The Noisy Channel

 

Think Evil

February 13th, 2009 · 16 Comments · General

Every now and then, I think about ways to subvert the ad-supported model, particularly for web search. It’s my token resistance to the tyranny of free. Some of my thoughts undoubtedly qualify as evil. And today, Friday the 13th,ย  feels like an appropriate day to let my evil side take over the blog.

A few years ago, when it became clear that Microsoft was losing the search wars to Google–but when they hadn’t lost much browser market share to Firefox–I thought they should have used a scorched earth strategy of including an ad-blocker in Internet Explorer. The ad blocker would be on by default and would block all ads, including sponsored links from search engines. Actually, I can’t bring myself to consider this particular approach evil–from my perspective, the means would justify the end. I can only speculate about how the antitrust courts would have reacted to this browser enhancement.

But, even after Microsoft missed its chance to make ad-blocking an above-board feature, there was still an opportunity to let others do the job. I imagined a virus whose sole function, beyond propagating itself, would be to install ad blockers on the machines of its “victims”. Somehow I doubt there would be much of an outcry from users, and even the eradication of this virus might take long enough that many users would be introduced to ad blocking and find it attractive.ย  I imagined that, before Google negotiated with them, the Chinese government might have considered this strategy themselves as a preemptive strike. In any case, there is no lack of virus writers around the world who could implement such a scheme, and some of them live in countries with even worse economies than the United States.

Finally, it occurred to me that a more subtle variation of this strategy would be to leave the ads intact, but route clicks directly to the advertised links, bypassing the search engines. In the immediate terms, users would not notice a difference, but search engines would get no clickthrough data, and thus could not charge the advertisers. Unchecked, such an approach could destroy the pay-per-click (PPC) model.

I truly doubt that any of the above will come to pass. But I can still dream my evil dreams. Happy Friday the 13th!

16 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Mark // Feb 13, 2009 at 12:06 pm

    My initial thought was that a move like this would justify new legislation about any such attempt by a browser supplier (especially Microsoft) to deliberately tamper/misrepresent a particular website’s content -it’s kind of like tampering with the mail.
    However, in some respects pop-up blockers already represent a form of this manipulation. Could be tricky to draw a line here.

    Of course for *users* who knowingly choose to strip ads there is always GreaseMonkey: http://userscripts.org/scripts/show/2707

  • 2 Daniel Tunkelang // Feb 13, 2009 at 1:02 pm

    Well, users could be warned in a pop-up dialog box that using the feature may be in violation be warned, the first time the ad-blocking feature came up, that blocking ads may be in violation of a site’s terms of service, and that they are responsible for their own actions.

    Of course, there would be a check box to never display that warning again. ๐Ÿ™‚

  • 3 Hal Web Guy // Feb 13, 2009 at 1:13 pm

    There is no question this would raise anti-trust concerns. But, let’s say it didn’t…

    The next steps would be:

    1. Ad delivery engines “tinyurl” their click-through addresses so that they would be obfuscated.

    2. After that method is cracked in record time, ad delivery engines will have to encrypt the click-through urls onto the query string.

    3. After that method is cracked, a more sophisticated solution from the ad delivery engines would be to encrypt the urls dynamically for each display of the ad.

    4. ….
    5. ….

    I already feel like I’m watching AOL, Yahoo and MSN block Trillian all over again. I don’t think that went very well ๐Ÿ™‚

    I would argue that the ads should be there, to keep the companies afloat that are bringing content. Users want that content, and are willing to tolerate ads to get it. Most content subscription models have failed. I think that blocking ads on a massive scale would help…nobody. The sites have to shut down because they can’t afford to stay in business. Users lose the content they enjoyed having for free. Lose-Lose.

  • 4 Daniel Tunkelang // Feb 13, 2009 at 1:54 pm

    I suspect that a virus / plug-in that auto-updates would have no trouble playing in an arms rave with the ad delivery engine. It seems to me that it’s a lot easier to circumvent ads than to circumvent ad blockers. Of course, the stakes are much higher for the ad delivery engines. That’s what would make the fight interesting.

