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The Blocking Problem

Written by on September 21, 2015

I came across a brilliant article by Dan Primack over at Fortune, which very simply explain the whole ethical side of ad-blocking.

I'm seriously thinking of robbing your [Apple Store].

To be clear, you don't need to put your geniuses on the lookout for someone trying to pocket an iPad mini. My plan is to walk in, find a device that I want, inform a store employee that I'm taking it and then leave. [...]

But I assume you won't really mind. After all, you recently released a new operating system that allows for all sorts of ad-blocking extensions. In other words, you decided that consumers have the right to not pay [...]

He then goes on to explain why cost and clutter are poor arguments.

I love it!

Mind you, his arguments are the same as what we used to hear from the music industry, because ad blockers make things so much simpler, faster and better.

But let's talk about the problems. We can divide them up into four categories.

The ads

The first problem is obviously the ads themselves. They are so unbelievably annoying. One example is over at YouTube, which I use as my TV. About 80% of the ads that I see have no relation to me whatsoever, and have been designed by brands to appeal to people's stupidity.

Like, "Oh, I'm so dumb and I look like an idiot, so I should get a better internet connection."

And these ads then run again, and again, and again, and again, and again, and again, and... Aaahhhh!!

But those are only the pre-roll ads. Then we have the ads in the middle of the videos. On TV, those ads run at planned stages, which means TV shows are designed with gaps where they would naturally fit.

On YouTube, no such system exists, so the ads start in the middle of a sentence. It's "Here we ha... [GET A NEW INTERNET CONNECTION]".

Not to mention the overlay ads, which block part of your screen. Seriously? And that's just on YouTube. It's even worse on the web.

It's like we tried to come up with the worst way to do advertising, and then we made it even worse.

So, it should not be a surprise when people use ad-blockers, nor should it be a surprise that most block all ads, in all shapes and sizes.

But this, of course, has an unintended consequence. It blocks good ads too. And there are good ads out there.

One example is The Deck. It's a very unintrusive advertising network, used by a very small and exclusive group of websites. Obviously, the ad blockers block them too.

This lead to one of funniest tweets I have seen all year, when John Gruber tweeted this:

John Gruber, as you may know, have been talking about how great it was that iOS now has content blockers. Recently he wrote:

The coming reckoning for publishers is not because of Apple. It's because of the choices the publishers themselves made, years ago, to allow themselves to become dependent on user-hostile ad networks that slow down the web, waste precious device battery life, and invade our privacy. Apple has simply enabled us, the users who are fed up with this crap, to do something about it. If aggressive content blocking were enabled out of the box, by default, I could see saying the result is because of Apple. But it's not. What's about to happen is thus because of us, the users.

Mind you, I agree with John. The Deck isn't a bad ad network, but the problem is, who defines what is a good or a bad ad?

This leads us to the second problem.

Tracking

I think we can all agree that tracking online has turned into this gigantic train wreck. Why should a company be allowed to know anything that I haven't told them?

It's the first rule of privacy.

IfI go down to my local grocery store to buy food, they can figure out what I eat. For instance, they can learn, since I always buy Cheerios, that this is probably what I eat for breakfast. I have no problem with this, because it's activity I do at that specific store.

But then, as I walk into another store, I start seeing ads that question my choice of breakfast (because of all the sugar that is in it).

What the heck?

Darren Herman, VP of Content Services at Mozilla compares this to the billboard.

In the early days of the Internet, the billboard was a sign on the side of the road: static and there rain or shine. To change the billboard, a crew had to go to the location and with a few tools and time, remove the sign and replace it. The billboard was technically dumb. It had no idea who you were, your car, or your license plate number.

But then came tracking:

The components where the billboard starts to know it is a Jeep Grand Cherokee, the speed, names of people in the car, and the time in between passing the board. Collecting and logging data with or without permission

Advertising does not need tracking and tracking does not need advertising. Often we think of these as together and dependent. They are not.

