Are There Any Winners In The War On Ads?

By: Zach Walton - March 24, 2013

Advertising is a key component of the Web economy as it keeps many of the Web sites and services you use free. Facebook, Twitter, and even the very words you’re reading right now are all free because of advertising.

For years, this model of advertising on Web sites in exchange for free content worked well. That very model, however, has been under attack for the past few years. The two factions in this war – the pro-ad and the anti-ad factions – have been going back and forth, but no clear winner has ever emerged. Two recent events have helped reinvigorate the discussion, but both threaten to take us even further into a war that can’t be won.

Where do you stand in the war on ads? Are you pro-ad or anti-ad? Let us know in the comments.

Earlier this month, Mozilla, makers of the popular Firefox browser, came under attack by the ad industry. The Interactive Advertising Bureau claims that Mozilla’s plan to automatically block third-party cookies in Firefox will hurt small businesses and Web sites that rely on these cookies track consumer’s Web activity and deliver relevant ads.

Mozilla claims that its anti-cookie policy is all about protecting the privacy of its users. A noble endeavor if there ever was one, but what about Web sites that rely on these cookies to make money from advertisements? Mozilla says that “collateral impact should be limited,” but encourages Web sites to make the necessary code change to accomodate the new policy.

In response, IAB President and CEO Randall Rothenberg says that the policy won’t help consumers in the least, especially in the realm of privacy.

In 2012, the Obama administration endorsed the work of the Digital Advertising Alliance, of which the IAB is a part, for creating a robust self-regulatory program to protect consumer privacy rights and expectations in the advertising-supported internet. This program gives more than 5,000 participating internet publishers, marketers, and other advertising industry companies clear ground rules for activity and exerts penalties if not adhered to. The principles of the program come to life most visibly through a small icon adjacent to advertising that’s delivered to a user based on the educated guess that the ad will be relevant to them. This icon links users to a page with information about how user data is collected and used, and gives them an opportunity to opt-out from the practice. More than 1 trillion of these icons are delivered to U.S. consumers each month.

If third-party cookies are blocked, this program will no longer be effective. A third-party cookie is the technology that tells companies a user has opted out of interest-based advertising through the program; it’s the sign that says, “I’ve chosen not to be tracked.” Cookies can easily be deleted by users through any browser. They are also transparent—any user can find out which ad-supported companies are present in his or her browsers and cherry-pick which cookies they will allow to track their site usage. Today, third-party cookies empower consumers to control their own privacy on an internet-wide scale.

The threat of Mozilla’s anti-cookie policy is still a ways off as Firefox 22 won’t be in use by a majority of Firefox users for another 12 to 18 weeks. This gives the advertising industry some time to meet with Mozilla and come to a consensus on advertising so as to satisfy its need to generate revenue while letting Mozilla feel like its protecting the privacy of its users.

As Mozilla and the ad industry duke it out, the relationship between publishers and consumers are continuously being strained by the use of ad blockers. The debate over the use of the controversial technology came to a head recently as Google removed all ad blockers, including Adblock Plus, from the Google Play store.

Google’s move to protect a major stream of mobile revenue isn’t the first time this year that ad blockers have caused a stir. Earlier this month, Niero Gonzalez, publisher of Destructoid and other online publications, said that half of his site’s readers use ad blockers.

The debate over the use of ad blocking software isn’t new. Back in 2010, Ars Technica ran an experiment that would remove content from those using ad blocking software. The results were immediate:

Starting late Friday afternoon we conducted a 12 hour experiment to see if it would be possible to simply make content disappear for visitors who were using a very popular ad blocking tool. Technologically, it was a success in that it worked. Ad blockers, and only ad blockers, couldn’t see our content. We tested just one way of doing this, but have devised a way to keep it rotating were we to want to permanently implement it. But we don’t. Socially, the experiment was a mixed bag. A bunch of people whitelisted Ars, and even a few subscribed. And while others showed up to support our actions, there was a healthy mob of people criticizing us for daring to take any kind of action against those who would deny us revenue even though they knew they were doing so. Others rightly criticized the lack of a warning or notification as to what was going on.

Those who want to block all ads regardless of its impact on publishers reflect poorly on the intentions of those creating ad blocking software. In early 2012, a New York Times report said that the popular Adblock Plus software would be introducing an exception in its software for “acceptable ads” to help counter the negative effect its software has had on Web sites. In essence, “acceptable ads” are those that don’t distract the consumer with flashing visuals or noise.

Unlike Mozilla’s destroy all cookies philosophy, Adblock Plus hopes to promote simple ads that respect consumers. The makers of the software realize the importance that advertising plays in the Web economy, but also want said advertisers to respect those they’re targeting. If successful, it would encourage more users to unblock ads on Web sites.

Are you an ad blocking maximalist? Or should ad blockers only be used when the situation calls for it? Let us know in the comments.