    As for ads vs. subscription models, I understand your perspective. But I think that the reason subscription models have failed is that they have to compete with “free”, and “free” is only a viable option because of ad-supported models.

    And, of course, free isn’t really free, even beyond the intangible attention costs. Presumably the advertisers are rational, which means they’re advertising to their collective customer base. That, in turn, means that they price their ad budget into the products and services they sell to those customers.

    Undermine the viability of the ad-supported model, and free goes away. Then users pay for content, but pay less for products and services. Win-Win.

  • 5 Hal Web Guy // Feb 13, 2009 at 3:25 pm

    I almost always agree with you, but remember the old motto, the customer is always right?

    If consumers choose to tolerate ads for content rather than paying for the content directly, given both options, then the “free” version is better.

    That’s for now. That said, there are a couple of possible futures I foresee.

    Scenario 1
    The saturated web publisher market falls victim to the tough advertising market, and ads become too inexpensive to turn a profit. Web publishers start failing until enough fail to increase the rates for advertising again.

    Scenario 2
    The saturated web publisher market falls victim to the tough advertising market, and ads become too inexpensive to turn a profit. Web publishers start failing until enough fail to cause the survivors to move to a paid model. Users pay, because the alternatives are primarily gone or saturated with advertising.

  • 6 Daniel Tunkelang // Feb 13, 2009 at 5:18 pm

    Today, customers have no choice but to indirectly pay for online advertising as part of the price of the products and services they purchase. Given that they’re already paying that as a sunk cost, they choose between the paying for content and paying the attention costs for a free site and prefer the latter. But in your scenario 2–more specifically the scenario where the ad market suffers because consumers are blocking or tuning out ads–the consumers lose the choice of not paying for content, but the costs they pay for products and services go down.

    I don’t know if or how we can get to that scenario from here, but I’m certain it is better for both content providers and content consumers.

  • 7 jeremy // Feb 13, 2009 at 6:18 pm

    As for ads vs. subscription models, I understand your perspective. But I think that the reason subscription models have failed is that they have to compete with โ€œfreeโ€, and โ€œfreeโ€ is only a viable option because of ad-supported models.

    I’ve long thought this. You’re the first person I’ve heard actually say it. Hear hear!

    I almost always agree with you, but remember the old motto, the customer is always right? If consumers choose to tolerate ads for content rather than paying for the content directly, given both options, then the โ€œfreeโ€ version is better.

    But do customers really tolerate ads? Or are they simply not savvy enough to know how to install greasemonkey, to strip the ads themselves?

    I’ve seen Nielsen DVR studies that show that 80% of Tivo users skips ads on their pre-recorded shows. 80%. That tells me users don’t really tolerate ads.

    So what about the following proposal: Internet Explorer should come built with an option that lets the users automatically strip/hide ads. In fact, you know how Google had forced MS to put a “what would you like your default search engine” question in, the first time a user runs IE? There should also be at that stage a question about “Would you like IE to automatically strip advertising from your web experience?” question.

    For that matter, Firefox should be required to do the same (both default engine selection as well as adblocking choice).

    Let’s see how many users, when consciously presented with such a choice, would really tolerate ads.

    I’ll bet if you actually gave users that choice, they would, like 80% of Tivo users, not tolerate ads.

    And in that case, you could go back to a much fairer marketplace, one in which users are given a choice about whether or not to pay vs. watch ads. Right now, consumers don’t have that choice; most everything is ad-based.

    So let’s bring freedom back into the marketplace, by letting Microsoft (and making Firefox) release this technology!

  • 8 Mark // Feb 13, 2009 at 7:26 pm

    >>80% of Tivo users skips ads

    But Google ads are by no means as invasive as having to sit through TV ads. If the ads don’t leap up in your face I’m personally OK with that trade-off for free content/services. For example, I use a Flash-blocker because Flash ads are much more annoying.

    >>a virus / plug-in that auto-updates would have no trouble playing in an arms race

    But then websites would start randomizing page layouts for different users, making it hard to strip automatically. Like you say, an arms race.

