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Back in 2010 Ars Technica, which as a technology site already had a large base of ad blockers tried to fight back by making its content disappear for those "using a very popular ad blocking tool." Ken Fisher described this as "an experiment gone wrong". Although a technical success, the backlash against this action meant that after 12 hours normal service was resumed and the site went back to putting up with the fact a significant proportion of its visitors were taking without giving anything back. Ars is a site that is big enough to afford to provide an ad-free subscription option, and it did gain some subscribers from its action, and persuaded some adblockers to whitelist it, i.e. to disable AdBlock on its site - but all that happened in the case of the vast majority of vehement adblockers was to enrage and infuriate them and open the floodgates to a torrent of abuse.
However, in the real world of economics it is difficult to understand in what terms the experiment could have been regarded as going wrong. Alienating a group of users who contribute nothing to the continuance of the site doesn't seem like a big price to pay. There seems to be an attitude among publishers that any audience is a good audience, even if it is an ad-blocking audience - this may be irrational.
An alternative method or alerting users to the negative impact of adblocking was tried by Niero Gonzalez, the founder and editor of Destructoid, the news website devoted to gaming. Having used BlockMetrics (i.e PageFair prior to its name change) and discovering that 42-46% of his traffic used an adblocker, he employed another facility it offered - displaying a message to visitors using adblocking to ask them to whitelist the site or make a donation to it. According to his blog:
I didn't mince words: My appeal read something to the effect that ad blockers primarily hurt our writers, and if you are reading our site, we'd like your support ... I didn't like guilt-tripping our readers, but it seemed like a better option than hijacking the site away from them.
The message was prominent - in red - and could not be dismissed without turning off ad-blocker. It too provoked negativity but, given that Destructiod relies on ad revenues to pay its writers and without writers it would go under, it responded to feedback and softened the message by displaying it in blue. Destructiod may have lost some traffic as a result of trying to dissuade adblocking - but as adblockers cost in terms of bandwidth and don't get counted towards advertising revenue that's a loss that isn't going to harm the site financially.
What more could be done?
PageFair is committed to helping websites combat adblocking without losing their traffic. Neil O'Conner, founder and CEO of PageFair explains:
Many publishers we speak with feel its unfair that someone can just choose not to pay for what they consume- its hard to imagine that any business would feel differently. We're at a point where some publishers are shutting down their sites as ad revenue falls, so the response needs to be quick and effective.
Of course its a concern for every publisher that their audience will move somewhere else. Our solution prevents this by respecting the user: we engage and empower them to decide what they consider acceptable advertising.
PageFair is now beta testing the new approach of displaying alternative, acceptable, advertising to adblockers wherever possible. O'Conner sees this as a possible way to reconcile opposing needs:
In terms of our strategy, its important to remember there are two sides to this story: publishers have a right to be paid for the hard work they put into producing content, however website visitors should be able to consume content without intrusive advertising. We need to find a balance between these two groups.
According to a TechCrunch, Google is already ensuring its ads pass through the acceptable use filter provided by Adblock Plus by paying a fee for the privilege. This is something Google can afford, but puts smaller websites at an even bigger disadvantage. Is this really what most adblockers want to achieve - squeezing out all but the big players on the Internet?
There is also the point of view that users are not only being naive in their rejection of advertising and a more sophisticated response would be - what harm does it do me? Let them show me ads and what effect is it going to have on me apart from provide me with free services and articles. A sufficiently sophisticated response would be to consume the ads, support the free infrastructure and restrict anything that might be a real threat to privacy.
As programmers, most of us could create something like AdBlock in no time at all - this is not a sophisticated application. What is more, it is fairly easy to see how to build an adblocker resistant web site or web app. At the simplest level you could just use AdBlock detection mechanisms, but it is also possible to think up schemes where the advertising was interwoven into the working of each page such that the page would fail without the advertising elements.
So is anyone going to do it?
Of course the flaw is that then the adblockers would have to study the technique in use, think about it for a while and invent AdBlock Mark II .. and so on.
Who needs an arms race?
But keeping one step ahead of AdBlock Mark 526 might be a future activity forced on many of us.