As it was said at the start, the “war on ads” has been raging for years with no winner in sight. That begs the question – will there ever be a winner? There won’t be as things currently are. It will require a concentrated effort on the part of consumers, advertisers and publishers to make sure that everybody emerges as winners.

Some Web sites are already being incredibly proactive in this space. Reddit comes to mind as the popular Web site recently said that it has partnered with a new ad provider to deliver ads that are “as useful and non-intrusive as possible.” Reddit says that it already enjoys a user base that overwhelmingly whitelists it in ad blockers. The new ad system respects user choice as well by giving readers the option of hiding ads:

For example, if you dislike a particular ad in the sidebar, it is now possible to hide it from showing again. If you hover over a sidebar ad in /r/sports, a new “thumbs up” / “thumbs down” overlay will appear. If you “thumbs down” an ad, we won’t display it to you again, and you can give us feedback to improve the quality of reddit ads in the future.

There’s a desire on the part of consumers to work with publishers and advertisers to keep the ad economy healthy for years to come while respecting their right to an enjoyable experience on the Web. All those who rely on the Web need to take this into account if they want to survive.

Should consumers play a larger role in the ad industry? Can everybody become a winner in the ad wars? Let us know in the comments.

About the Author

Zach WaltonZach Walton is a Writer for WebProNews. He specializes in gaming and technology. Follow him on Twitter, StumbleUpon, Pinterest, and Google+ +Zach Walton

View all posts by Zach Walton
  • I don’t need one

    I don’t mind sensibly placed advertisements, provided they’re both unobtrusive and minimalist. I have a short list of things I consider when I first visit a site which will determine whether or not I add the site to my whitelist. If you are a content provider and you want me to unblock the ads on your site make sure your ad service does the following:

    – Don’t make ads which jump around, flash or zoom or are otherwise obnoxious in trying to grab my attention

    – Don’t make ads which play sound or video or anything heavy in Adobe Flash or Javascript content (for all I know it could contain malware)

    – Don’t make ads which spawn pop-ups or pop-unders (again possible malware threat)

    – Don’t make ads which spawn CSS layers, blanking out the content every five seconds

    Do the following:

    – Use unobtrusive banner ads and gifs nested in the margins of the page which don’t interfere with the flow of the content on a regular basis

    – Use text advertisements

    – Use static click-through ads when opening new pages occasionally

    – Install an option for regular users to make donations or micropayments, but DON’T make it a requirement to view the content or otherwise turn it into some idiotic pay-per-view system because I guarantee your readership will plummet

  • John

    It is third party cookies that are being blocked by default. If you want to receive 3rd party ads, Mozilla isn’t going to stop anyone turning them on. Its still up to the user, the same as it was before they were turned off by default. A big deal is being made of nothing. I’m a web site owner who relies on ads, but even I have them turned off by default in my browser, because it gives me a better browsing experience. Not only that, if I want to buy something on line, I will search for it. and I guess so will anyone else.

    Oh – I also have allot of other privacy features, including anti tracking, VPN, and other things that falsify my browsing habits. Not because I have something to hide, but because my browsing habits are my business and not anyone else’s. If that upsets someones profile of me, I don’t give a damn.

  • knysna

    Ads or Aids? They both a human immunodeficiency virus infection! To say the least.

  • WAHM

    I’m in the same camp as John. This is a big stink for no good reason.

    IAB members are upset because they won’t be able to easily track the clueless ones. People who have a clue, like me, have already blocked most, if not all, tracking.

    And it really is all about the tracking. The ads are secondary. WE are the product, as long as we allow ourselves to be.

  • Conran

    The problem has been far too much advertising by people who don’t know what they are doing, or what they are promoting.

    I don’t mind ads on a page, within reason. But when a site splashes ads everywhere for complete nonsense that I cannot believe anyone actually buys, then it’s a problem.

    But, surfers cannot have it both ways. If they want to read content, the have to suffer the ads. If people refuse ads entirely, then they should expect to see the number of sites and the quality of content collapse.

    Many sites cannot survive without serving ads, it’s a fact of life.

    The problem is an overly privileged generation who thinks everything on the net should be free (just look at the mess of piracy and some of the idiotic arguments the youth of today make in defense of it!)

    They’re living in a delusional world where economics is fictional and they seem to have been raised by parents who hand them money every day for nothing. This is not reality. People don’t work for nothing. Most sites are not hobbies created for the betterment of scroungers.

    In conclusion, accept some advertising, or see 80% of the sites you love going under.

    • Jackie Mackay

      All of this is well thought out common sense. There is one thing though, Taste. The intrusiveness of moving ads – flashing ads and just plain ugly, upsetting images is a tangible contribution to stress. The sites sporting these ads will eventually lose out, cookies or no cookies.

      Whereas high class media sites (even the BBC advertising other programmes or content) use very high class visuals to draw the viewers to their other pages. it works. In addition they display multiple images with relaxing pauses and smooth fades instead of vulgar liquor-store flashing.

