More reasons why you need to block web ads
Web ads are nothing but trouble. Even if you don't use an ad-blocking browser extension such as AdBlock Plus, you don't notice ads on web pages. (AdBlock Plus was one of the three great freebies I described in the February 10, 2015, weekly.)
You certainly don't click web ads. In fact, the banner-ad click rate is so low it's barely measurable, not to mention most clicks on banners are accidental. Ben Norton writes in a March 20, 2015, article in Talking New Media that your odds of surviving a plane crash are better than the odds you'll click a banner ad.
Many people don't like AdBlock Plus, claiming that it robs sites of revenue. Others criticize the program for allowing what the service considers appropriate ads, which are those that comply with the AdBlock Plus guidelines. Last but not least, AdBlock Plus's developer, Eyeo, is funded by big-name advertisers who are added to the service's white lists automatically. The Inquirer's Chris Merriman writes about the controversy in a February 5, 2015, article.
The AdBlock Plus guidelines call for static ads that don't block the page's content and are appropriately placed and sized. Sites and ad networks that adhere to the guidelines get their ads placed on the AdBlock Plus white lists for no charge. I don't object to the placement of reasonable, safe, non-tracking ads on the pages I visit. Somebody's gotta police the reasonableness of web ads, so why not Eyeo via a free program that works with all popular browsers and on most mobile devices?
(Note that at least one company called Secret Media is working on a way to defeat ad blockers, as TechCrunch's Romain Dillet reports in a February 19, 2015, article.)
When web ads go beyond annoying -- all the way to dangerous
Not only do ads clutter web pages, they often deliver malware that infects your system without any action on your part. Just opening the ad in your browser delivers the payload. Google joined with researchers at the University of California at Berkeley to release a study on ad injectors, which are programs that place their own ads on web pages, replacing and adding to the ads that would normally appear. TechCrunch's Frederic Lardinois writes about the study results in a March 31, 2015, article.
The researchers found that 5 percent of the people using Google services had ad injectors in their browsers, which included Internet Explorer, Firefox, and Google Chrome. One-third of the injectors were categorized by the researchers as "outright malware." The injectors are often piggybacked on "legitimate" software downloads and web services because they're an easy source of revenue for those companies, according to Lardinois.
Michael Mimoso writes in a March 30, 2015, article on Kapersky Labs' ThreatPost that malvertising is becoming a favorite technique of Internet crooks. Their method of choice is abuse of real-time ad bidding, which allows them to infiltrate the ad networks and appear legitimate. First, they devise a false front that lets them trick the ad networks into thinking they're a real business. Once they've gained a foothold in the network, they redirect users to malware-laden sites they host themselves. The money they use to buy the ads is usually stolen, acquired via click fraud, or obtained via some other nefarious manner.
One of the security experts quoted by Mimoso said malvertising is "insanely easy" to perpetrate. He points out that the simplest and most-effective preventive measure is for the ad networks to host all their own content rather than allowing third parties to serve up the ads when the page opens in the user's browser. However, hosting all the ads -- especially video and other animated ads -- would slow the ad networks down, not to mention increasing their costs.
A dangerous ad injector you can't easily get rid of
Perhaps the most infamous ad injector is Superfish, a program that Lenovo pre-installed on many of its low-cost PCs. Gizmodo's Annalee Newitz writes in a February 20, 2015, article that Superfish monitored people's online activities, and when it sensed they were shopping, it inserted image ads for products in the search results. Superfish was so poorly created that it allowed malware purveyors to launch man-in-the-middle attacks via its ads.
But that's not the worst part of Superfish. The security researchers looking into the program determined that after you uninstall Superfish, the unsafe digital certificate it created remains on your system, so the vendor can continue to serve up its dangerous ads. Of course, malware can use the corrupted certificate to infect your system. As Newitz points out, this is indeed advertising as a weapon. (Her article includes a link to information for spotting and removing Superfish.)
Google claims to have banned 192 Chrome extensions that affected 14 million users, but Lardinois points out that the people who make and distribute injectors aren't known for playing by the rules. There are always new avenues onto our computers and devices.
Advertisers and other trackers combine your online and real-world activities
Online ads are dangerous for many reasons other than the threat they pose to your personal information. In an August 11, 2014, article, MakeUseOf's Joel Lee explains the dangers of web ads targeted at children. Lee mentions three web filters that serve as AdBlock Plus alternatives: K9 Web Protection, OpenDNS FamilyShield, and Qustodio.
Many people are concerned about having their web activities tied to what they do off the computer, such as the places they go and the things they buy in brick-and-mortar stores. Digital marketing company LiveRamp helps retailers identify visitors who have bought something at one of their retail stores, and then offer them more-expensive products. ProPublica's Julia Angwin describes in a June 12, 2014, article how LiveRamp converts customer email addresses into tracking cookies.
Fraud is rampant in the web-ad networks
Then there's the danger web ads pose to the advertisers themselves: armies of bots that inflate the ads' view rates, or impressions, to make the ads appear to be more effective than they really are. In a July 16, 2014, article in Inc., Yoav Vilner of the search-marketing firm Ranky cites a study by Solve Media that found more than half of all web ad impressions are bogus, generated by bots that mimic the actions of human web surfers.
Several solutions have been proposed by advertisers to combat banner blindness and bot fraud, most of which entail a switch to video ads that interact with viewers to ensure they're actually humans and not cleverly programmed bots. The Atlantic's Derek Thompson writes in a June 13, 2014, article that Google, Facebook, and other big web services exaggerate the effectiveness of their ads. Surveys indicate that in most cases, the person viewing the ad was either going to buy the product anyway, or is unaffected by the ad.
Yet the consensus of the tech industry is that advertising is the only way web services can generate a profit. They believe web ads are a necessary evil, or as The Atlantic's Ethan Zuckerman writes in an August 14, 2014, article, they're the Internet's "original sin." Zuckerman cites two examples of web services that have succeeded using a subscription model: the bookmarking site Pinboard; and the pay version of Reddit, called Reddit Gold.
Doing the math on web-ad profitability
Only the web's megaservices -- Google, Yahoo, Facebook -- are able to generate the kind of traffic that make web ads profitable, according to Zuckerman. For example, Facebook has 1.32 billion users, and in the second quarter of 2014 the company made $791 million in profit. This breaks down to $0.60 per user. Since Facebook users spend 40 minutes a day on the site (or 60 hours per quarter), one hour of Facebook time equates to a penny of profit for the company.
Using these numbers, a site would need to have visitors spend 100,000 hours viewing its pages to record a profit of $1000. Not many sites have the stickiness of Facebook, which benefits from what Zuckerman calls "free cultural labor" to create its content. According to Web Analytics World, 42 percent of site visits last between 0 and 10 seconds, 55 percent are longer than 61 seconds, and the average duration is about three minutes. To reach the 100,000-hour mark, your site needs 2 million visitors.
Tell me again why it was I created this site? It certainly wasn't for the money.
As long as the web is paid for by advertising, it will be dominated by a handful of giant services. The rest of us will be lucky to generate enough money to pay for our hosting service. That's why blocking ads doesn't just improve your browsing experience and help prevent data theft and other crimes. If enough of us block web ads, it will force services to devise another way to make money.
The most promising alternative to web ads is creation of a micropayment system. The outlook for such a system will be the subject of a future Weekly. Stay tuned!