He makes a good point here. Advertising by itself isn't really the problem, but the tracking is. And all too often, the tracking makes it worse.

Why should a billboard ad be allowed to track anything that I haven't specifically told it by choice?

Let me show how bad things are today. Let's look at a site like iMore.com.

iMore has been discussed recently, because it's one of the sites that will be hit the hardest with Apple's new mobile content blocking. And for a good reason.

Here is the result of a small test I did earlier. First, I deleted all cookies and other data from my test browser, giving me a blank slate to work with:

I then went to iMore's front page, and visited three of their articles. At no point did I leave their site or do anything else in my browser (nor do my test browser have any extensions installed).

So, how many cookies do you think it set?

Normal analytics will set five cookies. Then we have other internal tools they might use, which might set a few more. So maybe 10 cookies in total? All coming from iMore.com?

Well, not exactly. Here is what it actually set:

How crazy is this? So many cookies from so many 3rd party sites, tracking you in pretty much every single way they can.

But, we are nowhere near finished yet. These were only the cookies set by domains from A-C, we still have all the domains from D-Z:

How crazy is this? That's 320 cookies across 109 different domains, all set while I was visiting just a single site.

The cookies aren't really the problem here, though. It's the concept of it. Most of these cookies are third party cookies, which allows these 'partners' to track you across many different sites. So when you read about the iPad on one site, they can offer you iPad related products on another site.

Also, the problem here is not what iMore does itself. If we eliminate all the third party cookies, we end up with only the tracking done by iMore.

Granted, that is still a shitload of cookies, but they are all first party, which means that your privacy isn't being violated in any way. None of these cookies can be used for any other sites than on iMore.

The problem is that it's not the sites you visit that tracks you. It's that the tracking is done by third party companies, whom you have no relationship with, and who are building up profiles about you.

Think about how insane that is.

I have no problem with interacting with iMore, and I have no problem in telling them what articles I like, how often I visit them, which of their articles I read, and any other activity I do on their site.

That's fine, because that's part of the relationship that exists between myself and iMore. I'm visiting their site.

But why should 106 other companies know about it too? I have no relationship with them. Get the frack out of my browser!

Keep in mind, that these 106 other companies do not actually give anything to iMore either. iMore cannot go to Servebom.com, for instance, and get analytics back. It's like some creepy guy who are following you around the internet.

It's the same with Google. I have no problem with Google building up a profile about me, based on what I do on Google's sites. And Google knows a lot about me because I use their services all the time.

That relationship is fine. It's activity that I do with Google.

But why should ad networks be allowed to record what articles I read on TheVerge or anywhere else?

Mind you, Google is one of the least problematic ad tracking company we have. There are far worse companies because they are also operating as data brokers.

You see the problem here?

First party tracking is fine. In fact, it's not just fine, it's wonderful. It's exactly the type of tracking that helps create better sites and better products.

But third party tracking is terrible.

So what should we do? Well, we should keep it within the site i visit, the same way as Google Analytics works.

Google Analytics is a wonderful platform because it provides per-site based analytics that cannot be profiled to other sites.

It's first party tracking (which is good).

But the ad blockers don't make that distinction. They look at tracking overall as bad, regardless of whether it is first party or third party.

Here, for instance, is Ghostery.

And here is John Gruber's site:

You see the problem? How would regular people be able to tell the difference between good and bad tracking when all types of tracking is treated as bad?

It's maddening!

We need to stop the third party trackers, but not the first party trackers or the third party services that add functionality, but not tracking.

And this, of course, is where we have the problem. How would we know? Technically, there is no way for a browser extension to determine the intent of a third party tool. Sure, we could block all third party cookies (which you can do yourself right now), but doing that also eliminates a ton of really useful functionality.

For instance, if I watch an embedded YouTube video in an article, you can find it later in your 'History' list on YouTube. Here you can see that I watched a video about the new Roomba, which was something I viewed over at Techcrunch.