      When the several million people online show that they care what they see and value beauty, then artists in agencies will work to provide attractive images and the owners of slap-it-up templates may be more discriminating in what they choose to accompany their content.

      Meantime the lowest common denominator (bottom feeder sites) may show cheap c**p while the ones who display beauty will be making more money as well as contributing to higher standards.

      Jackie Mackay

  • Mike

    Totally agrees with I don’t need one. I pretty much follow the same guidelines as he does.

    I do use an ad blocker plug-in because browsing the web is so much better and smoother with one, I will however allow exceptions for website I go a lot on, and really need the money income to keep feeding me content I like, considering they follow the above guidelines about non obtrusive ads.

  • coralatlas

    ONCE UPON A TIME the internet was free of cost and free of commerce …..

    in fact one upon a time humanity was free of commerce as it exists today … exchanges of value for value or barter took place …

    now stock brokers sell shares (paper or digital data = worthless) in corporations for multiples of what the shares aka corporation is worth …..

    most humans have been conditioned to accept the false science of economics which justifies the unequal distribution of natural resources under the guise of being more efficient …

    profit is touted as the incentive necessary for some to produce what others need … and it is just assumed that those who own resources have the right to own them on a first come first serve basis

    this is wrong …. all humans are entitled to a fair and equal share of the planets resources in theory and economics is a false science developed to justify unequal treatment of human beings … such as in under-developed nations who have been pillaged for natural resources by industrial consumer nations …

    all of this we are told or taught or actually brain washed into believing is good ???

  • Damgas In Cucina

    Blog che tratta ricette di cucina e la loro storia, curiosità e tanto altro dal mondo della cucina

  • bob m


    I believe No One should be tracking, or spamming (yes, some advertising is no more than legal spam), us with ads!

    If some one/company wants to track us they should have EXPLICET permission from us to do so! And they should be paying us for that privilege!

  • Stephan

    Nobody has a problem with magazines (print) with 50-60% ads? This discussion would make sense, reduce costs and have an environmental impact.

  • Michael Gordon

    There is a tiny little extension named: AdBlock that blocks intrusive advertisements from interrupting the web pages you are reading. The extension can be customized by the user to allow, or block specific web site ads.

    Web browsers should allow the user to decide what content to render, and what content to block, most of the time ads are third party server content, and cause the internet to slow down because an ad server is not working correctly.

  • Ross

    It is totally unethical that your opposition can place an add above your (free) hard earned google search listing by paying dollars to Google.

    Google has listings for Images, Maps, You Tube etc, so why not make a new listing for Adverts.

    That way you could search for listings that are of interest to you instead of being served up junk mail.

  • John Hayes

    I don’t have ads on my site because I want my visitors to enjoy my content rather than be distracted.

  • Digby Geen

    As a manufacturer with a website I appreciate internet adverts.

    But as a browser/user I hate the obtrusive ones, the pop ups and pop unders etc.

    I do use an adblocker on some sites.

    So I think its up to advertisers to stop using the obtrusive ads.

    And someone how people need to stop using adblockers which are becoming more and more well known by users.

    That idea of hiding content if you use an ad blocker is one to keep in mind.

  • M Cunningham

    I pay for the bandwidth of my connection and I will decide what data is downloaded – so I will block adverts unless it is for something that I am specifically searching for. In many cases, the amount of data that can be transferred is capped, particularly when roaming, and this data cap is being reached by adverts that I do not wish to see. Sorry, earn your income another way. If I sent unwanted advertising to you it would be termed junk mail or spam, why should it be any different for data going in the other direction?

  • umkm cipatat

    give me something interesting about SEO

  • so I sez

    Shitty Ads are the reason Adblock exists.

    I don’t want to ever see weight loss secrets. I don’t want to see cialis ads on my children’s sites. I don’t want to see horrible teeth. I am fed up with shock ads.

    I don’t want to be targeted by my age or my gender when i visit a website. I don’t want to meet singles if i am deemed to be a single. I don’t want to be deemed a married and see ads only directed to marrieds.

    Site content loads just fine on its own – yet 99% of page delays are the result of an overloading of flash and javascript intensive adverts all trying to load in on the page from a variety of sources OUTSIDE from the content being loaded, and the content does not load until the ads load first – if the page won’t load in less than 3 seconds, I’m gone. On to the next search result – it has sweet FA to do with your excellent SEO in your content if your ad-delivery firm fails to load their ads on your site fast enough.

    the fact that IAB is able to get the data does not mean they have the RIGHT to have that data they are whining about losing from 3rd party cookies. Name five big name companies which have been penalized by the IAB for rules violations in the past 6 months

  • Nina

    I am in support of Mozilla to block all third party cookies some ads can be very frustrating. Let people search fro what they want and find them on the web, the idea of tracking people’s activity on the web is crazy