Opinion: Why content-blocking on iOS means advertisers, ad networks, publishers & readers all need to up their games

adblockers

Ads are things we all love to hate. While some can be amusing, and others can be useful, drawing our attention to products or services we weren’t aware of, mostly we view them as things to tolerate at best – and to be profoundly irritated by at worst.

Some think they have a simple solution to this: using an adblocker. Adblocking software has existed for desktop browsers for many years, but to date there haven’t been any effective blockers for iOS.

All that could change with iOS 9, however, with content-blocking capabilities built right into the platform. If Apple chooses to allow adblockers into the App Store (and we don’t yet know yet for sure that it will), that could require advertisers, ad networks, publishers and readers alike to up their games … 

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I do, of course, have to begin by declaring a vested interest in this discussion: I write for a website that is – like the vast majority of editorial sites on the web – almost entirely funded by advertising. Without ad revenue, 9to5Mac wouldn’t exist; it’s that simple.

And visits from people using iOS devices, unsurprisingly, make up a huge percentage of our web traffic. Here’s a peek into our analytics over the past few weeks, showing that iOS devices are used by almost half our readers.

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So we’re not a disinterested observer in this – but then, if you want sites like ours to remain in existence, neither are you. That’s why I think all four parties need to think carefully about how to respond should Apple allow adblockers.

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Advertisers

Change has to begin with advertisers. Too many ads are not just irritating, they are infuriating. Ads that expand to cover the content we’re trying to read or – worse – the entire webpage.

Ads with distracting animations – banners that jiggle, or rapid animations that make it hard to concentrate on the content we’re trying to read.

Ads that auto-play video, audio or both. Especially ads that wait a while and then start playing audio, as you then have to scroll back up to find it and shut the damned thing up.

Deceptive ads – like the ones that disguise themselves as ‘next’ or ‘previous’ buttons, or which try to fool technically naive people into thinking they are system messages.

I could go on, but the bottom line is that advertisers need to stop thinking the goal is to grab our attention at all costs, and realise that making us hate them is not a sensible long-term marketing strategy.

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Ad networks

If you’re now holding up your hands and saying “But wait, I’ve seen some of that crap on your website” and wondering how I can criticize stuff we allow on our site, the reality is that we don’t allow it. We don’t get to hand-pick the ads that are shown – ad networks do that. The most we can do is partner only with reputable ad networks, like Google.

But even reputable ad networks too often turn a blind eye to ad formats they have to know are annoying. So long as the networks allow them to get away with it, advertisers focused only on short-term metrics will keep doing it. So the ad networks need to up their game here and be much stricter about what they do & don’t allow.

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Publishers

Web publishers, too, need to look at what more they can do to reduce the impact of ads on the browsing experience. One thing you may have noticed us experimenting with, for example, are sponsored posts. Instead of a bunch of Google ads surrounding our site, there’s a single piece of editorial which we craft. Banner ads are removed for the day that the sponsored posts run which speeds up the site and brings more focus and goodwill to our sponsors. The sponsorship reaches all consumers of 9to5Mac across Facebook, Flipboard, Apple News*, Pulse, Pocket, adblockers, Instapaper and RSS. The site runs quicker and everyone is theoretically happier. Most importantly, we get to keep our day jobs of writing great material for you. We can even use these to step up the quality of our ads from a reader’s perspective, like our recent campaign with Incase that saw 9to5 readers get exclusive access to a new collection of bags before anyone else.

Sponsored posts require a great deal of caution, however. We won’t feature any product or service we can’t genuinely recommend (we’ve already turned down more offers than we’ve accepted) which is why they tend to be things we use personally. Of course, not all sites are as selective, nor as transparent about which posts are sponsored, so it’s a model that isn’t always better than advertising. For the time being, we’re limiting sponsored posts to 1/week.

Quality Apple sites like Daring Fireball have been running sponsorships for years and we think it is a great idea to be fair to everyone. So expect to see more and fewer banner ads along with it.

