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Online advertising is broken, can it be fixed?

Every time you visit a website you're presented with an image, animated clip, or video advertising something. This is how a lot of websites make their money and over the course of the Internet's lifespan, advertisers have changed the way they deliver ads. Sometimes it's for the better, but usually it's worse. One company is trying to shake up the way we see ads and it might just work.

If you use Firefox or Chrome, chances are you may have a little extension called Adblock Plus installed. If you haven't heard it, Adblock Plus prevents ads from displaying on your browser by maintaining a set of rules on what kind of content can be displayed. Adblock Plus also has a few other features built in that allow it do things like prevent website tracking, and disable social media sharing buttons.

Adblock Plus came out in 2006 and quickly gained in popularity -- Firefox alone boasts 16 million users. Aside from preventing annoying ads from running, Adblock Plus also helped curb online malware that was delivered through the loading of page elements. Cisco's 2013 Annual Security Report points out that people who are just browsing around are "182 times more likely" to get a virus through an ad hosted on a site they're visiting than someone just searching for porn.

Where Adblock Plus is making major changes is through their Acceptable Ads program. The program allows advertisers to pay Adblock Plus to not block their ads so long as their ads are presented "in a non-intrusive way." The criteria for what is defined as acceptable by Adblock Plus includes:

  • static ads; no images or sounds
  • preferably text-only with no attention-grabbing images
  • clearly marked as an advertisement

Companies like Google have paid into the Acceptable Ads program. In an article for Slate, Andrew Leonard points out that "prices paid by advertisers for online impressions and click-throughs has been falling more or less steadily for two years." For a company like Google whose main source of revenue is ad sales, that is a drop they'd like to see corrected.

Adblock Plus keeps the list of exceptions public, so you can see who's opting into the Acceptable Ads problems. You can also disable the exceptions list -- if you're the type who really, really hates all ads, no matter what.