Improving incentives for web advertisers

When users install ad filters out of a desire to avoid unpleasant ads, they usually end up blocking all ads. This does little to incentivize individual sites to clean up their ads, because from the perspective of any web site owner, users decide whether to block ads mostly based on their experiences on other sites.

As more users turn to ad filters, debates about ad filtering are becoming increasingly polarized. A pro-ad faction screams “blocking ads is like stealing from web sites”. An anti-ad faction screams “showing me ads is like kicking me in the groin in the hope that a penny will fly out of my pocket”.

A better way?

What if a future version of Adblock Plus only tried to block bad ads by default? The immediate result would be negligible, because most ad networks today are somewhere between bad and terrible. But some users would feel more comfortable enabling the blocks, and web site owners would have a harder time blaming visitors for missed revenue.

Current Adblock Plus first run page

Ad filter set:
e.g. animations, sounds, interstitials
[?]e.g. plugins, scripts that block parsing
Proposed options and defaults

“Block distracting ads” would block ads that animate, ads with bright pink, gigantic ads, <audio> ads, ads that use absolute positioning to cover other content, and plugins.

“Block slow ads” would block ad scripts that do not use async or defer, any ad that uses more than 5 sequential or 10 total requests, any ad content that hasn't finished loading after 500ms, and plugins.

Note that these are all things that can be detected by the client, which already has a filter set that distinguishes ads from non-ads. Upon blocking an ad through one of these heuristics, the entire ad network should be blocked for a period of time, so that Firefox does not waste time downloading things it will not display. The filter set could also specify ad networks known to specialize in distracting ads, or ad networks that are slow in ways the heuristics miss.

Blocking manipulation

The heuristics above would block ads that interfere directly with your web experience, but what about ads that harm you in slightly subtler ways? Maybe activists would be inspired to curate subsets of existing filters, focusing on their causes:

Ad filter set:
[?]e.g. non-evidence-based medicine, “Free*”
[?]e.g. appeals to feelings of inadequacy
[?]e.g. sexual puns, gratuitous cleavage
Ad filter set:
e.g. lingerie, “adult dating”
e.g. action films, appeals to fear
e.g. junk food, tobacco
[?]e.g. toys, nag coaching

These would block almost every ad network today, assuming the curators err on the side of over-blocking when a network carries multiple types of ads. I can only name one ad network that demonstrates the slightest bit of competence at keeping out scams and one ad network that actively gathers feedback from viewers about individual ads.

With improved incentives, more ad networks would try to do the right thing.

I look forward to a future where advertising is a truly low-transaction-cost way to compensate free content providers.

I look forward to innovators and creators once again having a way to connect with people who might genuinely stand to benefit from their work, without having their voices drowned out by screaming scammers.

11 Responses to “Improving incentives for web advertisers”

  1. Baul Says:

    I’m sure I won’t be the only one appreciating this or a similar concept! :)

  2. Stephanie Daugherty Says:

    This is past due, and the AdBlock arms race is hurting both users and publishers because of out of control advertisers.

    Giving advertisers a proper, non-intrusive (or at least, less intrusive) venue for their ads while encouraging good behavior is the way to counter this. Saying “ok, you can have banner ads if they are in good taste and don’t spoof parts of the page” is a start.

    At the same time,increased use of streaming sites are providing a good place to put effective ads that are out of reach (so far) of ad blocking, and probably will be for some time – inserting the ads directly into the stream is simply more reliable from a revenue standpoint, so the problem may diminish somewhat if the current trends continue.

    As an important point, with the “block all ads” modes removed, this sort of ad blocking interface could probably be implemented directly into Firefox and other web browsers without risk of wholesale blocking of those browsers by publishers, ending the “arms length” relationship browsers have had with ad blocking.

    A firm code of conduct and social contract (from all sides – publishers, advertisers, browser vendors) would be important to your model – advertisers need a promise that this model isn’t a play to put them out of business later by making them too easy to block, publishers need a promise that this isn’t going to hurt their revenue model too much, and browser vendors need a promise that advertisers and publishers will play fair.

