May 11, 2009
The maker of Adblock Plus, a popular Firefox extension that allows users to block online ads, on Monday proposed a change in the software that would allow publishers, with the consent of Adblock Plus users, to prevent their ads from being blocked.
Wladimir Palant says in a blog post that his goal with Adblock Plus isn't to destroy the advertising industry. Indeed, he acknowledges that the Internet depends on ad revenue. "The only problem is that ads are becoming increasingly intrusive and annoying as Webmasters try to maximize their profits, which is the main reason people install Adblock Plus," he explained.
His proposal won't subjugate user choice to publisher desire. Rather, it aims to provide a mechanism for publishers to request that users make an active decision about ad blocking, instead of blocking everything by default.
Adblock Plus was designed to allow users to choose which ads they want to see. However, Palant acknowledges that many users do not take an active role in choosing. Instead, they subscribe to filter lists that block pretty much everything. Palant's proposal would encourage users to be more deliberate in their choice to block ads and would provide publishers with a way to express their wishes.
Palant's proposed change would mean that Adblock Plus would recognize HTML code expressing the site owner's desire that users not block ads on the site. When the ad-blocking extension encounters that code in a Web page, it would present the user with an in-line dialog box explaining the publisher's stance and three options: allowing the page to load with ads, blocking the ads, or deferring a decision until later, which would probably also result in blocking any ads.
In a comment on Palant's proposal, Russ Jones, CTO of search marketing firm Virante and the primary author behind The Google Cache, a blog full of condemnations of ad blocking, praises the plan as "very reasonable and incredibly well thought [out]."
Blocking ads remains an area of impassioned opinions online. Many publishers and marketers accuse those using ad-blocking software of being unethical for consuming content while denying the presenter of that content with a chance to earn revenue. They liken it to piracy or stealing. That position, however, implies that some contract exists between publisher and site visitor. And were such a contract to exist, publishers would be violating it as much as site visitors by failing to deliver a desirable user experience and advertisers would be violating it by failing at industry self-regulation.
At least that's the way users of ad-blocking software see it: They object to the fact that online ads are often intrusive, irrelevant, deceptive, manipulative, and/or malicious. One need only read the lengthy rules Google imposes on its advertisers to understand the kinds of excesses that are possible.
Further complicating the consumption of ads is the move toward monthly bandwidth caps. Who wants to waste one's monthly allotment of bits on advertisements, at the expense of content?
Mark Simon, VP of industry relations at Didit, a search marketing firm, argues that Google's Quality Score, which limits the exposure of ads that perform poorly, represents a more useful way to assess the relevance and effectiveness of online ads.
"Ad blockers show a serious lack of foresight on both sides of the marketing conversation," he said in an e-mail. "Marketers' intrusive ads make some content consumers feel that ad blockers are necessary; meanwhile, Web consumers who strip ads out of their Web experience undermine the very thing that keeps their Web experience free."
"And unfortunately, the solution proposed by Adblock Plus won't help much, since it relies on Web users trusting Webmasters who promise that they're offering ad content that's worth an opt back in," he continued. "I don't think content consumers would offer that trust blindly, and so I don't predict that a program like this would be a success (even if it does offer some hope for publishers)."
Simon noted that ad blockers are only used by a small number of people, people who aren't heavy shoppers, so he doesn't see them as much of an issue for the Web economy overall.
According to Palant, the number of users of Adblock Plus is small compared with the total number of Firefox users. He says that only about 5% of Firefox users have installed his software. That comes to about 13.5 million people worldwide, based on Mozilla's recent estimate that there are 270 million Firefox users. Palant elsewhere states that more than 10 million people use Adblock Plus.
The Firefox Add-ons site states that Adblock Plus is downloaded at a rate of almost 800,000 times per week and has been downloaded almost 49 million times. A number of other software applications and extensions also offer ad-blocking capabilities.
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