Ad Blocking and the Future of the Web
YOUR SITE may soon be collateral damage in a war between Silicon Valley superpowers. By including ad blocking in iOS9, Apple isn’t trying to take down your site or mine — just like the drone program doesn’t deliberately target civilians and children. Apple is trying to hurt arch-rival Google while providing a more elegant (i.e. more Apple-like) web experience than user-hostile ad networks have previously allowed. This is a great example of acting in your own self-interest, yet smelling like a rose. Will independent sites that depend on advertising be hurt along with Google?
We have always been at war with Eastasia
We should be used to this war between digital super companies by now. iPhone and iPad users, consider your Amazon experience on the platform. Notice how you can’t buy books in your Kindle app in iOS? Apple supports Amazon to the extent of letting Amazon distribute Kindle software on the iOS platform. But if you want to buy a Kindle book for your phone, you have to go to a desktop browser (or open Safari on your phone and navigate to Amazon.com). Kind of encourages you to get your digital books in iBooks instead.
Same with Amazon’s video app on iOS. You can stream all the movies you want on your phone or iPad, but you can’t buy them in the Amazon Video app. You must use a desktop browser or navigate to amazon.com in the version of Safari that comes with iOS. Kind of encourages you to buy videos from iTunes instead.
You also can’t buy Kindle books or streaming Amazon videos in the Amazon shopping app for iOS, although you can use that app to shop for anything else.
See, Amazon doesn’t want to give Apple a cut of its media sales, so Apple won’t let Amazon sell products in its apps. In Apple’s reasoning, all other vendors pay Apple a cut; Amazon shouldn’t get a pass. And Amazon is serious about not sharing revenue, because Amazon is a ruthless competitor that has taken over nearly all online retail sales in the U.S. by innovating service and delivery, and giving consumers the lowest possible price — a price that leaves them no margin to share with Apple. It’s also a price that strangles the companies that provide the goods Amazon sells. Oh, well.
Because Amazon is serious about not sharing sales revenue with Apple, and Apple is serious about blocking sales by any vendor that refuses to share revenue, Apple denies Amazon the right to sell products via its iOS apps. Who suffers? You, the consumer, as you put down your phone and toddle over to a desktop — or just shrug and do without. (Not that it’s the worst suffering in this world. But it is anti-consumer, and makes both Amazon and Apple look bad.)
And, of course, you can’t stream Amazon video on your Apple TV, and likewise can’t watch video content you’ve purchased through Apple iTunes on Amazon Fire TV without jumping through (possibly illegal) hoops. Not since Microsoft dominated the desktop software world in the 1990s have tech and media companies viewed success as a last-man-standing affair, with the consumer as collateral damage.
Still, we’re used to all this and don’t think about it.
Ad blocking is a different beast.
Certainly, at first, ad blocking seems like a different beast. After all, consumers may want to buy books in their Kindle app, but no consumer is clamoring for more ads. And media and advertising have only themselves to blame for the horrendous experience online advertising has become. We hate advertising so much, we’ve trained ourselves not to look at the top or right sidebar on most sites. In fact, it’s become a designer’s trick that if the client forces you to put the CEO’s pet link on the home page, you hide it in plain sight at the top of the sidebar, where no one but the CEO will see it. Popups and screen takeovers and every other kind of anti-user nightmare have made advertising a hated and largely ignored thing on the web.
There are tasteful ad networks, to be sure. The Deck, which Jim Coudal created with Jason Fried and me, serves one single, small, tasteful, well targeted ad per page. When we launched The Deck, I hoped other networks would take inspiration from it, and figure out how to increase engagement while minimizing clutter. I even tried to sell my studio’s media clients on the notion of fewer, better priced, better targeted ads. But of course the ad networks have done the opposite — constantly interrupting content to force misleading, low-interest ads on you.
Hip web consumers have long used third-party ad blockers to unfug the web experience, and great applications like Readability explored alternate content revenue models while boosting type size and removing ad clutter from web content. I served on the Readability advisory board. And I used to go around the world warning designers that if we didn’t figure out a way to create readable, clutter-free layouts for our clients’ sites, apps like Readability would do it for us — putting us out of work, and removing advertising as a revenue stream for media companies. As it happens, in the intervening years, many smart sites have found a way to put content first and emphasize not just legibility but readability in their layouts. The best of those sites — I’m thinking of The New York Times here — have found a way to integrate advertising tastefully in those large-type, content-focused, readability-oriented modern layouts. (Medium.com, of course, does an amazing job with big type and readability, but it doesn’t need to integrate advertising — at least not yet — as it floats on a sea of VC bucks.)
But advertisers don’t want to be ignored, and they are drunk on our data, which is what Google and other large networks are really selling. The ads are almost a by-product; what companies really want to know is what antiperspirant a woman of 25–34 is most likely to purchase after watching House of Cards. Which gets us into issues of privacy and spying and government intrusion and don’t ask.
And in this environment of sites so cluttered with misleading ads they are almost unnavigable, Apple looks heroic, riding to the consumer’s rescue by providing all the content from newspapers without the ads, and by blocking ugly advertising on websites. But if they succeed, will media companies and independent sites survive?
Consumer good vs. consumer good
What Apple’s doing wouldn’t matter as much if consumers were still sitting down at a desktop to get their news and cat gifs. But they’re not. Everyone does everything on mobile. Including browse the web.
Thus in The Verge today, Nilay Patel argues there’s a real risk that, in attacking Google’s revenue stream, Apple may hurt the web itself:
The collateral damage of that war — of Apple going after Google’s revenue platform — is going to include the web, and in particular any small publisher on the web that can’t invest in proprietary platform distribution, native advertising, and the type of media wining-and-dining it takes to secure favorable distribution deals on proprietary platforms. It is going to be a bloodbath of independent media. … Taking money and attention away from the web means that the pace of web innovation will slow to a crawl. — Welcome to hell: Apple vs. Google vs. Facebook and the slow death of the web
John Gruber thinks otherwise, at least for small indie sites like his:
Perhaps I am being smug. But I see the fact that Daring Fireball’s revenue streams should remain unaffected by Safari content-blocking as affirmation that my choices over the last decade have been correct: that I should put my readers’ interests first, and only publish the sort of ads and sponsorships that I myself would want to be served, even if that means leaving (significant) amounts of money on the table along the way. But I take no joy in the fact that a terrific publication like The Awl might be facing hard times. They’re smart; they will adapt. — Because of Apple
In Publishing Versus Performance, I looked at the conflict between advertising and content through the filter of performance. For those who didn’t read it (or don’t remember), I pointed out that most consumer interaction with the web happens on mobile, which means it happens on mobile networks, which, at times at least, may be severely bandwidth-constrained; so performance counts as it hasn’t in years. And while good designers and developers are working like never before to create performant websites, the junk ad networks spew interferes with their good work and slows websites to a crawl. This threatens the future of the web, as consumers will blame the web for poor performance, and stick to apps. But removing those ad networks isn’t an option, I pointed out, since, abhorrent or not, advertising dollars are the engine that drives digital media: no bucks, no content.
Well, now, Apple has decided for us. Removing those ad networks may not be an option, but it’s happening anyway. How will it affect your site?
Originally published at www.zeldman.com on September 18, 2015.
Designing and blogging since 1995, Jeffrey Zeldman is the publisher of A List Apart Magazine and A Book Apart, co-founder of An Event Apart design conference, and founder and creative director of studio.zeldman. Follow him @zeldman.