that encourages the advertising industry to do their work with less intrusive, bandwidth-hogging nonsense, and therefore more utility (to consumers and to their clients), we’ll all gain.

Update

Since I wrote this, Opera released a developer build of our desktop browser, with a built-in ad blocker that makes sites about 50% faster, and some 90% faster.

This led to good conversations about ads, publishers’ revenue and how the industry is changing:

3 Responses to “ On Ad Blocking ”

Comment by MacCruiskeen

I use an adblocker not just because the ads are obnoxious and I don’t want to see them, but also because the ad servers are a drag on browser responsiveness. There are sites that are practically unreadable without adblockers. So it’s not just a matter of filtering ‘good’ ads from ‘bad’ (as if there were a way to do that (though some ads are actively malicious), but also serving the ads in a less obtrusive manner.

Comment by Peta Sittek

I would also add that considerable proportion of ads cause battery drain. I’ve made and use a Chrome extension which whitelists only content from domains I explicitly allow and it’s quite a difference when browsing on travel.

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