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Love it or hate it, ad-blocking is sure to inspire strong feelings. No one denies that most websites who offer free content are funded in large part by ads, but whether or not readers should be forced to see them is another story. But maybe it’s time to change the conversation: if ads are a necessary evil, why don’t we find other ways around the worst of them that aren’t so divisive and damaging?

Why Not Just Run Adblock?

We’ve gone over this many times, so I’ll keep it brief. Websites need to pay their writers to produce great content, and the best way for them to generate revenue is by hosting ads on the site. Ad networks pay the website for the number of views that those ads get, thereby increasing the revenue generated as more people view the site.

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However, people hate ads. They’re rarely for anything we’re interested in, they clutter the page, detract from the content, and just look tacky. So they run ad-blocking software like Adblock Plus or uBlock. This decreases the views of the ads, which in turn decreases the site’s revenue, and sometimes puts them out of business It's About Ethics in Stealing Games Journalism: Why AdBlock Needs to Die It's About Ethics in Stealing Games Journalism: Why AdBlock Needs to Die A simple, free browser plugin killed Joystiq – and is ruining the Internet. Read More .

And thus, the disagreement over ad blocking, largely between writers for websites that publish free content—who want to keep their jobs—and users who are annoyed by ads.

There is Another Way

What many people don’t realize is that there are a few strategies that create a middle ground that keeps both sides happy. They aren’t as easy as blocking every ad, and they can require a bit of getting used to. However, they don’t reduce ad views as much as widespread ad blocking, which is good for publishers.

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Of course, some users won’t be happy unless they’re blocking every ad that they possibly can. And some publishers won’t be happy if people have the option to block their ads at all. But maybe we can act like responsible adults and find a middle ground that benefits both sides. Let’s take a look at a few ways we can do that.

Giving Everyone a Chance: Blacklisting

On the default settings of ad-block software, all ads are blocked, and domains can be whitelisted if the user wants or needs to see the ads. If you’re intent on blocking ads, using a blacklist can be a more reasonable strategy. By starting with an empty blacklist, you’ll give every site a chance to show you that they’re being reasonable with the number and type of ads.

dps-ad

When you come across a website that’s particularly cluttered or has especially annoying ads, add it to the blacklist with a click. In this way, sites that have a reasonable amount of ads, and ones that you’re willing to put up with in order to support, are still earning money through your visits.

Obviously, this means you’ll be viewing some ads. But if you want free content, that’s usually the price you pay.

For the Privacy / Security Conscious: Ghostery

Even though James called out Ghostery as being part of the trifecta of evil AdBlock, NoScript & Ghostery - The Trifecta Of Evil AdBlock, NoScript & Ghostery - The Trifecta Of Evil Over the past few months, I've been contacted by a good number of readers who have had problems downloading our guides, or why they can't see the login buttons or comments not loading; and in... Read More , it does have some advantages over Adblock Plus. Namely, it allows you to block only specific types of content. There are five types listed: advertising, analytics, beacons, privacy, and widgets. Because of the increasing occurence of ad-distributed malware, as we recently saw at the adult site xHamster How To Remove The Bedep Malware From XHamster How To Remove The Bedep Malware From XHamster Adult site xHamster has been spreading a huge amount of malware, with a 1500% increase in infections over a two day period in January 2015. Is your computer infected? And how can you stay safe? Read More , and privacy conerns, many people want to block as many ads as possible.

ghostery-options

However, by simply blocking analytics, beacons, and privacy categories through Ghostery, you can help keep yourself safer than you would be if you didn’t have an ad blocker without depriving companies of all of their ad revenue. Combining this with a blacklist gives you the best of both worlds.

Clean up the Web: De-Cluttering Pages

There are a number of browser extensions that don’t block any ads, but do keep you from seeing them. Evernote’s Clearly and another app called Readability are both popular options—just click on the extension icon in your browser, and you’ll see a cleaner version of the page. Both also let you save articles to read them later.

