The web with no ads

These days it seems like the vast majority of websites are stuffed with adverts. I'm old enough to remember a time when very few websites had ads, and when they started to appear it was a shocking and shameful development. With the rise of ads has come the rise of ad-blockers, and the rise of advertisers complaining about ad-blockers and using anti-blocking countermeasures (which always make me angry when I encounter a site that uses them). I'm definitely on the anti-ad side of the argument. In fact, I think that web browsers should act on behalf of their users rather than on behalf of website operators (on the general second law principle that computers should do what their owners tell them). So if a user wants some kind of filtering applied to the content before they look at it, the browser should comply with that and the website operator should not even get to find out about it! So a browser that's blocking ads should make exactly the same HTTP requests as a non-blocking browser would and all JavaScript that could potentially leak information back to the website operator should act as if no blocking is in place (even if that means running every script twice - once to report back to the host and once to actually render things).

If this came to pass and everyone started using it, wouldn't we lose many of the sites that make the web great? I don't think so. The web was great before ads were common and it'll still be great once they've retreated. There are two kinds of content on the web: content that people create and share because they have something to say and they want it to be heard, and content that people create in order to have something to put next to their adverts and make money. If all of the latter disappeared, I don't think I would miss it much. There would still be journalism, because there would still be stories that people want told (though perhaps without advertising to fund it, journalism as a career would become less common and those stories would be told directly by the people who want them told).

Arguably the twitters and facebooks of this world are more accessible than finding a hosting provider and installing WordPress or writing raw HTML. But even in the earliest days of the time I've been online I don't think there was ever a shortage of places that would host your content for free, especially if you had something interesting to say.

Even the best ad-blockers aren't perfect, though. Rather than packing up and going home, I think ad-supported content on the web will move to using adverts that computers can't tell are adverts - something more like product placement. Rather than being separate files, adverts will get integrated right into the desirable content, with no obvious computer-readable markers to demarcate them. Text, images, audio and video are all susceptible to this technique, and is starting to show up in the wild. At least these techniques don't lend themselves so well to "ad tech" - tons of scripts that bring the browser to a crawl, track all sorts of information about you and auction parts of your screen to the highest bidder. About all they'll be able to do with inline ads is tell that you've downloaded the media with the adverts in, and perhaps correlate that with a web search for the advertised product some time later - they won't be able to tell for sure that you saw the ads.

If these "inline" adverts start to become obnoxious then people will find a way to block these too - perhaps with audio fingerprinting or shared lists of timecode pairs that can be edited out. Editing is a bit more difficult for streaming content - if it's delivered "just in time" then removing it would leave an annoying gap. This could be solved the same way TiVo solved it for broadcast TV - you record for a while before you start playing your stream, then you can edit out adverts by just skipping forward in the recording (at least until you've caught up to real-time).

Ultimately I think advertising will have to be entertaining to survive as well as being non-obvious and inline. A good example I saw recently was in this episode of Comedians in Cars getting Coffee - at 4:30 Seinfeld is driving around looking for his product placement. Some of the other episodes have similar gags, and I can't see anybody going to the trouble of editing those out - they're too intrinsic to the show, too entertaining and not at all obnoxious.

4 Responses to “The web with no ads”

  1. Sean Ramey says:

    I don't think that ads are going to be going anywhere. I don't understand how you can think that large, popular websites that host many people's content will still be functioning without an income stream from somewhere. Whether it's from ads or subscription fees, huge websites/companies that employ thousands of people can't just run for free.

    Small websites that are hosted by individuals that have an alternate income stream will still be around, but they can afford a small website only because it's small. It's a hobby to these people.

    And what about advertising in general? People come up with new products and services, and want to make a living from providing these things to others via a business. Businesses need advertising so that people know they exist. If we kill online advertising, then we also kill businesses to an extent as well. This will result in fewer products for consumers like you and me, and fewer jobs for us as well.

    The only viable alternative to ads is to just pay for the online services. But how many people do you think would pay a subscription to watch videos on Youtube? Or to connect to friends and family on Facebook? I don't think many would, but I could be totally wrong.

