I am revisiting a perennial bugaboo: advertising on websites. This was sparked after reading a post that pretty much equated ad-blocking to stealing (similar to the “using DVRs to fast-forward through commercials is stealing” argument).
Not too long ago, I started using AdBlock. I had never seen the need before, but since I switched to web surfing on a Netbook, website ads became not only annoying and interfered with the content I was trying to read, but also slowed down my computer unacceptably. Even though installing the Chrome AdBlock extension is relatively fast and easy, I probably wouldn’t have taken this step if my web surfing experience hadn’t deteriorated so much.
The post mentioned above claims that if I cared about the content I was reading, I wouldn’t block the ads that support that content. On the surface, they have a point. But dig a little deeper, and I think this argument quickly falls apart.
This argument makes a couple of huge assumptions: 1) that each website deserves to make money off the Internet, and 2) that ads are the best way to make that money.
Let’s look at point #1 first. I don’t think that everyone who sets up a website has the right to make money off that website. There’s a lot of stuff on the web, and a lot of it is garbage or regurgitations of other people’s content. Even running AdBlock, I can usually tell when a site primarily supports itself with garish or tacky ads. The content is often insipid or a basic rewriting of something I’ve already seen a dozen times or just plain bad. There are exceptions, of course, but I’ve more often than not found the best writing on the web is coming from sites that aren’t getting directly compensated for it by ad revenue, such as bloggers, authors on their own websites and columnists writing for fun.
This reminds me of the content I find in local newspapers. In some newspapers — such as the New York Times, which I read regularly offline and on, and which I pay for — the content is often quite good, interesting, well-written and educational. Go down to the local level, though, and the content becomes one-dimensional, just filler between the ads. No wonder newspapers are dying. I might glance at the local newspaper from time to time, but I feel no need to support it because it doesn’t provide the value I’m looking for.
Now for point #2: I’m not convinced that the advertising model either works online or is appropriate for the Internet. Television is an advertising-supported medium (although to tell the truth, I tend to watch more pay TV than anything). The reason this works is because the barrier to entry is high — you need a lot of money, people and talent to make a good TV show like Lost, for instance — and the payoff in terms of audience numbers is equally high. If I really like a show, then I will sit through its advertisements.
But anyone can start a website in a matter of minutes. The barriers to entry are low. You don’t need a lot of people to do it; you can write it alone, in your spare time. As a result, there is a lot of free content on the web, and some of it is quite good, even if the writer isn’t getting paid.
In fact, some of my favorite sites or blogs are run by people who aren’t making any money directly off their efforts. Many of them are writers who use their sites to promote their books or columns. Others are professionals writing about their work and thus building the reputation of themselves or their companies or nonprofit organizations (or whatever they are promoting). Many are bloggers like myself who write just for the fun of it. Because these content creators have other motivations than increasing ad revenues by getting large numbers of pageviews, their writing is often more passionate, honest and compelling than the content found on ad-supported websites.
There are exceptions that prove the rule. Lowest common denominator sites like FAIL Blog or LOLcats can support themselves handily with ads, and more power to them. For sites like those, ads are a good match. But for the vast number of websites, running ads — especially the kinds of ads that interfere with the content or are the equivalent of late-night infomercials — devalues the content, if it even had value to begin with.
I’m not saying that writers don’t deserve to make a living off their words and their talent. But I am saying that maybe not everyone who sets up shop on the web deserves to make big money off of it. If you offer content that has high value, people will probably support you, either directly or, more likely, indirectly. But if you don’t provide the value, and if you cheapen the content with obnoxious ads, then people will block the ads or move on to some other site. As long as the barriers to entry remain low, and talented people are motivated to provide good content without ads, there will be someplace better to move on to.
“Why Ad Blocking Hurts the Sites You Love” (MetaFilter)
Why Ad Blockers Work (Rob Sayre’s Mozilla Blog)