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These extensions provide an even cleaner environment than ad blockers, and can really improve your online reading experience. An extra click on the pages you like might seem like a lot to ask, but it’ll become automatic very quickly, and you can easily combine this method with some of the others listed here to make your computer more secure, as well.

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To Save Power and Protect Yourself: Block Flash and Javascript

A lot of the malware that’s spread through advertising is distributed through security vulnerabilities in Flash. While Flash can be really useful, it’s not exactly known for being a very safe program to use online. It also has a reputation as a battery and resource hog.

To guard yourself against the use of your machine’s resources and the potential for infection, you can make sure that your browser doesn’t automatically run Flash or other scripts, either through built-in means in Chrome How to Stop Flash From Loading Automatically With FlashControl [Chrome] How to Stop Flash From Loading Automatically With FlashControl [Chrome] You can easily disable Flash in Chrome. But FlashControl gives you more hands-on control. FlashControl is a Chrome extension that uses blacklists and whitelists for selectively blocking and unblocking Flash content. As the extensions defines... Read More or an extension like Flashblock for Firefox. Using NoScript or Ghostery to block Javascript in Firefox (again, natively in Chrome) can also enhance security.

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When you block scripts, you’ll notice that anything requiring that script will display a specific icon—when you click that icon, it’ll run. This one-click functionality makes it easy to watch Facebook videos or run web apps that need Flash without making changes in your security settings.

For Everyone: Block Third-Party Cookies

Cookies are small files that are placed on your computer by websites. They can do a number of things How Do Websites Use Cookies? [Technology Explained] How Do Websites Use Cookies? [Technology Explained] Read More —keep you logged into Gmail when you close the tab, let you like things on Facebook directly from another page, or save things in your shopping cart. But they can also track your activities, which is a privacy risk What's A Cookie & What Does It Have To Do With My Privacy? [MakeUseOf Explains] What's A Cookie & What Does It Have To Do With My Privacy? [MakeUseOf Explains] Most people know that there are cookies scattered all over the Internet, ready and willing to be eaten up by whoever can find them first. Wait, what? That can’t be right. Yes, there are cookies... Read More and may allow advertisers to track you online.

For this reason, blocking and deleting at least some cookies is a good idea. Blocking all cookies is best for security, but it also means you need to log into all of your services every time you go back to them, and that website preferences won’t be saved. Instead, you can block a specific subset.

firefox-cookie-preferences

In Firefox, go to Preferences > Privacy > Firefox will: Use custom settings for history. Set Accept third-party cookies to “Never” (if you find that this causes problems with some sites you visit, you can change it to “From visited.”) In Chrome, go to Settings > Advanced Settings > Cookies and select “Block only third-party cookies.”

It’s also a good idea to set your browser to delete cookies when you exit the app (you do exit your browser every now and then, don’t you?).

Let’s Work Together

Internet ads are one of the necessary evils of the world we live in. You can say that your hatred of ads means that websites should find an alternate revenue model Publishers Need to Stop Whining About Adblock Publishers Need to Stop Whining About Adblock Ad-blocking seems like a natural option for any consumer because of a simple reason: it's an easy way to get rid of an annoyance. Read More , but for now, that’s not happening. Very few websites have managed to do it successfully, in part because there’s so much high-quality free content out there.

So let’s quit fighting about whether or not websites should use ads, whether they should find another way to make money, whether users should be willing to view ads, and whether ad blocking is evil. Let’s just work together to find a middle ground that we can all be happy with for the time being. Isn’t it worth putting in just a little bit more effort to make the Internet a better place?

  1. granddaughter jewelry
    September 9, 2016 at 1:50 pm

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  2. Zanthexter of Gnomergan
    March 5, 2015 at 5:19 pm

    "The fundamental problem with the users is that you're putting the solution on them." should read, "The fundamental problem with the article is that you're putting the solution on the users. "

    Poor editing, sorry.

  3. Zanthexter of Gnomergan
    March 5, 2015 at 5:16 pm

    The fundamental problem with the users is that you're putting the solution on them. Sites can and should address the problem.