The reason why this works is because YouTube is allowed to set a third party cookie. It's an immensely useful feature, which is only possible due to third party cookies being enabled.

What we actually need here is legislation, and the Scandinavian countries provide a good guideline for this. In my country, the law about this is pretty simple:

§5.2: Data must be collected for specified, explicit and legitimate purposes and further processing must not be incompatible with these purposes.

§5.3: Data which are to be processed must be adequate, relevant and not excessive in relation to the purposes for which the data are collected and the purposes for which they are subsequently processed.

§6.2: A company may not disclose data concerning a consumer to a third company for the purpose of marketing or use such data on behalf of a third company for this purpose, unless the consumer has given his explicit consent.

In other words, we are only allowed to track things relevant to the products that we sell. So, on this site, I can track what you read, what articles you view, and any other factors that deals with how you consume my articles.

But I'm not allowed to buy data about what you had for breakfast from a data broker, or use a data broker that collects data about you.

I can still embed YouTube videos or use Google Analytics, because using those service is not done for the purpose of marketing by a third party.

It's a great law, and imagine if this was a global law (or at least the law in the US). It would solve so many things, while still allowing the good trackers.

Speed

Now let's talk about speed. I have talked about this so many times before. Obviously, if you look at a site like iMore, with its 109 domains, and you block 106 of them. The site is going to load quite a lot faster.

And if you then do that on mobile, where the processor is somewhat slower than on a desktop, you get an even greater speed boost. I measure a 2x to 4x speed increase across the sites that I tested.

If you then think about the energy needed, you also quickly realize that blocking will improve battery life, although by how much is still up to debate (I have seen no good tests done about it yet).

One example is TMZ, which I mentioned here:

At the same time we see more and more people complaining about performance online, with Facebook offering instant articles, and Google and Twitter offering caching. All of that is monumentally stupid, because you don't need any of it.

The internet itself is already plenty fast via the link ... if we just optimized our sites and didn't fill every page with so much crap.

The reason Facebook Instant Articles is so fast is because there is almost nothing on the page except the article itself. The preloading they are also doing only provides a negligible boost.

It's just total stupidity by the publishing industry.

While every other part of the internet has been optimized for speed and performance (look at Amazon, for instance), publishers have been adding more and more junk.

It's time to wake up!

Ethical and financial dilemma

All of this results in an ethical and financial dilemma, which has reached a point where the future outlook looks rather bleak. In many ways, what publishers are now experiencing is akin to what the music industry experienced with music piracy.

And just like the music industry, publishers are not starting to realize just how bad this problem is, and is trying to fight back.

For instance, over at CNET you may now come across this:

Two things:

First of all, the people who actually know how to do this are all techies, who won't do it.

Secondly, disabling the ad blocker on mobile means you disable it from all sites. But that means that people will be exposed to all the bad ads, horrible tracking behavior, and speed problems. And CNET is arguing that we should disable ad blockers to they can load 'a message from our sponsors'.

This has to be the worst way of trying to convince anyone.

I'm a publisher myself, so I agree with all the publishers that it's an unacceptable situation, but we have to realize that we have a problem here.

It's exactly the same as with the music industry. People were upset about how CDs worked. They were cumbersome, annoying to bring with you, and were often limited either by local inventory or geo-restrictions.

Sure, people also pirated CDs in order to not pay for them, but the ethical justification was that recording labels were acting like idiots. And we can see this quite clearly today where we now have Apple Music and Spotify. Once the music market started doing things right, music piracy started to drop.

So, step one for publishers is not to try to fight the ad blockers with stupid messages. That's like the music industry saying. "Stop pirating. Buy the CDs that are available and that we haven't limited in your market."

Publishers, you have a problem and you need to solve it before there is any hope of changing the disaster of ad blockers.