Patreon

We’ve noticed a recent trend of niche Apple blogs that are running out of funding turning to Patreon which allows readers to fund the sites they read directly (well, almost directly – Patreon takes a cut I believe). A few examples here: MacMagazine, AppleWorld.Today, MacAdopt and MacRumors’ sister site Touch Arcade.  We’d love to hear how our readers feel about this model.

readers

Readers

And finally, readers can play their part too, using adblockers either sparingly – blocking only ad networks that specialise in deceptive ads, for example – or selectively. Not being ‘that guy’ who just lazily blocks everything.

Because there are only two possible futures for an ad-funded site when a significant proportion of its readership uses adblockers: tucking away content behind a paywall and charging for access, or going bust.

Adblockers allow you to whitelist domains – sites on which you allow ads to be displayed. I’d suggest here the decision is both simple and stark: if you want the website you are visiting to remain in existence, and be free to access, whitelist it.

As ever, let us know your views in the comments.

FTC: We use income earning auto affiliate links. More.

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Comments

  1. PhilBoogie - 8 years ago

    This site could still exist, I think, if you put up a paywall. I certainly would’t mind paying for all your informative articles, and having the pleasure of a clean view, unobstructed by ads.

    • irelandjnr - 8 years ago

      $1.99 per month and many would pay it. It’d be an interesting experiment. Or 99c for an ad-free version. Or and ad setup that doesn’t make 9to5 such an awful reading experience.

    • surfingarbo - 8 years ago

      I’d pay to use this website. Some websites such as Splitwise recently implemented an optional “Pay-what-you-want” feature, and because these websites I use/visit frequently, I’m happy to pay a small amount for it. Certainly better than seeing advertising.

    • PMZanetti - 8 years ago

      Likewise. I would pay $1.99/mon for ad-free access to this site. I definitely think this is an option many sites are afraid to try. What’s the harm in putting it out there and seeing who bites?

    • Mike Beasley - 8 years ago

      Google is working on something like that which would allow you to pay a monthly fee and have AdSense ads removed across the web. The more you pay, the fewer ads you see. It’s an interesting concept for sure. https://www.google.com/contributor/

      • PMZanetti - 8 years ago

        Thats interesting, but I think I would be much more inclined to personally contribute to sites that I want to support, and get an Ad-free experience in return, vs. paying off Google to hide their crap universally.

  2. Paul Hudson (@twostraws) - 8 years ago

    Apple made it so easy to write a Safari content blocker that anyone can do it. Seriously, I wrote a tutorial on how you can block stuff with absolutely no coding – it couldn’t get any easier.

    Note that “content blocker” and “ad blocker” are not the same thing, as I state in my tutorial. I’m sure people are busy trying to get AdBlock Plus to work as you read this, but it’s a long way from being a shoo-in.

  3. svluisfelipe - 8 years ago

    “Adblockers allow you to whitelist domains – sites on which you allow ads to be displayed.” Great tip :)

  4. José Ferrari - 8 years ago

    Very interesting Ben, very interesting indeed. I run a site as well (obviously not nearly as big as 9to5mac) but this post caught my eye. Personally i also run sponsored posts once a week and the truth is that advertising per ads seems very unprofitable (unless your site has huge metrics). I believe the future of tech blogs goes to the affiliate marketing systems. It’s a difficult model when you write news posts because you can’t just link to a store if you’re talking about Apple’s earnings call, for example, but i find it to be the least intrusive format to gain revenue while also providing some value for the reader and, of course, being controlled by the editorial staff.

    Always a pleasure to read you’re posts, i’ve never commented (not a big commentator in general). but i’ve been following this site for a few years now. Loved your post about high quality music when you mentioned your amicable divorce and the splitting of the cd collection lol. ¡Good read!

  5. Michael (@PatientGeek) - 8 years ago

    Thanks for being open about your interests and the issues in ads that are out of control. Apple’s iOS might be the forcing function that drives changes that respect the visitor instead of carpet bombing them in hopes of making money on the statically few that take the bait.

