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.

Ad blocking application. Click image to expand.

First, a confession: I read the Web without ads. For years now, I've been using Adblock Plus, a plug-in for Firefox that eliminates nearly every ad I encounter online. I understand the irony here; Slate and other publications I've written for make money from advertisements, so my blocking them is akin to an airline pilot siphoning fuel from his tank before he takes off. And now, by discussing the appeal of ad-blocking software in this column, you could say I'm making matters worse.

Still, it's time we talked about ad blocking. The practice is ferociously popular, and it isn't going away. According to Mozilla's stats, Adblock Plus is the most-downloaded add-on for Firefox, attracting more than 700,000 new adherents a week. In all, it's been downloaded almost 49 million times. The appeal isn't hard to understand. The first time I loaded up Adblock, it was like shooting my browser up with Bandwidth Growth Hormone. The software gave a speed-boost to everything I did online. In order to catch your attention, many Web ads are stuffed with complex animation and sounds. Keeping all those aliens dancing eats up a lot of your computer's resources, which is one of the reasons your machine's performance plummets if you open many pages that are stuffed with ads. Ad-blocking software prevents your browser from connecting to well-known advertising servers. This lets you load pages faster and devote more of your machine's processing power to important stuff, like playing Hulu videos.

I've heard many convoluted justifications for ad blocking—"it's my browser and my computer, so I can choose what I want to download"but it's hard to make an honest claim that these programs are ethical. The Web is governed by an unwritten contract: You get nearly everything for free in exchange for the hassle of a few ads hovering on the periphery—and occasionally across the whole screen for a few seconds. Advertising probably supports a huge swath of the sites you regularly visit. It's obvious how rampant ad blocking hurts the Web: If every passenger siphons off a bit of fuel from the tank before the plane takes off, it's going to crash.

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Fortunately, Wladimir Palant, the creator of Adblock Plus, understands this. This week, he offered an elegant, intriguing solution to the complications that his software has created. He calls it "an approach to fair ad-blocking," and it just might solve the impasse between ad-wary surfers and the ad-hungry publishers who resent them.

As Palant sees it, not all ads are bad; it's just the "intrusive and annoying" ones. At the moment, though, ad-blocking software makes little distinction between each ad. When you load Adblock Plus, you're asked to pick which lists of known advertisers you'd like to block (the lists are constantly updated to remain comprehensive). Though Adblock Plus gives you some ways to customize which ads or sites you'd like to allow, for most people, the software is set-it-and-forget-it—once you turn it on and choose a list, you no longer see any ads, whether or not they're intrusive and annoying—or keeping your favorite site in business.

Here's Palant's solution: Adblock Plus would keep track of which sites you visit often. If it notices that you're spending a lot of time at certain sites on which you're blocking ads, the software would give you guilt-inducing prompt, like, "The owner of this Web site indicated that no annoying advertising is being used here. Would you like to disable Adblock Plus on Example.com to support it?" If the user clicks "Yes," she begins to see ads on that site—but, importantly, she'll be able to shut down all the ads on the site at any moment if they begin to annoy her.

Palant argues that this proposal brings "balance" back to the Internet ad market. At the moment, either advertisers dictate what you see, or, if you install an ad-blocking program, you do. Palant's idea would have advertisers and users meet in the middle. Publishers would face a cost to running annoying ads. If they accept a spot that takes over the entire screen, they'll risk having a lot of users turn off all their ads, which they'll notice in lower click-through rates. But publishers will also see a benefit to running smaller, less flashy, and less processor-intensive ads. Ad-blocking users will be more willing to make an exception for their sites, which would mean better click-through rates for the advertisers that publishers do choose to accept.

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.

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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