Reasons to not like ads

Bruce linked to Kagan MacTane’s list of “reasons to use ad-blockers”, and I thought it was pretty good. I’ve been describing people who want to use an ad-blocker really as falling into four categories; these obviously cross over a lot, and most people will have aspects of each.

Ads are bad for privacy

Primary concern here, ads that track you around the internet. Advertising itself isn’t so bad; it’s when the ad networks build up a list of sites you look at by dropping tracking cookies on you, and then create a profile of you and what you do and what you care about. There are potential benefits here — if you’re going to see adverts, then they might as well be for stuff you’re interested in, right? — but in a post-Snowden world, having this sort of profile of you available to a company who may not have your best interests at heart and may hand it over to whoever asks for it when compelled or paid isn’t necessarily a good thing. People who feel this way find that worrying. You can see your Google ads profile from your Google account, and get a sense of the sort of demographic information that has been built up about you, and you can change your list of interests or opt out entirely; most ad networks don’t have this level of control. The EFF’s Privacy Badger browser extension is primarily designed to alleviate this sort of worry, by permitting ads but removing any tracking cookies, or blocking ads and script requests that attempt to do tracking.

Ads are bad for performance

Primary concern: that a page full of adverts loads much more slowly, because the script in the ads holds up the page, and because the ads themselves take a lot of time to download. Les Orchard did a great job analysing The Verge and showed that an article with 57K of HTML also included nearly 10MB of ads and took thirty seconds to download. (The Vox Media team are working on it.) It’s quite startling how much faster a page is when it’s not downloading 200 times its own weight in extra advert code; this is what’s behind the AMP HTML initiative, although it’s not clear whether that serves the needs of people solely or whether it’s a bit of a landgrab by a few big companies. But it’s nonetheless a response to this performance issue, and I suspect that the only reason more people do not identify themselves with this concern over performance is that they don’t realise how much faster the web ought to be when done right. (Also, here, see Progressive Web Apps.)

Ads are visually disruptive

A fair few people don’t necessarily mind adverts as a concept but dislike the actual ads we’ve got, because they animate or flash colours or move around or play a video when you inadvertently mouse over them; that is, they’re distracting and terrible. People who feel like this tend not to mind, for example, text ads on the side of a set of search results, but don’t like awful flashing things. It makes it difficult to see what you’re actually reading. One of the larger offences in this particular category are ads which make a page’s content jump around; the ad appears after page load and pushes everything below it down, leading to immense annoyance on the part of someone reading the pushed-around thing (and screwing up the scroll position if you’ve just hit Back).

I shouldn’t have to see any ads at all

And then there are those who feel that they ought to not see any ads whatsoever, and if publishers have a problem with that, then the publishers need to solve it.

Here’s the important point. In general, complaints about ad blocking (from publishers, from adtech companies, from ad networks, and the like) tend to assume that everyone’s solely and completely in the last category. That is: the argument that ad blockers are bad goes “you just don’t care about how we fund the stuff that you read for free”. This is, I suggest, not the case for everyone. Yes, there are some people — plenty of people — who just don’t want any ads, and take a brutal and blasé attitude (“it’s not my problem you’re relying on a crappy business model”), and ignore the very tragedy-of-the-commons outcome of this (if everyone does it, we break everything). But, I think (and I’d love to see data on this, beyond the anecdata I have from talking to people) that some if not most people don’t dislike ads qua ads, they dislike the ads we get. Because the ads we get are visually distracting, privacy-invasive, and slow down the web to the point of ridiculousness. Maybe if adverts didn’t track us around the internet, didn’t screw up reading a page, and didn’t take thirty seconds to load, everyone wouldn’t be so quick to blame “ads” and could instead blame “bad ads”.

But… maybe it’s too late, now. I suspect it’s quite possible that the ad industry has pissed so comprehensively in this waterhole that there’s no way to come back from this and offer ads that can fund producers and aren’t dreadful.