    I for one would be willing to participate with my preferred sites if they in turn put some thought into how they use ads.

    I basically refuse to go to sites that are careless. Let the evolution begin…

    • José Ferrari - 8 years ago

      I understand you concern. However, if we all did that then there would not be any new sites. Think about it, let’s say you want to start a blog with useful info, at first the only revenue you’ll make will be through ads basically. If you take ads out of the ecuation then no one, at least no one that doesn’t have huge chunks of capital to invest, would even get started building a site. At least that’s how i see it.

  6. mikhailt - 8 years ago

    Ads isn’t the only problem. Tracking is also a major problem, I do not permit Google, Bing, Amazon, and other companies to collect information about what sites I go to and what I like or don’t like for the purpose of targeted ads and selling the information to other companies that can build up a complete profile on me.

    Don’t forget there are malware domains specifically built to inject bad scripts via iframe on other sites and one of the best ways is to block them is to block third party domains by default.

    There are also incredible slow third party scripts that is not needed for any sites, such as fancy Google Fonts, third party “like” buttons, commenting systems, and etc etc. Many of them are hosted on third party servers that are so slow to load.

    By blocking them, all sites are loading as if I have 1TBps fiber connection. I do try to whitelist as many as I can as long as they’re annoying but they’re getting to the point that blocking the ads network is the only way to get the ads blocked properly even on sites I like.

    The sites were not annoying to browse through the late 2000s and everyone in my family wasn’t bothered by it. In the last several sites, more sites have been getting into the distracting ads that simply forced me to install a proxy server to block third party scripts by default to avoid getting complaints from my family.

  7. irelandjnr - 8 years ago

    9to5’s ads are some of the most annoying I encounter on the sites I frequent.

    • Seth Weintraub - 8 years ago

      Annoying how? We try to keep everything to a minimum and an upcoming update should make ads even less of an annoyance

      • irelandjnr - 8 years ago

        One of bottom of mobile site is persistent and those flashing hostel world adverts as of late or a mega-pain

      • Seth Weintraub - 8 years ago

        The bottom persistent won’t be there in 2 weeks. The flashing hostels are a google issue which we complain about if you send us specific examples.

      • NP (@NP1946) - 8 years ago

        Seth, I would like to join the conversation by giving my personal feedback about 9to5’s ads, being a reader for years and having noted some changes.

        First, my reading habits have lead to my eyes to unconsciously skip ads, so I’m not the usual ad-annoyed reader, I just obviate them.

        However, months from now, I noted how ads (I believe backed by Google ads network) are more prone to be unintentionally ‘clicked’, or rather touched, since I am an iPad reader.
        Seriously, I feel as if something has changed (again, maybe it’s on Google’s end), making those ads more easily ‘clicked’ on touch displays unintentionally while scrolling.

        While I have suffered this on most of the sites I frequent, 9to5 is, due to its ad layout, the most perjured of all. I find myself continually ‘clicking’ unwanted ads which make a new tab open on my iPad’s Safari, hence completely downgrading my reader experience so far.
        I can say that now, ads have become annoying to me.

        Regarding future business model migration for these sites, I wouldn’t mind paying a small fee to get a curated reader experience; of course this should be thoroughly analyzed by you site owners/writers because a small fee for each of the sites we read can pretty much add to a big one very quickly. Maybe there could be sites ‘networks’ or alliances that give you complete access to its members for a unique monthly fee.
        We’ll see…

        Anyway, thanks for the chance of letting me unload something I’ve been holding for long months and yet couldn’t find the opportunity to express.

        Thanks and keep up with the excellent articles!!

      • macmaniman - 8 years ago

        personly i don’t mind the ads, but if we are talking about annoyance, its the daily deals tab to your left, wich often covers up the text, specially on the ipad!

    • pdjhh - 8 years ago

      I’ve been using the atomic web browser for a long time and didn’t even know 9to5 mobile had ads. I get a blank grey box at the bottom of the screen I have to clear is all.

