An ethical proposal for Firefox's popular ad-removal tool.

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May 14 2009 4:56 PM

Blocked Ads, Clean Conscience

Firefox's ad-removal tool is its most popular add-on. Now its creator wants to let you use it ethically.

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Not all users will click "Yes" for their favorite sites to make an ad-blocking exception, of course. In response to Palant's post, many Adblock Plus users wrote in to tell him that they oppose all ads in general. But I hold out hope that Palant's idea could produce an evolutionary dynamic in the market for Internet ads. Because they know that many readers have a choice over whether to view their ads, publishers would be forced to consider each ad they run. And because if they know that publishers are considering a user's reaction to ads they run, people might slowly be willing to give their favorite sites a chance by unblocking ads.

Some in the ad industry argue that eliminating only the intrusive ads would still be crippling, since stats show that, despite our whining, "annoying" ads work. We may think we hate ads that load pop-ups or intrude on a Web page's content, but these ads tend to get more clicks than ordinary ones. In fact, publishers are responding to the recent downturn in the ad market by devising ways to make ads even more intrusive. In March, the Online Publishers Association, a trade group of large sites (including Washington Post Digital, Slate's parent company), announced the creation of several humungous new standardized ad formats. These include the "pushdown," which momentarily takes over the entire screen with a sponsor's message before rolling out of the way, and the "fixed panel," which remains in your field of view as you scroll up and down the page.

But this strategy seems myopic. Pop-ups and flashy ads may get a lot of clicks, but as Techdirt's Carlo Longini points out, it's hard to believe they build a positive, lasting relationship among readers, publishers, and advertisers. In fact, some studies suggest that the reason annoying ads get lots of clicks is because people hate them—they click on the ads accidentally while trying to close them. This can't be good for an advertiser's image, and it also explains why so many people have taken to installing ad-blocking software.

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In fact, the most effective online ads are those that get your attention because they're cleverly tailored to your interests, not because they've assaulted two of your five senses. Take the plain-Jane spots Google runs alongside its search results. The search company, which prohibits flashy graphics, constantly adjusts its algorithm to make sure that the ads that show up are relevant to the keywords that a user searched for. Advertisers have a tough time gaming Google's system; however much they pay, the algorithm favors ads that users click on, and it pulls un-clicked-on ads out of rotation. Because the ads seem tailored to users' interests, people tend to click on them—making for a natural-selection-like system that's good for advertisers and tremendously lucrative for Google.

Google's success seems to bear out Palant's idea that users will tolerate and even click on ads that don't bug them, lending credence to his theory that the way to reverse the mass adoption of ad blocking is for publishers to run ads that people don't want to block. That's why his new proposal makes sense. Ad blocking may not be ethical, but there's nothing illegal about it, and there are few technical ways for publishers to limit its effects. Ad blocking is here to stay. But that doesn't have to be the end of the Web—just the end of terrible ads.

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Farhad Manjoo is a technology columnist for the New York Times and the author of True Enough.

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