    The problem comes down to:

    1) The ad networks being automated with little to no analysis of the ads.
    2) Over/bad placement of ads by sites

    Seems to me that both are within the ability of the site to manage. Place ads from networks (or directly yourselves) that are careful about ad content, and ensure that the layout of the ads doesn't overwhelm the site.

    Personally I don't have a problem with banner and side bar ads. Or single page "welcome to the site" ads that allow me to immediately click through them. I do have a problem with "editorial" ads, ads that take over the screen and refuse to let me click past them, being bombarded with ads, ads that crash the browser and kill system performance, and of course ads that outright attack my computer. It would also be nice to see ads for things I'm interested in, but that'd be a bonus.

    I also would love to know the answer to a single question. How much ad revenue does a regular user generate, on average? In other words, would it be practical to give registered users the option to pay for an add free/reduced (less money) ad experience without compromising your revenue? (or trying to increase it by screwing over the users with "reasonably priced" subscriptions that cost more than dead tree magazine delivery)

    • Dann Albright
      March 6, 2015 at 6:51 am

      I know that a "premium" membership option has been brought up in discussions in the past, but I don't really know how seriously anyone has considered it. I have no idea how much revenue a regular user generates, and I also don't know how likely people would be to subscribe to a system like that, but it's definitely something that I, personally, would be interested in instituting here. Don't know if it's feasible, likely to work, or a big waste of time, but I think it would at least prove to be an interesting experiment.

      Thanks for commenting! (In a civil manner—that's much appreciated.)

  4. Scribe
    March 5, 2015 at 8:53 am

    What about hiding ads with CSS? Out of sight, out of mind... (Video ads are still there though...)

    • Dann Albright
      March 5, 2015 at 10:45 am

      I'm not sure what you mean—do you mean having sites hide them? Or users? (I'm not familiar with any way to apply CSS to any page you see, but it's quite possible that there's a way.) That definitely wouldn't go over well with advertisers if sites were to do it, but if you could find a way to do it for your own browser, that could be pretty cool!

  5. winston
    March 5, 2015 at 2:54 am

    What about a blocking program that blocks "malvertisment" based on anti malware and has an option to only show ads for the first 30 seconds I'm on a page? 30 seconds would still count as a view and if it don't make me want to click in 30 seconds then I most likely wouldn't click it anyway. Or websites could code pages to only display ads for a set length of time - again if it don't catch my attention in 30 seconds it likely isn't going to.

    • Dann Albright
      March 5, 2015 at 10:43 am

      That's an interesting idea—though it wouldn't satisfy many of the people who currently run ABP, it might work well for some. I'd be really curious to see the stats on WHEN people click on ads—is it right after they see them? Or after prolonged exposure?

    • likefunbutnot
      March 5, 2015 at 1:10 pm

      @winston,

      There are two ways that antimalware can work. They can either remove infections after the fact of their installation, or they can operate on block lists in the first place. Spybot Search and Destroy, the MVPS.org ad-blocking hosts file and the Malware Domains adblock plus subscription all operate on that principle.

      We can be reasonably sure that a script sent from the web site we've actually visited is safe, but because of the way advertising works on the internet, we really can't say that about content coming from third parties. The uncomfortable position we as end users are in is to either block third party content from as many known bad actors (essentially any web server that delivers ad content) or we accept the possibility that we can be infected with malware by viewing it in our web clients.

      There's truly no way at the operating system level to distinguish a good script from a bad one. Either the scripts will run and do whatever they're going to do or we block them entirely. A timed option doesn't really help; 30 seconds is more than long enough for a malicious script to deliver a payload.

  6. Sam
    March 4, 2015 at 2:30 pm

    Thanks for the explanation likefunbutnot, but I was actually talking about Javascript in banner ads (which as far as I'm aware is the full extent of malvertising's attack vector?). I know Javascript can be pretty crucial elsewhere on web pages (even being used for menu dropdowns on some sites) which is why I'd never disable it entirely or even manually enable it each time I want to use it (too much hassle when it's so widely used).