  8. standardpull - 8 years ago

    This class of content filtering capability has been in every desktop browser for years. The fact that it is coming to Safari on iOS should be of no surprise anyone. And the reason for adding this technology to a browser? Users want to reduce the unthinkable payloads that some site owners are stupidly or ignorantly dumping on their visitors.

    The number of web bugs and ad networks added onto web sites have gone completely out of control. How many different domains do you think are invoked when making a page request to a popular site? Six? Ten?

    No. In my quick little sample, wsj.com invoked 57 different domain names. washingtonpost.com invoked over 80.

    This is a simple count of how many distinct domain names saw requests when requesting ONE SINGLE PAGE. This isn’t a count of http requests – there are many more of those.

    All these requests chew up data, slow performance, lower reliability, and increase risk of compromise. And it isn’t just impacting smartphone users – desktop users on a hardwire connection are significantly impacted as well.

    I’m a big fan of the concept of the advertising model – everyone wins. But these days the owners of web sites have become, well, stupid. They have learned to ignore technology and instead just layer in new ad networks WITHOUT ANY ANALYSIS of the impact – other than the number of cents per click.

    Want a performance increase? Want better battery life for your phone or laptop? You -KNOW- that ad blocking makes a huge difference on the major of sites.

    So yes, web site owners are killing their own business, just like Alta Vista did in the late 1990’s.

    There are some exceptions – but the vast majority of popular sites are completely out of control.

  9. nutmac - 8 years ago

    I think both the publisher and readers alike agree that most banner and Google AdSense ads are ugly and websites would look better without them. That bias aside, they help pay the bill and I would hate to see my favorite websites to go out of business.

    Like many readers, I’ve learned to ignore ads, either quickly scrolling past them or just becoming desensitized to ads in general. That causes conversation rate suffer, ultimately not helping the publisher.

    Furthermore, mobile ads can consume cellular data for those on the go, so readers may feel it is their right to prevent ad hungry website from eating their precious monthly data quota.

    So what works? To me, the only ad I actually pay attention to are video ads. Now I am not talking about obnoxious YouTube-style autoplay video ads, but video ads that translate to perk… like in in-app purchase mobile games.

    Speaking only for myself, because I am sure many readers will hate my idea, I personally support the idea of 9to5mac limiting the number of free articles per month, which can be unlocked by monthly subscription OR watching sponsored video ads.

  10. RP - 8 years ago

    Ads in and of themselves are not a problem. It’s when they become a nuisance and an annoyance. Here on this site for example when on my iPhone makes it almost impossible not to hit the ads while scrolling because the ads reach all corners of the screen. In that case it is the publisher, 9to5 Mac who pushes people to seek ad blockers as a solution to badly thought out intrusive nuisance advertising.

  11. Neil Anderson - 8 years ago

    Just whitelisted you.

    • Seth Weintraub - 8 years ago

      You are the best :D

      • freediverx - 8 years ago

        I keep wanting to whitelist you but the in-line ads really make it unpleasant to read the articles. Just place the ads on the side.

      • Mike Beasley - 8 years ago

        freediverx, the sidebar ads are house ads that keep the site running etc, but the ones in-line on articles are actually author-specific. they’re in the article like that below the page break for a few reasons.

        a big reason is that google likes to limit the number of ads that can appear on a page, so having them appear at the top of every post or somewhere else in the body would lead to google quickly shutting us all down for having too many ads on the home page. that’s why they’re below the break in the place where they’re currently positioned.

        like i said, those are author-specific ads which let writers collect revenue for their posts, so that’s another reason they’re there. removing them would unfortnately do a lot of harm to our writers financial situations, and we don’t want that :P

        i know the placement seems really weird (it certainly makes laying out features more difficult!) but it’s really the only way the system works right now. we’ve got some changes in the pipeline that’ll (hopefully!) make the layout a bit less intrusive.

    • Mike Beasley - 8 years ago

      Thanks!

  12. freediverx - 8 years ago

    I think the key to ad networks getting their act together is for them to fundamentally change their success metrics for ads. So long as an ad’s effectiveness is measured entirely by how many people see it or click on it, advertisers will continue to use the most invasive, intrusive, deceptive, and infuriating tactics.