    Actually, paying for the services we want is probably a much better way to do things. Currently, these large websites make money from large companies paying for ads. Hence, the website's customer is the businesses, not the users of the website. So that makes the users an asset. If the user's were instead the customer, then they would have to cater to our wants more.

    Anyways, to sum it up, if ads are killed off and nobody pays fees, businesses suffer, which means consumers suffer. And also the internet will turn into a place with mostly forums and chat servers and storefronts, no more large user content hosting services.

    • Andrew says:

      Many of your arguments are already addressed in my original post, so I'll only respond to the ones that aren't.

      The idea that businesses and their customers will not be able to discover each other without advertising doesn't hold up to scrutiny. Personal, word-of-mouth referrals from trusted friends will continue to exist, are basically impossible to programmatically block, and can be incentivised by the business in question - all the incentives line up in the right ways there. Much current advertising is zero-sum - businesses have to advertise because their competitors are doing so, and the customers will spend their money with the companies that spend most on advertising rather than on those with the best products. If adverts go away, marketing budgets can be slashed and that money can go into improving the quality and price of products and services.

      Hosting most content (and essentially all user-generated content) other than video is extremely cheap. The software is free, it's just a matter of disk space and bandwidth. Facebook and twitter ("large user content hosting services") are almost purely overhead. If their sources of funding dried up, their useful non-ad-related functionality could (and likely would) be funded by a few altruistic patrons, and run by a staff of tens rather than tens of thousands. As for YouTube, I expect that content producers would pay for the hosting and bandwidth (rather than viewers as with Netflix) but would more than make that back with non-obvious, non-obnoxious, inline ads that I mentioned in the post. Eventually, improvements in technology may make video as cheap to deliver as text is now, allowing even video to use the altruistic patron model.

      Finally, "there would be bad consequences if X happened" doesn't have any bearing on whether X is more likely to happen or not - that is determined by the nature of technology and the people using it rather than the consequences. It seems inevitable to me that the future of online advertising is to move closer to the world I described in this post, and those who plan for the tide to come in will fare better than those who try to emulate King Canute.

  2. Sean Ramey says:

    You make very good points. Is this what you think will happen eventually? Ads will either be gone, or have to be entertaining to stick around? That would be really great if we can still have everything just the way it is now or better!

    I have to say though, I don't think ads will be gone, and I still think that products will suffer if they do go. I know that ads are only a certain part of getting a product known, but no advertising makes products significantly harder to find when they are released. But maybe I'm totally wrong about this.

    Eh, either way, it's refreshing to have a completely logical debate on the web! :)

    • Andrew says:

      I think there's going to be a lot of conflict about this before the dust settles to a world like the one I have described. I'm sure the ad companies (being very rich and powerful) will spend a lot of money attempting to maintain their industry as it dies. This may take the form of propaganda, attempting to portray ad-blocking as somehow immoral or antisocial. Or they may go as far as attempting to buy legislation to make ad-blocking illegal. Apart from being ineffective, such legislation would have all sorts of harmful effects (look at the DMCA legislation in the US that the media companies bought). The more people that use ad-blockers, the harder it will be to get such legislation passed.

      As for "no advertising makes products significantly harder to find when they are released" - I've been trying to think of products that I have bought because I saw them advertised. I bought a couple of "as seen on TV" items when I first moved to the US, and they were both absolutely useless and a complete waste of money. This points of a major problem of advertising - the messages that companies pay to have delivered to can't be trusted, because there is an incentive to lie (or at least distort the truth). I've watched movies after seeing trailers for them, but movie trailers are entertaining in themselves (and I have occasionally gone out of my way to watch them) so I expect them to fall into the "won't be blocked because of intrinsic value" category.

      I can't think of a single thing that I've bought because I saw an online ad for it. If I'm shopping online for something to fill a particular need, I'll obviously see ads for products to solve my problem, but I deliberately avoid clicking on them and instead look for reviews from sources that I can trust to be objective about the pros and cons of each company's offering.

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