    Dann, good question about books. I'd never even imagined advertising in novels. My initial feelings for that would be negative, though I expect I'd become accustomed to it quickly enough. Not quite the same thing of course since text would have to re-flow around the ads, whereas on a web page they (generally) stay outside the main content area. Also of course you've actually paid for the novel already, though if they were sold with advertising at half price, I might give it some consideration.

    • likefunbutnot
      March 4, 2015 at 5:54 pm

      @Sam,

      All third-party elements on a web page can behave the same way because SOME third-party elements are expected to behave that way. Anything space on a page that includes content from a third party more complex than a static image will include code as well. As anyone who has the Noscript extension installed for Firefox knows, the web is completely broken if all third party scripting is turned completely off.

      From a web client perspective, the easiest thing to do from the perspective of safety is to maintain a blacklist of bad actors (basically ad blocking lists). Techies may have the patience and knowledge to use granular script control, but only if the browser and platform they're using supports doing so. Non-techies are basically out of luck and of course content owners consider all of this to be hostile to their ability to monetize (which, frankly, I do not care about at all) regardless.

    • Dann Albright
      March 4, 2015 at 6:20 pm

      Sam, ads on internet sites do usually stick to the top and sidebars, but not always. In fact, the ones that are in the middle of the page are the ones that really stand out to me (and irritate me the most). That would be more difficult to do in a book, though I'm sure if any space in books was available, advertisers would be all over it!

  7. likefunbutnot
    March 4, 2015 at 1:36 pm

    @Sam,

    Third party scripts can be used in interactive features that relate to social networking such as Facebook "Like" buttons, interactive driving directions or platform tools for WordPress or a content delivery network. Those things may or may not have value to the end user, but there may be a strong incentive for site owners to inflict them on their readers regardless.

    @Dann,

    I find it very interesting that you haven't yet authorized the comment I made on this article yesterday.

    • Dann Albright
      March 4, 2015 at 2:03 pm

      Ah, that makes sense. I knew some of those things, but I didn't really think of how they would apply to ads.

      As for your comment, we have a comment moderator who goes through the comments that get flagged by the system, so I haven't even seen it yet. When we get a lot of comments that get flagged at the same time, the queue can get a bit backed up.

    • likefunbutnot
      March 4, 2015 at 3:19 pm

      @Dann,

      I think in a lot of cases, ad content cannot be easily or reliably distinguished from CDN or other web infrastructure . Google for example delivers both ads and metrics and there's probably something similar going on with Facebook. Ads might well be served from the same systems that are handling back-end media hosting. From the content owner's point of view, all of those things might need a dynamic component that need to be passed to the client based on what the third party knows through cookies or other identifying factors rather than crushing their web server, so it makes sense for the scripts to be processed with each browser transaction.

      This all goes back to a basic function of ad brokering networks, which is an attempt via datamining to serve ads that are most likely to be of interest to users with similar browsing histories. Cookies are the first step, followed by authorized access to browsing via credentials on services like Google, Microsoft and Facebook or from one's devices. Advertisers need the scripts to run in order to perform their function the way they think they're supposed to.

  8. Sam
    March 3, 2015 at 4:44 pm

    I don't have an in-depth understanding of how Google etc does things with regards to serving ads, but I don't understand why Google (and every other ad network) can't simply refuse to publish any ad containing Javascript? Is there any legitimate reason for an ad to contain Javascript?

    If not for malvertising I'd never have bothered with Adblock Plus since ads really don't bother me that much (we read books without wearing earplugs to block out ambient noise after all - maybe people underestimate their own ability to focus?). I'll never allow ads in my browsers though as long as malvertising exists.

    • Dann Albright
      March 4, 2015 at 9:04 am

      That's an interesting question, and I don't know the answer. Hopefully somebody else who's reading this will chime in and explain it to us. That seems like it would be good for everyone, unless Javascript ads pull in way more money for advertisers. But as long as malvertising is around (and getting more common), blocking ads is going to be widespread, and well justified.