    If they truly want to mitigate the spread of ad blocking technologies, they should incorporate user experience into their success metrics, balancing ad conversion with user annoyance.

    • Mike Beasley - 8 years ago

      Unfortunately advertisers paying for the space don’t necessarily care about how nice the ads look, only how many people click on them and buy something. Because they’re the ones paying for the ad space, it’s their happiness that measures success rather than the viewer. It kinda sucks but that’s just the way it is when they’re the ones holding the money.

  13. NQZ (@surgesoda) - 8 years ago

    I pay for channels like HBO and Showtime because they DON’T have ADS — I Don’t want to see ads, period. Either charge me money for your service / content, or I’m going to use an adblocker — it’s just that simple.

    • freediverx - 8 years ago

      NDQ, how many websites do you frequently visit on the internet? Are you willing to pay a subscription fee for all of them? If the answer is no, and you think that you will always be able to get your information somewhere else, think again.

      As consumers we need to fight for reasonable and sustainable web business models, rather than demand that sites produce quality content for free.

      • suchkunt - 8 years ago

        “If the answer is no, and you think that you will always be able to get your information somewhere else, think again.”

        Gee I wonder how they did it back in the stone age of dialup! There are ALWAYS alternatives. I could get Apple news anywhere, and I still could back in the day before widespread advertisement was a thing.

        It would return to hobby status rather than “i don’t want to get a real job so I’ll pretend to be a journalist” status. The content quality will likely improve.

        There’s a lot of content most can live without. Unfortunately for web guys trying to extract shekels, the user is king.

  14. freediverx - 8 years ago

    Sponsored posts sound reasonable so long as they replace, not supplement, regular ads and so long as they are clearly labeled as advertising.

  15. suchkunt - 8 years ago

    No one would mind advertisement if it were like it was in the late 90s, a small, occasionally animated gif banner ad unintrusively added into a page.

    Instead, sometime in 2002 everything went off the rails. The period of time between then and the invention of adblock was horrendous. Pop-ups, pop-unders, mouse-over sound effects, processor-battery-killing flash ads, hidden ads within text links, widespread user tracking, scam sites, adware, malware, corrupt browser helper objects….

    Any leniency/consideration users may have given to website owners or advertisers was quickly destroyed. Websites visually raped their visitors and obliterated the speed gains broadband was supposed to confer and so software guys stepped up and implemented a scorched earth policy with their adblockers.

    Some sites may fall by the wayside. Who cares? The internet will become just a little smaller and content will be easier to find like the good old days of web 1.0. Some Bloggers will have to go out and find real jobs.

    Ad blocking is a good thing. Users pay for the hardware, the software and the internet connection. Users have a right to strip out content they don’t want to see.

    Don’t worry, plenty of rubes other still use whatever version of IE came with their windows so still a good 70% of population can be exploited by shady advertisement.

  16. rnc - 8 years ago

    Damn straigh.

    Delete the ad networks, sell a few posts from time to time (as long as you mark them as “paid advertisement”), that’s more than pleasant for the user, it’s even useful, as you know, we are all apple users or people looking to be Apple users, there are a lot of iPhone cases, Apple watch accessories, iPad software and Mac hardware that can pay some ads and support sites like this.

    • RP - 8 years ago

      Exactly. Ads are not the problem, it’s how well they are integrated. There are a lot of product ads that are fantastic to see advertised here. They become an added feature in finding related products. It all comes back to the publisher putting a little more effort instead of simply relying/blaming ad networks.

  17. 1551denis - 8 years ago

    We hear you @benlovejoy and all 9to5Mac staff. Love, your readers

  18. rahhbriley - 8 years ago

    Ben, Seth, 9to5, community, nice conversation. I enjoyed. Thank you.

    Echoing support for paying to remove ads. I think it would be awesome, I would definitely do it. I would very much enjoy seeing you experiment and set the trend.

