There’s been a lot of talk lately about the rise in use of ad-blockers, and the various strategies publishers and the online ad industry are using to try to convince people to turn off their blockers. But almost all of this has been framed as a case of people wanting to be freeloaders, wanting to view content without bothering to pay “the price” in the form of also seeing ads.
Sure, ads are annoying. But there are so many other reasons why people use ad-blockers. And if you don’t include these in the conversation, then you’re missing 75% of the debate. You’re not addressing any of the substance of why people are using ad-blockers.
First and worst of all, they’re a major distraction
There are some ads out there that are just static images. They aren’t animated, they don’t play video, or blink, or — absolute sin — auto-play video with sound.
But they’re the minority. Or at least, they sure feel like it.
I keep coming across pages that have more than one animated item in the viewport at the same time, which makes it absolutely impossible to concentrate on reading the text that’s supposed to be the page’s reason for existing.
That’s one of the biggest, for me and for anyone with even a hint of ADD, ADHD, or just plain hard-wired human impulse to look at something when it starts moving. When you put all those flashing, moving, scrolling doohickeys on your page, I physically, psychologically cannot read your content.
Which is why I normally browse with an ad blocker turned on. Every once in a while, I try turning it off to see if that’s what’s keeping something from loading right, and I’m immediately stunned by the barrage of things that flicker, flash, whoosh, zoom, morph, and otherwise dance to get my attention.
And then I think, “Do other people really, actually put up with this? All the time?”
That’s the main reason. But there are other reasons to block ads on the modern web:
They’re invading our privacy
Come on, we all know about this one by now, right? Something like 15 years ago, we all noticed that when Doubleclick had an ad on every page on the world, that meant they could track any user from site to site, all the way from one end of the World Wide Web to the other.
Now, it’s not just Doubleclick that can do that. (Although they are still around! They just aren’t getting front-page headlines any more. Does their dropping off the radar make them less of a problem?) Now, it’s also Google. And Facebook. And anyone else who has a social sharing widget on a page you’re viewing… Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, Pinterest, at the very least. And then there are the thousands of other companies that are tracking us. It’s out of control.
People using ad-blockers are trying to take back control. At least a little of it.
They take up a ton of bandwidth
Page weights these days are comfortably in excess of 2 megabytes per page. People on mobile connections without unlimited data plans can burn through that in an hour or two of browsing! And unlimited data plans are getting harder and harder to find.
They make the page load slower
This is related, but not the same thing. If your ad server is slow, it doesn’t matter if it’s only trying to serve me a single 15KB JPEG. If it takes 25 seconds to fulfill the request, your single image can block the loading of the entire rest of the page for that time.
You know how many users will still be waiting after 25 seconds? Yeah, that’s right, not even ones who are related to the page’s author.
And even if every ad server is blazing fast, there are still so goddamn many things to load. Every single one is a new HTTP request, and many of them require a DNS lookup first, and every one of those things takes time.
As of last fall, the median page surveyed required over 169 resource requests to load, and took 5.5 seconds just to get to the point where the user could interact with it. (And then another 10 seconds to finish loading completely!) Nobody wants to deal with that kind of lag.
[Update 1: March 14, 2015 09:49]
They eat battery life
Just after posting this essay in its original form, I became aware of a New York Times article about extending smartphone battery life. Tip #2, right after “Use auto-brightness for the screen”, is “Block power-sucking ads”. It claims ad-blockers reduced the battery usage for web browsing by over 50% in tests.
[Update 2: March 15, 2015 14:46]
They can deliver malware
I just found out that a variety of major Web sites have been infected with malware that attempts to install TeslaCrypt ransomware on readers’ computers. Sites affected include MSN, the New York Times, the BBC, the NFL, the Weather Network, and Newsweek.
[End update 2]
If you think people using ad blockers are just anti-ad or want to freeload on publishers, you’re completely missing the point. The online advertising industry has been abusing users for 20 years now, and we’re sick of it.