I hope I’m wrong.

More in the discussion (powered by webmentions)

  • Nick Sizer responded at ... (twitter.com)
  • Gordon Syme responded at twitter.com @sil nice article, though you missed malvertising, which is what finally pushed me to use a mobile browser with an ad blocker.
  • Stuart Langridge responded at twitter.com @gordon_syme good point! I tend to not think of that sort of thing much.
  • Cristian Parrino responded at twitter.com @sil @kmactane nice one. I would ad "interruptive" - particularly within the realm of video and television.
  • David Brooks responded at twitter.com Point about conflating motivations is well observed. twitter.com/sil/status/709…
  • Fred Von responded at ... (twitter.com)
  • Jakes responded at twitter.com @sil @kmactane - for me, primarily because they're a major vector for compromise
  • Stuart Langridge responded at twitter.com @MakerJakes @sil @kmactane a couple of people have mentioned malvertising, which indeed I did not take into account
  • Kagan MacTane responded at twitter.com @sil I thought of it, didn't think it was a major driver for many people. Not sure how common @MakerJakes' view is.
  • Stuart Langridge responded at twitter.com @kmactane two people have already mentioned it to me, but my readership skews highly technical, so I don't know either :)
  • Stuart Langridge responded at twitter.com @kmactane also, I suspect there is a mismatch between people who are worried about malvertising and those who OUGHT to be but don't know.
  • Kagan MacTane responded at twitter.com @sil Well apparently, it'd be awfully timely if I'd included it: arstechnica.com/security/2016/… Ugh. May need to go update.
  • Stuart Langridge responded at twitter.com @kmactane @arstechnica the universe is deliberately conspiring against us.
  • Will Cooke responded at ... (twitter.com)
  • Rob Ferrer responded at twitter.com @sil I don't block ads much, but when I do (and also why I would block more) is for reasons 2 and 3.
  • Birmingham.IO responded at twitter.com Stuart Langridge: Reasons to not like ads by @sil buff.ly/1RM9jeF #PlanetBirmingham
  • Brian Douglass responded at twitter.com RT @sil: The four reasons I think people don't like ads, and why they shouldn't be confused (with thanks to @kmactane) kryogenix.org/days/2016/03/1…
  • Adrian Chiang responded at twitter.com RT @sil: The four reasons I think people don't like ads, and why they shouldn't be confused (with thanks to @kmactane) kryogenix.org/days/2016/03/1…
  • Adrian Chiang responded at ... (twitter.com)
  • Richard Cunningham responded at twitter.com @sil There is another anti-pattern emerging, ads that look like content
  • Stuart Langridge responded at twitter.com @rythie that's not new though; see the ones which look like newspaper articles and have ADVERTISEMENT on the top because of ASA rules
  • Richard Cunningham responded at twitter.com @sil newspapers only use it sparingly, Google search & Facebook do it as standard for most ads.
  • Stuart Langridge responded at twitter.com @rythie that's fair. Not sure how that's resolved; no ASA on the web. Should there be?
  • Vasilis responded at twitter.com Reasons to not like ads. Please read this, IAB. Cc @Jer00n kryogenix.org/days/2016/03/1…
  • Birmingham.IO responded at twitter.com Stuart Langridge: Reasons to not like ads by @sil buff.ly/1SI47Md #PlanetBirmingham
  • Luke Armstrong responded at twitter.com “The ad industry has pissed so comprehensively in this waterhole that there’s no way to come back from this” kryogenix.org/days/2016/03/1… by @sil
  • Bruce Lawson responded at twitter.com Reasons to not like ads kryogenix.org/days/2016/03/1… by @sil "some if not most people don’t dislike ads qua ads, they dislike the *ads we get*"
  • john holt ripley responded at twitter.com "if ads didn’t screw up reading & take 30 seconds to load, everyone wouldn't blame 'ads' and could blame 'bad ads'." kryogenix.org/days/2016/03/1…