Content Blocking Primer

Published 8 years, 9 months past

Content blockers have arrived, as I’m sure you’re aware by now.  They’re more commonly referred to as ad blockers, but they’re much more than that, really.  In fact, they’re a time machine.

Consider: a user who runs a content blocker can prevent the loading of Javascript, CSS, cookies, and web fonts.  (They can block more than that, but those asset types seem to be the main targets thus far.)  A person loading an article or other page from a web site gets the content, and that’s it, assuming the publisher hasn’t put some sort of “go away” server-side script in place.

Sound familiar?  It should.  We’ve been here before.  It’s 1995 all over again.

And, just as in 1995, publishers are faced with a landscape where they’re not sure how to make money, or even if they can make money.

Content blockers are a two-decade reset button.  We’re right back where we were, twenty years ago.  Except this: we already know a bunch of stuff that doesn’t work.

I don’t mean that ads don’t work.  Ads can work.  We’ve seen small, independent ad networks like The Deck do pretty okay.  They didn’t make anyone a billionaire, but they provided a good audience to advertisers via a low-impact mechanism, and some earnings for those who ran the ads and the network.

The ads that are at risk now are the ones delivered via bloated, badly managed, security-risk mechanisms.  In other words: what’s at risk here is terrible web development.

Granted, the development of these ads was so terrible that it made the entire mobile web ecosystem appear far more broken that it actually is, and prompted multiple attempts to rein it in.  Now we have content blockers, which are basically the nuclear option: if you aren’t going to even attempt to respect your customers, they’re happy to torch your entire infrastructure.

Ethical?  Moral?  Rational?  Hell if I know or care.  Content blockers became the top paid apps within hours of iOS9’s release, and remain so.  The market is speaking incredibly loudly.  It’s almost impossible not to hear it.  The roar is so loud, in fact, it’s difficult to make out what people are actually saying.

I have my interpretation of their shouting, but I’m going to keep it to myself.  The observation I really want to make is this: the entire industry is being given a do-over here.  Not the ad industry; the web industry.

Remember, this isn’t just about ads.  Ads are emblematic of the root problem, but they’re not the actual root problem.  If ads were the sole concern of content blockers, then the blockers (mostly) wouldn’t bother to block web fonts.  It’s possible to use web fonts smartly and efficiently, but most sites don’t, so web fonts are a major culprit in slow mobile load times.  The same is true for Javascript, whether it’s served by an ad network, an analytics engine, or some other source.  So they’re both targeted by blockers — not for enabling ads, but for disabling the web.

Content blockers strip the web back to what it was 20 years ago.  All the same challenges and questions are back, full force.  How do we make sites better, smarter, and cooler?  How do we make money by publishing online?

There are reputations and probably fortunes to be made by learning from our many mistakes and finding new, smarter ways to move forward.  I would advocate that people start with the core principles of the web standards movement, particularly progressive enhancement, but those are starting points, a foundation — just as they always were.

It’s not often that an entire industry gets an almost literal do-over.  We have two decades of hindsight to work with now, as we try to figure out how to (re)build a web where users don’t feel like they need content blockers just to be online.  This is an incredibly rare and exciting juncture.  Let’s not waste it.

Comments (18)

  1. Eric, I agree totally. Mea Culpa. I have had four different Ad Blocking/Privacy-Managing extensions enabled in Chrome for a few years. Mainly due to the security risks and annoyance factors.

    Do the blockers degrade my web experience? Absolutely. About 30% of the sites that I frequent show white pages and the interactivity is dead. IF I absolutely MUST use a “broken” site, I will fire-up a generic browser (usually Vivaldi) and use that one site then purge and close that browser.

    And don’t even get me started on “instant subscription pop-ups! People, let me at least READ your front page before you block my view with a full-screen subscription beg.

    I don’t have any answers, but I am hoping that people way smarter than me do.

  2. I definitely agree with this! And I’d like to bring up another point: Accessibility. Ads are so disruptive that they interfere with screen readers and other assistive technologies in ways that makes it impossible for certain types of persons to consume anything on the web that is ad-powered, without using an ad blocker. Prior to iOS 9, the reader button was the most used button in my mobile Safari, only for the reason that VoiceOver could actually properly read the article to me. Ads are inherently inaccessible, they mostly consist of images that have some sort of weird number or other string as alt text, which makes no sense. So I wouldn’t click on them anyway. Now, with content blockers, I no longer have this much of a need for the Reader buttonto be able to consume web content again. I’ve been using ad blockers on PC and Mac for the past seven years for exactly that reason. They were what allows me to consume most web content nowadays in the first place.-__

  3. When I worked for a large media company a decade ago we were told to work towards a total page weight of 100k. And that was including 6000 words of text. Now even the most trivial page is routinely 1.5mb, and I clocked one the other day at 14mb.
    Here in NZ we are in the middle of a major upgrade of our domestic internet – fibre to the door for most urban areas – and it’s costing a packet. It seems to me that both the consumers and the content producers are being conned here: the consumers pay for the infrastructure which allows this bloat to occur, and the writers get a minuscule cut of the proceeds.
    What to do? Content blockers are a step in the right direction, but how about a proxy browsing service which not only strips the extraneous content, but which also poisons the marketers’ databases, sending back fake tracking data?
    If we want to win this we need to make it not worth it for them.

  4. My assumption was that fonts being included in content-blockers was because the fonts are simply a trojan horse for more analytics.

    Overwhelmingly, the font vendors (or other webpage element providers) aren’t doing that out of the good of their hearts.

  5. There were two primary reasons for me opting for using content blockers.

    1) Got a rootkit virus. That was so obnoxious, I feel it’s safer to just shut down ads rather than ever deal with something like that again.