      As for ability to focus, that's an interesting argument. Although audio distractions and visual distractions are quite different when you're engaged in a visual activity. If there were ads in your book pages, would you be as okay with it?

  9. Rick
    March 3, 2015 at 3:34 pm

    Great article! I try to do some of these things in varying degrees already, but it's good to keep it going as a debate. FWIW, I do disable ad blocking on MakeUseOf, Lifehacker, HowTo Geek, and a few other tech sites I like and trust among others.

    On the other hand, I prefer to leave adblocking and Disconnect on by default, and only whitelist sites after I end up on them often enough that I begin to value them. Then I give them a chance without blocking and see how it goes.

    • Dann Albright
      March 4, 2015 at 9:00 am

      That's definitely understandable; keeping AdBlock and Disconnect on is a good way to stay safe from potential malvertising attacks, and won't cost sites much money if you only occasionally visit (or just go once). And then whitelisting, obviously, is good for business.

      Thanks for reading!

  10. Swaminathan Venkatesh
    March 3, 2015 at 3:29 pm

    This is what I do. Whenever I visit a site for the first time & if it interests me, I fire up the site in Incognito, where I've not enabled any of the extensions, and browse through the site to make sure their ad placement & type of ads are fine by me. I'll decide to add the site to my whitelist based on that (MUO is in my whitelist for ages).

    I can compare this to actual window shopping. We get into the brick & mortar stores, browse through what they have to offer & only buy if we are interested. Just because I spent 15 minutes inside the store, for which the owners will be paying a hefty rent, and I asked couple of questions to the sales people, to whom the owners pay even for the time they spent answering my questions, doesn't mean I have to purchase something. But yes, if I like something, I definitely won't steal it.

    • Dann Albright
      March 4, 2015 at 8:58 am

      That's a really good analogy, and it seems like a good way to go about things. Opening a site in incognito mode is pretty quick, and then you have the option of not whitelisting it if you don't want to, saving you a bit more time. I like it!

      Thanks for your comment—that's really useful.

  11. likefunbutnot
    March 3, 2015 at 3:25 pm

    Once again, MUO's writers are ignoring a fundamental component of the problem with third party, brokered advertisements. Ads, even on large, mainstream web sites, are not carefully scrutinized with regard to associated script content. Those ads can and do deliver malware.

    From an end-user perspective, we have the choice to accept the possibility of malware by blocking the ads that make web sites cluttered, confusing and less useful. We can also turn off javascript (for those who run inferior browsers) entirely, thereby essentially breaking most web sites for the sake of a few ad impressions or for those who use Mozilla-derived browsers AND have the technical acumen AND patience to do so, run NoScript. Absent those two options, the last outcome is that we allow our computers to accept whatever internet herpes ambushar.net or buysellads.com feel like inflicting at the moment we clicked on a page.

    This problem is not the fault of end users. In fact, you should feel fortunate that so few users are aware of and actively using ad blocking as it is. If you want this problem to go away, take it up with the advertising brokers. Run static, text only ads or host them locally after scrutinizing their content. Or find a different way to monetize your content. Just quit bitching about how end users are content thieves for not wanting the internet equivalent of chlamydia.

    • Dann Albright
      March 4, 2015 at 6:16 pm

      It seems clear to me that trying to have a conversation isn't going to get us anywhere here. Both you and the writers of MakeUseOf want to keep you safe. We also want to keep our jobs. You tell us to challenge ad brokers, but I don't know if that's even possible (or if it would result in a big hit to revenue). Or that we should change our revenue model, with no suggestions on how to do so.

      This is a site that's staffed by a lot of intelligent, motivated people. If no one has come up with an alternate revenue model that would allow us to give you all of these articles from 30 or so writers, for free, it's not because we haven't tried. It's because it's a very difficult problem to solve. Which is why it's such a contentious topic.

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