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I don't like hard-sell, but an impassioned plea will sometimes work
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jducoeur
A few days ago, fairdice pointed out this plea from Ars Technica. It makes a point that really *ought* to be obvious, but which a lot of folks are in denial about: ad blocking is very destructive to websites. The Cult of Free has managed to convince most people that they are entitled to read whatever they want, without having to pay for it; the result is that any attempt to require people to pay drives most sites' readership down precipitously. (I note that even the Economist, which costs a fair fortune in paper, is mostly online-readable for free.) The side-effect of that is that sites are utterly dependent on advertising for their revenues, and ad blockers starve that, potentially killing sites.

Of course, the article manages to overlook the one very good, very technical reason for ad-blocking: many of those ads are doing a lot more than simply trying to get you to buy a product immediately. A large fraction of them are essentially low-grade spyware, using various techniques to assemble a profile of who you are and what you are interested in, by tracking you across many websites. That profile is the main reason why advertising online is worth money, and why page views matter every bit as much as clicks -- the spyware takes effect when you view the page.

But that said, the original point is a valid one: these sites need to make money somehow. And the shareware principle is very deeply embedded in my soul: if I'm making use of their services, I *should* be contributing to the site somehow. Yes, there are all the rationalizations of the Cult of Free; personally, I find most of them rather selfish and short-sighted. The morality entirely aside, if someone's providing a service I find valuable, it's in my best interest to help keep it running.

Fortunately, Ars (like many sites, and it's a trend I encourage) provides another approach: subscriptions. That is, you don't *have* to pay, but you can choose to instead. No ads, no information leakage through them (although Ars' own privacy policy *does* suck to a surprising degree), and a very quantified contribution to helping run the site. IMO it's rather pricey at $50/year, but if I'm being honest this is probably the single website I use most, so it's worth that much to me...

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"Ads" is too big a category, really.

I like sites that don't show flashy ads. Macintouch, for example, I don't use adblock at. Why? Because their ads can be useful, and don't intrude on the content of the site.

If your ads flash, zip, grab focus, follow my mouse cursor with a bouncing ball, or generally act like a kitten on speed, I will show no compunctions about blocking them. If you show me interstitials, I will likely navigate away; who has that kind of time? If your ads try to store data on my machine, cross-link, or play sound, I'm going to treat them as the dangerous Trojan horses that they are and quarantine the entire ad-serving site. There are a lot of spots on the spectrum of 'ad', from reasonable to criminal.

Of course, I also like sites where I can pay a reasonable subscription fee for quality content, but I'm old fashioned.

Yep, all true. Ars seems to be about average in this regard: they don't show the sort of ads that actively interfere with my being able to read the site (which I think are pretty self-defeating), but I have no reason to believe that they restrict the information that their advertisers can collect, which likely means that there are tracking cookies in there.

(And I agree about the subscription fee: that's why I just bought an Ars membership instead of dealing with any of this ad stuff...)

One of my favorite site has free forums and subscriber forums. Live play by play for skating events is restricted to the subscriber forums, a few other goodies and toys for the paying customers. Works a treat.

A rebuttal, which makes some good points once you get past the "We're better than Ars, nyah-nyah" intro.

(One of the sites I visit regularly - boardgamegeek.com - gives you control over your ads if you make a donation for the calendar year. That I choose to leave some of them on speaks well to their selection; most sites would not pass that test.)

Also, consider: ad-blocking lowers the effectiveness of advertising only to the extent that those who block ads might have clicked on the things if they were unblocked.(*) How much advertisers are willing to pay sites for hosting ads is (over time) a function of how effective the advertising is. If I'm an advertiser, and I get 30 clickthroughs from 1,000 views, I'm about as happy as if I get 30 clickthroughs from 10,000 views - possibly a touch happier, since my bandwidth costs are lower.

(*) = Barring profile-harvesting / spying on eyeballs, but I have few qualms about blocking that particular avenue.

I agree that supporting sites you care about is a good thing, but I'm not sure that disabling ad-blockers for them is the best way to go about it.

Also, consider: ad-blocking lowers the effectiveness of advertising only to the extent that those who block ads might have clicked on the things if they were unblocked.

The Ars article addressed this: they claimed that they were paid for impressions, not just for clicks.


Honestly, I find the rebuttal a bit unconvincing. I mean, yes, it is the site's responsibility to figure out how to pay the bills -- at a theoretical level I see where they are coming from. But in practice, if I like a site but do nothing to help support it -- and moreover, go actively out of my way *not* to support it -- I *do* think I'm partly responsible.

Barring profile-harvesting / spying on eyeballs, but I have few qualms about blocking that particular avenue.

And yet, that *is* precisely how big sites generally support themselves. This isn't a creepy exception -- it's how the Web, by and large, works nowadays because it's the *only* way that most large sites have found that they can make enough money to function.

The sort of highly creative fund-raising suggested by the article is great -- but in practice, I've rarely observed anything of the sort that scales well. And (very important) most implementations of it wind up influencing the news that's being reported: the more your advertisers are getting involved in the content, the greater the likelihood of conflict of interest. Sponsors aren't acting out of the love of truth, and their mere existence can bring a lot of pressures to bear that are less significant in simpler interchangeable banner advertising.

(I mean, what we're talking about generally shows up as those "Special Advertising Sections" in major magazines. I *hate* those, precisely because I find them fundamentally untrustworthy.)

Frankly, all of this is my personal argument of why I want a more micro-payment oriented web. I don't love the spyware, but I do recognize that it's an unpleasant compromise solution for how to run a major site. That being the case, I'd much rather just pay a cent or two per pageview directly to the site, rather than deal with all the indirect mechanisms...

A pay per view micro-payment system would likely only not drive people off if the prices weren't nearly as high as you suggest - small fractions of a cent. (Assuming another micro-payment system evolves and catches on.)

Also, I ran across another counter argument.

That's possible, in the "people are irrational" sense, although it would disappoint me.

I mean, a cent or two per article is (I believe) less in practice than the prices typically being charged by the paywalls that *are* being put into place. Remember, this whole line of discussion started with me signing up for Ars Technica -- which is $50/year, and isn't *terribly* unusual at that. (High, but not exceptional.) That probably comes out to about two cents an article for me, but I spend a *lot* of time on Ars: the amortization would probably be worse for a more casual reader.

So the implication of what you're saying is that people have just-plain-unreasonable expectations of how much their information should cost: they're not willing to pay as much as it actually costs to produce the information, amortized per-viewer. It's entirely possible that you're correct -- but the implication, if so, is probably a depressing race to the bottom in terms of quality of information...

My favorite D&D discussion forums have gone to a subscription model - if you pay $3 per month, you get the ability to shut off the ads. Moving to this model brought it from a haphazard thing to sufficient to be pretty much full-time-job income for the owner.

We also have an explicit channel for reporting ads that should not be featured on the site, and we expunge them when something untoward shows up.

That sounds like a good practical setup...

My cross stitch forums also have a way to set up a board wide fund to cover banning ads from the whole board (which helps since the incomes on the board vary widely). So some people can give $5, and other people can give $1, and then everybody has no ads on that particular board (one of ~20 interlinked boards). And individual subscribers (who see no ads on all boards) lower the cost for each individual board as a unit (cost is I believe a function of views per day and unique visitors, and individual subscribers are subtracted from this).

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