    2) I was trying to watch a video on YouTube, but there were talking video ads running over each other and worse, they were all talking over the video. If the ads are destroying the whole reason I am using your service, then something has to give.

    I realize that the idea behind ads is to get a person’s attention. Try too hard though, and patience tends to snap.

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  9. Very interesting observations. To me, the question is if the demise of ads and junk content ties in with the over-the-top tool-crazy native emulation fad and that “serious” JavaScript is currently going through.

    I’d say a movement to get rid of the junk is forming, and that what’s happening in content blocking could serve to restore sanity to JavaScript development as well – and vice versa.

    I know I’m rambling, but there’s a pattern here that I can’t yet explain in a few simple paragraphs.

    Food for thought.

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  13. Eric, did some particular news or data prompt this post, or was that simply on your mind?

    Without my Google glasses on—long put aside—I feel ambivalent about ad blockers because for some of us, not just the media but also independent authors (including me), ads are really important because they are one pillar of our income. Ad blocker proliferation is not in our interest—and neither should it be in readers’, for they may get either less free or simply worse content. That itself should not give ads a free pass, but we probably need to look at this whole matter again so that ads are used more responsibly (including less user tracking), and are also blocked more responsibly (not axing everyone’s income).

    When it comes to blocking of other content, I haven’t seen much abuse here, hence the curiosity whether there was something that prompted the post.

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  15. Content blockers themselves do a bit of harvesting, and have ‘allow’ lists for advertisers willing to cough up some money. I never use them.

    I use the nuclear option – a hosts file (winhelp2002). That way all 4 or 5 browsers are covered without plugins.

    It pains me that I cannot tune it to allow ads on sites I wish to support.

    If someone really wants the ads to go through, an advertiser should provide a code blob (html, images) that can be resident in the site/server and included on render. This kind of thing does exist, but it rare. Takes effort on the part of the site owner, but the ads are unblockable as they are an intrinsic part of the site.

    Nice thing is that the site owner then acts as gatekeeper against ads that make their site less usable or irritating to use. That alone could make a site more appealing to visitors.

  16. I’ve never had a problem with ads. I’ve always had a problem with annoyances. (Yes, a tautology). Blow-in cards in my magazines, argh, dropping on the floor, making page turning hard. Magazine articles snaking around slightly larger than quarter page ads, grrr, let me read my article…

    Really, this needs to be the mantra of modern web design: Let the user read the thing they came to read. Don’t pop up ads, don’t have delayed reads (Forbes!), certainly don’t play f***ing videos on what is really a print site.

    And what’s with the “read more” devices? Is the rest of the article that precious that it can’t be exposed to… me, I guess? These are not even a pay wall, maybe they are a caching control, dunno. I dislike them.

    But seriously, pop-ups have made me close tabs on things I was interested in on clickbait sites. They could have had my eyes on their sidebars, but no, they had to get up in my face. BuhBye! Does anyone pay attention to time between clicks? Is closing the window or tab reported? It’d be great if every web designer knew how long people looked at the irritating screen capturing pop-up. They might discover the advertiser wasn’t being well served.

  17. I’ve been working in IT and on the web for over 13 years; I run my own business, I understand that some revenue models seem to be drying up, and honestly, I couldn’t be happier. It’s fair to say, I don’t see the plight of most of those using ads, certainly not of any re-selling ads. I’ve been an ad-blocker for years and proudly so.

    The prevalent idea seems to be creating demand artificially. To do this ad’s auto-play video’s or sounds, they move, they expand, they pop up and block the screen, follow you over the internet, or make you wait n seconds before redirecting you to a source that was ad-free originally.

    There are so many ways to create demand, to nurture a market; to improve your products, and showcase your business besides ads; maybe not on Facebook scale (btw IMHO that is not a bad thing). The bottom line is this. Advertising is about getting people who do not know about your product to see your product by bothering them.

    So what if someone has an idea they cannot finance that needs ad-support; sure they want your attention, your data, your bandwidth to get it… It has value to the advertiser, the ad-platform, but sadly not always the user. Everyone involved is sure the segment they are targeting will be interested in their bothering them, and they are a unique and special snowflake Blah-blah-blah…

    To me, it just seems an awful lot like guy that never has change for the coffee machine, but drives a nice sports car complaining when he’s finally cut-off.

    No Ad-blocker I have ever seen has modified writing on a page; genuine recommendations from people I know that recommend a product or service to me; product data on a vendor’s site… It might not be light speed growth-hacking, but it encourages an honest discourse, and genuinely higher value, and satisfaction rates from service users, and product owners.

    Not advertising, but engaging can help to build brand identity organically, gain insight and feedback, brand evangelism; and I think the future of ads is hopefully only as a memory.

  18. This article basically states that we’re screwed and getting a new avalanche of some sort and we should be afraid….

    There’s no solution at hand, but I can tell you the solution is insanely simple and really powerful at the same time.

    Stop using dumb browsers that are slaves to google/microsoft/apple.
    Chrome and Firefox have exploded in memory consumption and CPU usage for no obvious reason. Why does it take 1 GB now what took 10MB 10 years ago? The webfonts and ads and all the gimmicks of the market industry have bloated up all the browsers while at the same time making those things mandatory and extremely slow.

    Webfonts *cannot* be used smart and efficiently. The people who want to show you those fonts are the devs and have an interest in your wallet. They track you with the webfonts, ads and all the other junk.

    I searched google for hosts-file blocker and 3 months ago that was giving me fine results. Now 3 months later the search results are all omitted and replaced with sites like THESE blogs and nothing else!

    They don’t want you to block it, they exempt your feelings and they don’t deem you important at all. Not even for income, there are 7 billion people on the planet and there are only a hand full of people who are ANGRY like ME about the current development of the web!

    We don’t need webfonts at all!! Stick em where the sun doesn’t shine!

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