A friend of mine pointed something out to me last week which I’ve never come across before, and is an interesting approach to the thorny issue of ad-revenue for websites. He was browsing a well-known gaming website called Eurogamer, when he came across this notification:
Hey, about Adblock! You’ve read 5 pages without ads on Eurogamer this week. Please disable your adblocker to continue. We appreciate that ads can be annoying, but they are the thing that keeps Eurogamer running. We are committed to keeping ads as unobtrusive as possible and adhering to the Better Ads standard – in exchange, please consider whitelisting us so that we can continue providing editorial at no cost to you.
Allow ads on Eurogamer.net
For reasons of his own, he finds adverts annoying and uses AdBlock to remove them. Moral issues aside, it’s perfectly legal to this and a lot of people do it. However, it puts into question the very nature of information on the web. One of the reasons that the internet and the web in particular have been so transformative is that they provide open access to a virtually unlimited amount of free information. Only a fraction of this information is behind a paywall, as there are various mechanisms that allow authors and webmasters to get paid for their content. However, the majority of this funding comes from advertising revenue, mainly through the kind of ‘display network‘ ads that AdBlock is blocking.
Advertisers are generally charged for each showing of an ad (known as an impression) and are billed on a ‘cost per thousand impressions’ (CPM) basis. Typically, through the Google AdWords Display Network, you can get around a thousand impressions for £1. It’s pretty cheap for advertisers, and website owners need to rack up a lot of impressions to make any sort of money out of it – and don’t forget that Google (or whoever owns the ad network) is taking their cut too. Is it right then, that some viewers are happy to watch or read the content online for free, but are not willing to contribute towards the cost of providing it by being shown ads?
While this is a rhetorical question, one thing is clear: if enough people use AdBlock it will negatively impact the people who are producing the very content that the AdBlock users are viewing. Eventually we may get to the stage where paywalls are the only way to make a living from product web content – most websites find it hard enough to fund themselves as it is without AdBlock disrupting their ad revenue.
What can be done about this? Well, it’s probably a cat and mouse game that never ends. AdBlock will find new ways to block ads, and content networks will find new ways to get around them. The only sure way we could end the problem is for people to stop using AdBlock – something that won’t happen voluntarily. The only alternative is that more and more content ends up behind paywalls, but given the limited success of this so far it doesn’t seem a likely outcome.
In reality, there will always be someone out there who’s willing to write for free just to get the chance to gain popularity, get a new website off the ground or simply for the love of the subject matter. This is a sustainable model for the web, when you look at it over time and with the inevitable high turnover of website authors and webmasters. However, for individual websites, many of whom have struggled for years to make themselves viable, AdBlock might just be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.