    I know GreaseMonkey etc and yet I would feel more comfortable living with a few text-ads in a page than installing an auto-updating browser plug-in that is monkeying around with my page views in whatever way it sees fit on a given day. That seems like a potential security nightmare.

  • 9 Daniel Tunkelang // Feb 13, 2009 at 7:43 pm

    Well, you block Flash ads; some people use DVRs to effectively block TV ads; and I block all ads. Other people don’t mind ads, and a rare few go out of their way to watch them. My objection is that we’ve found ourselves in a world where forcing people to watch ads is almost the only viable revenue model. I think that’s wasteful at best, evil at worst. Which may be fine on “Be Evil” day, but not cool for the other 363 days of the year! Yes, 363–4 weeks from now is another Friday the 13th.

    Let me qualify my “feature request”–any ad-blocker should allow you to opt out / disable it. Mark, I hope that addresses your security concerns. Any other concerns I should bring to product management?

    And, to Jeremy’s point, it would be interesting to see what would happen if the question of whether to enable an ad blocker were part of the initial browser set-up.

  • 10 John B. Lee // Feb 13, 2009 at 8:10 pm

    > Undermine the viability of the ad-supported model, and free goes away. Then users pay for content, but pay less for products and services. Win-Win.

    Assuming companies don’t just decide to just spend their marketing dollars in some other way. ๐Ÿ˜› Is there really a company out there that would think first of scaling back their marketing budget? Well, maybe they’d actually spend it on something useful like letting potential consumers use their product for a while.

  • 11 Daniel Tunkelang // Feb 13, 2009 at 8:22 pm

    Perhaps I’m just an idealist. But I believe that, today, the cost of advertising acts like a tax, since it simply creates an arms race among companies with competing products and services. Hence, reducing the overall advertising spend would be like a tax cut. Are prices higher in states with lower sales taxes? My gut feeling is that reducing the spend on advertising would lower prices. But I concede it’s an untested hypothesis.

  • 12 Mark // Feb 14, 2009 at 8:18 am

    You won’t make ads go away – it’s a multi-billion business. Even if you were successful at eradicating them technically (Tivo/ IE 9.0 with new “adBlock”) you’ll simply move the ads deeper into the content.
    I personally like the separation I see in the search results – ads on the right, results on the left. Deny the ads their place on the page and they’ll simply find increasingly more ways to move onto the left hand side of the page in the “content”. Expect more product placement in movies, billboard ads inside games, more “Splogs”.
    I think “Free” is too ingrained in Internet culture for the rise of a subscribe model to be the expected alternative to any campaign of ad-stripping.

  • 13 Daniel Tunkelang // Feb 14, 2009 at 9:21 am

    Oh Mark, you’re so conservative. Don’t you realize that, if we just follow the tired ideas of the past eights years, we’ll never have the audacity to hope for a better internet? ๐Ÿ™‚

    Seriously, I realize the danger of replacing clearly demarcated ads with product placement or worse. But, in all sincerity, I do have the audacity to hope that we can make it work and move to a world where the negotiation of attention isn’t so wasteful and adversarial.

  • 14 erica // Feb 18, 2009 at 1:53 am

    ‘google’ apparently has other plans:

    http://j-walk.com/other/googlecb/index.htm

    speaking of being evil, I expect that if a browser could automatically remove ads without the user really noticing, then a browser could certainly replace ads on a page with its own ads (i.e. ads for companies that are paying the makers of the browser for ad space) with people noticing even less. that would be pretty evil. also, please nobody do this.

  • 15 Daniel Tunkelang // Feb 18, 2009 at 10:03 am

    Erica, that is awesome–I laughed so hard I cried!

    And, as for re-routing ads, I believe it’s been done:

    http://network.nationalpost.com/np/blogs/fpposted/archive/2007/12/19/trojan-virus-takes-down-google-s-adsense-program.aspx

  • 16 Will Browsers Ship With Ad Blockers? | The Noisy Channel // Aug 7, 2009 at 10:52 am

    […] while ago, I wrote a post entitled “Think Evil” in which I mused that: A few years ago, when it became clear that Microsoft was losing the […]

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