    It makes sense for the wider web; if I’m an infrequent user of a site’s information, I’d put up with ads. if I’m a frequent consumer of a site’s information, I’d pay to remove them. Doesn’t seem like a bad system.

  19. The ads evolve or get blocked. It’s really that simple.

  20. gshenaut - 8 years ago

    If there were some way to do it, I think lots of people would probably pay to read ad-free sites at levels similar to what advertisers pay per page view. At a minimum, it would be great to be given the option before the ads started flying.

  21. Josh Nicholson - 8 years ago

    I’ll start off by saying that i read 9to5 constantly throughout the day and every day of the week. have been for years. For the most part, I love the site!

    But i have to admit that there’s a good chunk of ‘articles’ that 9to5 posts that aren’t even newsworthy. they seem like attempts by the individual authors or the boss (aka Seth) to just get more content up on the site for a given day. An article like (e.g.), “As usual, Apple Developer Connection is closed for the holidays”. All developers know this already, and non-developers don’t care. Or “iCloud is down for some users. [Update: Back up]”. This sort of stuff is nonsense.

    Cut down on the number of silly ‘articles’ and focus on the truly quality articles (product reviews, conference coverage, product leaks, etc). It’s possible that the staff would thin out a bit with a focus on quality over quantity. With fewer mouths to feed, you could get away with fewer ads on your site, leading to a better experience for readers.

    Finally, I agree with others about paying for 9to5 content.

    • Josh Nicholson - 8 years ago

      I meant to say that I agree with the others that I would gladly pay for 9to5 content.

  22. vpndev - 8 years ago

    I am fine with ads but will not stand for any that are animated, blinky, with sound, etc. I put Wired on the whitelist a few days ago and those came back so I chopped it again.

    Real simple – static ads (including bright ones) are OK. Movies, animated GIFs, sound, etc get blocked.

  23. nana (@purplemaize) - 8 years ago

    I don’t use Ad Block it hurts my son’s business on Youtube and Twitch we love the income that he makes every month. I would not do this to any site I visit either.

  24. Woody Eadie - 8 years ago

    “…readers can play their part too, using adblockers either sparingly – blocking only ad networks that specialise in deceptive ads, for example – or selectively.”

    How about sites avoid garbage ad networks to begin with? Why push it off on readers? Why in the world am I seeing a completely irrelevant Ron Paul ad on your site right now? *turns AdBlock back on*

    • Ben Lovejoy - 8 years ago

      “We don’t get to hand-pick the ads that are shown – ad networks do that. The most we can do is partner only with reputable ad networks, like Google.”

  25. francoborgo - 8 years ago

    Good article. What is missing is the total revenu for 9to5Mac versus the number of employe. We need real number. We all agree work need to be paid, but to evaluate if the current situation is too much or not enough, we need real figure.

  26. Ursu Dan - 8 years ago

    I believe it is the general consensus that a paywall is not an option. We need to find another way. Loyal users may pay for monthly subscription. Most readers will not.

  27. Piotr Kleina - 8 years ago

    “Ads are things we all love to hate.” – Just like Ice Cube

  28. Great commentary on the infuriating, awful ads that plague the web. :-(

    There is one kind of ads that I actually *like* – that is ads highlighting discounts on Apple hardware, software, and accessories, such as those sometimes featured in 9to5toys.

  29. jkruehne - 8 years ago

    always a problem for so called “free content” …

  30. robzr - 8 years ago

    “The most we can do is partner only with reputable ad networks, like Google…But even reputable ad networks too often turn a blind eye to ad formats they have to know are annoying.”

    Doesn’t sound like the behavior of a “reputable” company to me. Maybe that is the problem.

Author

Avatar for Ben Lovejoy Ben Lovejoy

Ben Lovejoy is a British technology writer and EU Editor for 9to5Mac. He’s known for his op-eds and diary pieces, exploring his experience of Apple products over time, for a more rounded review. He also writes fiction, with two technothriller novels, a couple of SF shorts and a rom-com!


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