  3. AlfonsoML Says:

    And also based on the abuse by the website owner :
    Block if there are more than x ads on the page

  4. John Dowdell Says:

    Hi Jesse, I held off on ad-blockers for a long time because of an implicit contract with the website creator. But the cross-site tracking beacons eventually convinced me to install.

    I still see ads, but not from the big services which are ping’d on 80% of the world’s pages.

    But now the big win with ad-blockers seems to be in blocking third-party calls on innocent-appearing yet infected websites. That Willysy story today is really scary. But it’s easy to block it all via Adblock Plus.

    (For your blocking categories, I’d prefer stuff like “Block that Techmeme cluster if it’s all people repeating the same headlines from each other”… I waste little attention on ugly ads, but I still waste a lot of time on text.)

    tx, jd/adobe

  5. Jeffrey Says:

    Great Idea. I don’t really care how ad-blockers affect the revenue of websites but I could get behind an ad-blocker like this. I’ve believed for while that Firefox should come with a ad/tracker-blocker built-in by default. Maybe this is how they’ll do it.

  6. Jacob Mandelson Says:

    (Author of one of those “anti-ad” links here.)
    I really support this avenue of trying to improve the Web by encouraging (monetarily, though not through direct payments) reasonable advertising practices. I’m not anti-ad as such: web publishers *should* get some revenue for their work, and selling advertising is a legitimate way to do that. What I’m against is *annoying* ads. The advertisers destroyed my browsing experience, so I installed ABP and recovered it, and likened this to tit-for-tat in a PD game.
    The problem of course is that now publishers aren’t getting their dues for my eyeballs. I’m not sure that the middle ground of an ABP-for-irresponsible-ads will get the bulk of users needed to help solve the dilemma. I suspect that most people that get angry enough to install an ad blocker will go “scorched earth” and block all ads. If you can convince major blockers like ABP to default to block-irresponsible-ads-only, that’d greatly improve the chances. But given the disappointing persistence of the web advertising community in relying on irresponsible ads, it’s worth trying to fashion an easier carrot for them to switch to responsible ads, like you propose.

  7. Jay Says:

    I’m not convinced this would change anything.

    A lot of my anecdotal evidence suggests that people who are likely to block ads are the kind of people who would never click or pay attention to ads in the first place. Not blocking ads would just increase the bandwidth bills of the advertisers instead of increasing their revenue.

    Never mind the fact that one will quickly start to ignore ads if they aren’t extremely rare, which will inevitably lead to ads being more annoying.

    To me it seems advertisers are fighting a loosing battle, regardless of people using software to block ads. If they want to make money they have to make ads more annoying, but that will only work for a short while before they have to ramp up the annoying even more.

    Makes one question if ads actually ever work, or is the effectiveness of ads just some made up voodoo.

  8. Wladimir Palant Says:

    Jesse, we are about to implement something like that. We won’t be able to give users fine-grained control that you are looking for, it is simply too hard to distinguish between different kinds of ads. We want to define a single category “acceptable ads” however ( and get an agreement with advertisers who are willing to restrict themselves. These should not be blocked by default then (still easy for the users to change however).

  9. Quite Anonymous Says:

    Blocking all ads was not on my agenda until I was daunted by ads that (1) have no regard for browser performance (2) attempts to exploit security vulnerabilities. I became weary of manually filtering ads. So I blocked them all.

    Until advertisers have started to self-regulate, there is slight chance I will cease to block all ads.

  10. Benedikt P. Says:

    Why hasn’t anyone else thought about ‘using evolutionary pressure on advertisements’ to prefer decent advertisements over bad ones.

    This is an excellent idea.

  11. Benedikt P. Says:

    Explanations on my previous comment:
    Right now the elovutionary pressure is of a technical sort: they survive (display their ads) by working around ABP counter-measures. This is bad because any ad, harmless or bad could do that if they figured it out.
    The idea of giving them a loophole to survive more easily when complying with certain standards (no animation, no sound, no flashy colors) creates an advantage for good (or rather harmless) advertisements over their bad siblings and less need to work around ABP restrictions. The evolutionary pressure would then be behave-nicely-or-die instead of everybody-dies which favors none.

    Let’s breed ads;)

    Best regards,
    Benedikt P.