When fringe political author Danny Carlton decided to block the Firefox browser from visiting his site, he sparked a firestorm of controversy.
According to Carlton, the issue is a popular Firefox plugin known as Adblock Plus (ABP), which enables users to filter out advertisements on the sites they visit. Since there was, at that time, no means of detecting ABP, Carlton blocked all Firefox users to prevent what he called an “infringement of the rights of web site owners and developers.”
Most Webmasters and bloggers have no desire to take this issue to the extremes Carlton has. The majority, in fact, have no real interest in it at all. Even the major players, right now, have taken no interest in these applications as they just aren’t popular enough to warrant fighting.
However, as spam blogs and misguided Webmasters make advertising more prominent and annoying, the popularity of these tools can only grow. A large-scale clash in the courtroom may be inevitable, but in the meantime regular bloggers are left with few reasonable options. Even if ad blocking is illegal, enforcing it will only be an option for larger players such as Google and Myspace, who have millions potentially at stake.
The question becomes, how can a Webmaster keep their revenue stream intact, even if some of their viewers are blocking ads.
Where once ad blocking software was simplistic in nature, today’s applications are far more sophisticated. All of the popular advertising networks are blocked by their domains, locally-hosted advertisements that follow industry standards are blocked by their dimensions and almost any advertisement can be blocked by common strings in the URL or link.
Much like the cat and mouse game between virus authors and anti-virus companies, once a new service comes online, it is quickly reported and blocked by most major ad blocking solutions. Simply moving to a new network is not likely to foil any ad blocking software and any locally-hosted ad solution can likely be detected easy as well.
Though some software applications claim to be able to prevent ad blocking, attempting to trick the blockers is both unlikely to succeed and unwise. Someone who takes the time to install ad blocking software clearly doesn’t want to see the ads and forcing them to view ads through trickery is not going to win many fans.
It’s clear that as some have suggested, the time has come to innovate, and work on new solutions to financing Web sites.
Unfortunately, the first string of innovation has brought with it some controversial and annoying ideas.
First, inline text ads, such as brought to you by AdBrite and Kontera, have become popular since they avoid detection by at least some, though not all, ad blocking applications. Users, however, seem to find these ads very annoying and, since the links are embedded in the content, they are often mistaken for regular links at first glance.
This has lead some to create special adblocking scripts just for these kinds of ads.
A second idea has been to use a service such as Pay Per Post to generate revenue. These services work by paying bloggers to write reviews of products, services or sites for a cash reward. Since the review is part of the site’s content and not an actual ad, the content is not filtered out.
Though many good bloggers have gone down that route, many more since they added their disclosure requirements, at best there is still a respect and reputation issue to be weighed when considering the service.
Though the mingling of advertising and content seems to be the natural evolution of promotion when many work to filter out the former, the mixture of the two is detrimental in many other ways.
Evolutions of Advertising
The bitter truth is that, when it comes to online advertising, Webmasters have gotten a bit lazy. The ease of services such as Google Adsense and the Yahoo! Publisher Network has made it so that we don’t have to think very hard to run ads. We just sign up for an account, set up some ads, copy the code and profit.
Webmasters who want to avoid having their ads blocked need to stop following the beaten path and try some less than traditional steps, for example:
- Individual Sponsorships: There are two types of sponsors to consider, user sponsors, such as what UserFriendly.org does, or corporate sponsors. Individual sponsors will often pay a monthly or yearly fee to get access to features not available to visitors or earlier access to content. As long as you avoid standard ad sizes, it is unlikely that any promotion for such a sponsorship is likely to be filtered out.
- Corporate Sponsorships: Corporate sponsorships can vary from integration with the site itself, including a new background or logo, to a simple link at the end of an article. The trick is to avoid integrating the sponsorship with the content itself and finding the right amount of presence to offer for your site so that the sponsorship doesn’t become overwhelming.
- Premium Content: Similar to individual sponsorships is offering premium content that can be bought in addition to free content. This can include eBooks, videos, photos, access to additional information or a particular guide. As with other types of ads, as long as you avoid standard sizes or common strings, promotion for this material will not easily be filtered out.
- Merchandising: As Yogurt from Spaceballs once said, Merchandising is “Where the real money from the movie is made!” Some sites, such as Homestarrunner.com, make their entire living off of merchandising without any ads at all.
- RSS Advertisements: With more and more reading being done over RSS feeds anyway, it makes sense to look at advertisements in them. Though ads may still be filtered in Web-based RSS readers and proxy-based ad blocking applications may still filter ads in software readers, ads are still more likely to go through than if they are on your site.
- Ignore it: Finally, the best approach for most sites is likely to be simply ignoring the issue for now. Though 2.5 million Adblock users may seem like a lot, with over one billion Internet users, they make up only a small percent of the overall Web. Since users of ad blocking tools are among the least likely to click an ad, the economic impact these tools have is, most likely, almost nil.
The bottom line is that, if you feel adblocking tools may be cutting into your bottom line, the answer isn’t to simply use different or new ads, but to rethink your revenue strategy. Advertising will not be killed by ad filters, but will take on new forms and evolve.
As long as there are advertisers wanting to get a message out, there will be publishers eager to help them do it. That symbiotic relationship already transcends all formats and shows no signs of stopping.
Though that relationship hasn’t been popular with audiences, it has kept free content free. Most important of all, finding a balance between the desires of visitors and content creators is going to be the secret building a better Web with large amounts of high-quality, free content.
In short, for better or worse, advertising and marketing is going to play a major role in creating the Web we all hope to see. It may not be a utopia, but it is better than many of the alternatives.