This means:

Stop the tracking madness

People have had enough. People generally do not mind any tracking that is done on a first party level. We have no problem with Amazon knowing what products we look at. The problem we have is when outsiders start to build up profiles about us without our consent. When I visit the iMore, I give my consent to the iMore, not to 106 tracking companies who I have no idea who is.

Fix the performance problems

News websites are the worst performing website on the internet. No other industry makes worse performing websites than the media industry. We all know this, but nobody seems to be doing anything about it.

Stop focusing on a terrible advertising model

The way advertising is done today is the worst way possible. It's 100% based on being as annoying and as obnoxious as possible. And it's not working. The trend for digital advertising performance is in decline, and has been so for the past 15 years.

Google is still growing because brands are still transitioning their budgets from print to digital. But even Google has experience declining ad rates for years. The digital advertising model sucks, even if we didn't also have a problem with ad blockers.

Stop hanging on to a failed model. It's like watching the music industry not wanting to change away from CDs.

So what can you do instead?

There is a potential in non-interrupting ad formats, like native advertising, but only if you do it right. There are many interesting ways you can do lead generation, sponsorships, and more.

Is it easy to do? No, of course not. Especially not since the entire digital ad market is hyper-optimized towards the old model. But this is what transformative changes are all about.

If you do these three things. Stop the bad trackers, fix the performance, and rethink advertising, then you can start trying to convince your readers to watch ads again. But as long as you do nothing, there is no way that anyone would turn off their ad blockers for you.

Paying for content

There is also the whole conversation about paying for content, like using subscriptions. This, of course, creates a bunch of other problems.

For one thing, people don't have an unlimited amount of money to spend on media. In fact, today people are only willing to spend between $1 to $2 per hour of media.

Note: I'm talking about all forms of media here. TV, movies, music, games, as well as content. The $1-2 figure is based on US consumer spending per year on media, divided by the total amount of hours spent. The variance is due to that nobody seems to be able to agree on how much time people actually spends. There is also significant differences between age groups, and do not even get me started about the differences between countries. Overall, about 90% of a person's available income (after taxes) is spent on necessities (housing, food, insurance, clothes, transportation), 7% is spent on media (all forms), and 3% is spent on 'other' things.

But mostly, moving from an advertising based model and into a subscription model means you are moving from a model based on optimizing for traffic to one where you are optimizing for value.

This is a bit of a problem in the media industry as a whole. The bar for what is 'worth paying for' is now much higher than ever before. We no longer have the scarcity of the old world.

And if you look at many sites today, we see a continual decline in the value of the articles posted online. If you look at sites like i100, you see a publishing model that can only exist because of advertising. Nobody would ever subscribe to a site like that, nor would anyone pay for any of the articles individually.

And it's not just on social optimized sites that we see this. We see it everywhere. The media, in general, has reduced its value to attract more short-term traffic. This means that they are even less likely to be able to be monetized from subscriptions than before.

Mind you, there are genuine advantages of being based on subscriptions (like what I do here with Baekdal Plus), but it's a very different form of publishing. You have to make it 'worth it', which means you have to put in the effort.

I'm reminded by Derek Muller's video about quantity versus quality:

But what about the platforms, you ask? Well, they are not really the solution either, which I wrote much more about here.

The ad blocking problem is a wake-up call. It's the world telling us that they have had enough of the invasive and unreasonable world of third party trackers, bad performance and horrible experiences.

We may get angry at Apple for adding it to mobile, but we have to remember that ad-blocking have existed on the desktop for almost 10 years. What we are seeing now is that ad blocking is going mainstream as it moves to mobile, just like music piracy went mainstream 15 years ago.

We can bitch about it... or we can look at why it's happening and fix those issues.

As I said. We need to stop the third party trackers and only allow first party tracking. We need to fix the horrible performance of most media sites, and we need to stop optimizing advertising experiences around the most annoying experience possible.

Only then can we discuss the future of advertising.

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Thomas Baekdal

Thomas Baekdal

Founder of Baekdal, author, writer, strategic consultant, and new media advocate.

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