It’s official: There are too many ads online. Specifically, too many intrusive ads.
Don’t take my word for it. Experts, users, and even the federal government have weighed in on this issue. Yes, the government.
Consider the recent actions taken by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) against two credit agencies, TransUnion and Equifax. Both companies agreed to pay more than $17.6 million in restitution to consumers and fines totaling $5.5 million. Among the offenses: the government alleged consumers requesting their “free” credit report through Equifax first had to view Equifax advertisements, a violation of the Fair Credit Reporting Act.
The takeaway? Companies just don’t know when to stop the ads.
But you can make the ads stop with just a few strategies and knowledge of how the online advertising industry works. If you’re reading this on a website, please don’t go too crazy ― legit publishers pay their bills through display ads, so blocking all of them may have unintended consequences. But you have a right to not be harassed when you’re online.
The monkey is out of the cage
We’ve come a long way from the legendary “Punch the Monkey” ad, in which an animated monkey danced across a banner ad that offered a free product ― if you could just hit the hominid. Today’s ads are so much more sophisticated. It’s almost enough to make you go bananas.
“Publishers are taking ads to a whole new dimension,” says Michael Ajah, who runs a technology website. “Basically, ads are meant to provide revenue to the publisher and returns for the advertiser. But these publishers are not after providing an amazing user experience. Their only target is the revenue.”
Among the biggest offenders: pop-up ads, redirects that send you to a site you don’t want to visit, autoplaying video ads and those dreaded interstitials, which occupy the entire screen. In other words, the monkey is now out of the cage.
It gets worse.
“It’s easy to agree that most intrusive ads are annoying,” notes Cyril Lemaire, a managing director of the Boston digital marketing agency Traktek Partners. “But the most annoying are those that are deceptive and misleading.”
How can ads be deceptive? Tactics range from hiding the “close” button on a pop-up by making it white on a light background so it’s hard to close, to linking to a page that has nothing to do with the ad itself ― “and everything in between,” adds Lemaire.
There’s an irony of reading a story like this online, so let me pause so that we can fully appreciate it. My own site relies on advertising to pay some of the bills. I outsource my ads to a third party called Sortable, which uses machine learning to maximize the amount of money I earn from each click. It, in turn, has relationships with the major advertising networks, which bid for the inventory.
From a publisher’s perspective, it quickly gets complex ― and confusing. There are so many advertising networks you could potentially work with. Some are conservative, displaying only legitimate ads from known advertisers. Others throw caution to the wind, serving up every pop-up, pop-under and malware known to the Internet. That’s not hyperbole. I once tested an ad network that served up an ad featuring a male genital. I’ve never deleted ad code as quickly as on that day.
My current ad network is far more conservative. They’re also based in Canada, so you know they have a sense of decorum that an offshore network based in a banana republic might not. I like that.
But the bottom line is this: If you take the advice I’m about to offer too far, you’ll eliminate my ability to earn any revenue, and that would make it nearly impossible to publish a consumer advocacy site. So please ― think before you block.
How to get rid of the ads
Adblocking options come in all shapes and sizes. They range from browser add-ons to apps that will protect your mobile phone or tablet from intrusive advertising. No one option is perfect, but the right combination of programs can make for an almost interruption-free online experience, if that’s what you want.
One of the most comprehensive ways of fixing the ad problem is to switch browsers. The Min browser (available for Linux, Mac and Windows) is an open-source browser that comes with built-in ad blocking, so the banners don’t stand a chance. You can also block scripts and images, offering you a minimalist, uncluttered reading experience.
Adblockers can limit the kind of banners that appear on your screen, among them, the popular Adblock Plus extension. But pay close attention when you install; Adblock whitelists what it calls “non-intrusive” ads by default, so if you want to shut everything down, you’ll need to check that option under your settings. As a sidenote, you can see what type of ads Adblock Plus considers intrusive on its site. It’s interesting reading, and perhaps a guide for advertisers on what not to do.
Another adblocker, Bad Ad Johnny, stops ads and, as an added benefit, also adds protection from malware, spyware and ad tracking code. If you’re looking for a more extreme solution, this might be just what you’re looking for. This one claims to stop everything, and from what I can tell, it does.
Mehmood Hanif, a marketing strategist who represents Bad Ad Johnny, estimates that the average Internet user is served 11,250 ads per month, which he bases on the number of times the software blocks a banner or pop-up.
“People can get rid of these intrusive ads,” he says.
But the fix isn’t just a user solution. Responsible publishers have to understand that if they don’t stop annoying their prospective customers, there will eventually be no more customers.
“Most premium publishers today recognize that advertising has to be much more user-friendly,” says Roy Peleg, the co-founder of FirstImpression.io, an ad technology company. “Otherwise, aggressive and overly high-impact ads could lead to a rise in ad blocking, which threatens the existence of our favorite websites and newspapers.”
In other words, ads need to get smarter ― not more annoying. And if they don’t? Well, there’s always the government.
At least, for now.
Christopher Elliott specializes in solving seemingly unsolvable consumer problems. Contact him with your questions on his advocacy website. You can also follow him on Twitter, Facebook and Google or sign up for his newsletter.