Ad blockers: Are they harming the websites you love?

A while ago, I reviewed a program called AdBlock Plus, a popular Firefox add-on that nukes the annoying ads that get in the way when you’re browsing. It is super-effective, stripping ads from the screen and leaving only clean, white space in their place. As anyone who has ever spent more than 30 seconds on the internet knows, you’ll soon be assaulted by blinking, buzzing and flashing ads, my personal favorites being the ones that slide out and cover whatever it is you’re trying to read.

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I thought AdBlock Plus was really cool and gave it a great rating, but just the other day I read this article by Ars Technica which made me stop and think. Could blocking ads be hurting my favorite websites?

Once you think about it, it’s obvious that websites that don’t charge for content have to make money some other way. One of these ways is advertising, and if we get rid of that advertising with an ad blocker, it can’t generate the revenue that maintains the website. As the article points out, some argue that they never click on ads anyway, so there’s no harm in getting rid of them. Well, the truth is that many large websites are paid by advertisers on a per view basis, not per click. Surely once you realize that, it changes everything.

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I wonder how many people will get rid of their AdBlock Plus after reading the Ars Technica article? There’s a problem here, and its the same one I see when people get into the illegal download debate. We have spent a long time taking full advantage of the internet and all the free and accessible stuff it offers, and old habits are hard to break. The internet broke into the mainstream more than 15 years ago,  but back then content providers, vendors and producers didn’t think of the future and what would happen if they gave users (or allowed them to take) their products for free.

Most users don’t think of the consequences unless we’re made to – downloading, watching and reading online are too ingrained. You turn on your computer and there it is. We expect to get lots of our content for free and see nothing wrong with sweeping ads aside in order to get it. Likewise, if users feel that advertising is too intrusive, for example, they don’t think twice about complaining. But think about it:  it’s a bit like being invited around to somebody’s house for dinner and then complaining about the food.

If content providers want people’s attitudes towards paying (however they do – or don’t- do it) for their content to change, it’s going to take a lot of effort. An internet-wide change would never work, so it is going to require the long, hard slog of educating users and appealing to their better nature. Do you think it will work?

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