How Should We Pay For The Web?


I wrote recently about my distaste for ‘clickbait’ style advertising, my case being that because these ads are designed to make you want to click on them, you’re actually having to spend a small amount of mental energy (or cognitive resources) to resist following the link, every time you see one. That’s mental energy you no longer have to spend on things you do want to do.

Separating the good from the bad

I am aware people might think I am being hypocritical given my job. My beef though isn’t with advertising online in general, it’s often informative or amusing, making me aware of products of services of genuine interest to me. The problem is when this medium is executed poorly, or worse to the actual detriment of the end user (as is the case with clickbait). Pop-over ads, flashing banners, full-screen takeovers and the likes have helped earn ads a bad reputation. Which is why many people have started relying on ad-blocking software. Since 2013 there has been a dramatic increase in the use of ad-blockers, with estimates now pointing at over 200 million users actively running ad-blockers.

Who decides what is white-listed

One of the most popular choices for ad-blocking is the aptly named ‘AdBlock Plus’ who claim to strike a balance between keeping both users and publishers happy with their ‘Acceptable Ads’ program where only non-distracting ads are allowed through their filters. This seemingly noble initiative took a worrying turn last year though when AdBlock Plus launched a marketplace for ad publishers to pay for the right to have their ads white-listed. This of course infuriated end-users who suddenly appeared to be losing the service they were expecting and publishers who labelled the scenario of being forced to pay twice for their advertising space as ‘extortion’.

Quality filter vs. Ad blockers

AdBlock Plus aren’t alone in this quest to rid the world of bad advertising practices. Google are in the process of trialling a built-in ad-blocker in their Chrome Browser, also selectively blocking ads deemed too intrusive to the user. In fact they prefer to refer this new feature as a quality filter rather than a blocker of ads. Google have used the weight of their market share to forcibly bring about change on the web before, such as with Mobilegeddon and thanks to Chrome making up around 60% of desktop web-browser usage they are definitely in a strong position to do so again now.

The best outcome for everyone

Whilst a future of nicer online advertising can’t be anything but appealing, there needs to be concern that it is Google, who themselves make a considerable amount of revenue from the selling of advertising, who stand to dictate what is and isn’t deemed acceptable. Hopefully the involvement of other players including Facebook and Thomson Reuters under the excitingly titled ‘Coalition of Better Ads’ will help ensure the best outcome for everyone.

Till then though — what is the happy way forward? The rise of ad-blockers has put such a dent in some publisher’s revenue that some have turned to using hacks to determine when an ad has been blocked and then either showing a message to politely prompt the user to turn off their ad-blocker, or more aggressively, to block the site’s content from loading at all.

For now advertising keeps content free

The biggest problem here of course isn’t advertising, or ad-blockers, but the now deeply ingrained perception that everything on the web should be free. When big news sites like The Wall Street Journal and The Times implemented paywalls to access their content, there was huge outcries from users. The world wide web is a thing of wonder and beauty, where information is available quickly and easily to everyone, but somewhere along the line we also built up the belief that we shouldn’t have to pay anything for this (I’m as guilty of this as anyone — I used to buy magazines all the time, but I won’t even consider paying to read those exact same hand-crafted, professionally edited articles on a digital screen). So, until we find a better solution, advertising in its many forms, is the best way we have to make the web free.

But what might the alternatives be?

Sites such as The Guardian and Wikipedia have begun displaying messages asking users to make donations, pointing out the value of the content they provide and how they would prefer not to charge for it. Whilst fair, I can’t help but find this approach slightly grovelling. A more effective and formalised approach is that taken by Patreon. If you’re not familiar with Patreon, it basically takes the crowdfunding idea of Kickstarter but instead of making a one-off contribution to a single project, you make a monthly commitment to help fund the activities of an artist or content creator.

A possible game-changer

While there are often associated rewards it seems that many contributors just do it to offer a small ‘thank you’ to artists or to act as (as the name suggests) a patron of the arts. This on-going financial backing has proven a game-changer to many who list themselves on the site — the musician Amanda Palmer (who had previously broken free of the need to work with a record label by using Kickstarter), now offers her entire back catalogue online for free and is able to record and release new material far more frequently. A nerdy example but of particular interest to myself is that of Evan You, who created the Vue.js framework. This library is rapidly becoming as widely utilised as Angular and React to power web interfaces. Thanks to using Patreon, Evan was able to give up his day job and focus solely on Vue, improving the code-base and documentation, speaking at events and providing free technical support (he often responds to and resolves issues within hours). This model is clearly powerful for individuals and possibly even small groups, where an existing income is supplemented or an individual lifestyle maintained — but would it scale up to large organisations? I suspect not.

Giving consumers the choice

 Another possibility is the ‘voluntary paywall model’ already widely adopted in the world of mobile apps and by streaming music providers — either use the free, ad-supported version of the service, or pay for the ad-free ‘premium’ level (often with additional benefits). Consumers are given a choice. But while this makes sense when applied to a single app or service, it’s not immediately obvious how it could be implemented with banner advertising, where many different advertising platforms and exponentially more websites are involved. Signing up to each separate platform would be both painful to users and almost certainly result in a battle for exclusive content, as is currently happening with streaming TV services. In an ideal world, all the major advertising platforms would group together to provide a single service, but then that opens the question of how would the profits get split up? 

New approaches

What about a more sideways approach? It has recently emerged that producers of malware have begun using infected machines for mining cryptocurrency such as Bitcoins. The electricity and computing power of hundreds of thousands of individual machines is being used, unbeknownst to their owners, to directly generate money for third-parties. Could this method be legitimatised as an alternative payment in place of viewing advertising I wonder?

There are probably even more potential solutions still to be conceived, the problem being far from simple. Until then, we might as buckle up and prepare to see even more ads, ad-blockers and everything in between.

David Storey