Selective ad blocking lets you support your favorite sites

Help the sites you frequent stay in business by adding them to AdBlock Plus's whitelist, which restricts the obtrusiveness of the ads that open on the page.

Dennis O'Reilly Former CNET contributor
Dennis O'Reilly began writing about workplace technology as an editor for Ziff-Davis' Computer Select, back when CDs were new-fangled, and IBM's PC XT was wowing the crowds at Comdex. He spent more than seven years running PC World's award-winning Here's How section, beginning in 2000. O'Reilly has written about everything from web search to PC security to Microsoft Excel customizations. Along with designing, building, and managing several different web sites, Dennis created the Travel Reference Library, a database of travel guidebook reviews that was converted to the web in 1996 and operated through 2000.
Dennis O'Reilly
6 min read

AdBlock Plus list of blockable items on the current page
Screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

People hate ads, but not as much as they hate spending money. That's why the Web and most other media are financed primarily by ads.

Along come browser extensions that block some or all ads, and Web sites lose the revenue they rely on to survive.

People like me who explain how to use ad-blocking software become pariahs in the eyes of site owners and others who make their living on the Web (including yours truly, which would appear to make me a pariah in my own eyes).

The fact is, many Web ads are a genuine nuisance. As I write this, there's a browser window open on my desktop that's flashing "Traffic! Generate more money!" Above it is another Flash ad with constantly scrolling text, and below that one is yet another Flash ad encouraging me to download a whitepaper on a subject I have absolutely no interest in.

Of course, unless your browser has an ad-blocking extension enabled, this CNET page has its own ad lineup, some static and some animated.

Could we be ad-blocking our favorite sites out of existence? Am I recommending myself out of a blogging gig? I've always justified writing about ad-blocking software by assuring myself that only a small percentage of Web users will bother installing and using one of the programs.

I first wrote about the ad-blocking browser extension Ghostery in November 2009's "Essential Firefox security add-ons" and AdBlock Plus in January 2009's "Three super Firefox add-ons." Readers were quick to point out the irony of someone whose income is generated by Web ads instructing people on how to block them.

Blocking Web ads is tantamount to recording television shows and skipping the ads when you replay them. It's understandable for site owners to consider the people who block the ads on their pages as freeloaders.

The pros and cons of ad blocking
There's a battle brewing between Web site operators and their ad-blocking visitors. According to many site owners, people who block their ads are threatening to put them out of business. They may have a point: the percentage of ad-blocking visitors appears to be increasing steadily -- particularly among tech-site denizens such as yourself.

According to a survey published in May 2012 by anti-ad-blocking service ClarityRay (PDF), nearly 18 percent of visitors to tech sites such as CNET use an ad-blocking browser extension, primarily AdBlock Plus.

(Note that a version of AdBlock Plus for Internet Explorer is now available; previously the extension was offered only for Firefox, Google Chrome, Android, and Opera.)

The ClarityRay survey found that 9.26 percent of the world's Web users block ads on the sites they visit; 8.72 percent of U.S. Internet users browse with an ad-blocking extension enabled.

In May 2012, the MakeUseOf site went so far as to label as "evil" the ad-blocking extensions AdBlock Plus, NoScript, and Ghostery. LockerGnome's Matt Hartley came to the same conclusion two years earlier.

ClarityRay is one of several services that promise to report the number of a site's visitors who block their ads and to serve custom ads to ad blockers. Note that I have not tested the company's service nor have I seen it in action.

AdBlock Plus offers guidelines for 'non-intrusive' ads
The folks behind AdBlock Plus took some heat back in 2011 when they implemented in version 2.0 an automatic whitelist of sites whose ads would be shown by default, as ZDNet's Adrian Kingsley-Hughes explained at the time.

SearchEngineLand's Jennifer Slegg reported yesterday that Google is one of the big-name sites that have reportedly bought their way onto the program's allowed list. A look at the extension's default whitelist confirms Google's presence.

AdBlock Plus 2.0 default whitelist
AdBlock Plus 2.0's default whitelist includes Google search ads, which the AdBlock Forum indicates were added on June 18, 2013. Screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

The AdBlock forum link next to the whitelist entry shows that Google search ads were added to the list on June 18, 2013, although it isn't clear whether any Google ads were allowed prior to that date. The forum post states that the whitelist entry applies to "sites participating in Google's AdSense for Search program" in addition to Google search ads.

AdBlock Plus's Acceptable Ads Initiative restricts the type of ads the sites can display: no pop-ups, pop-unders, or other overly obtrusive techniques. The AdBlock Plus acceptable ads policy states that only static ads are allowed, preferably text-only: no animations, sounds, or "attention-grabbing images." The policy prohibits ads that obscure the page content and/or require that visitors close a window to view the page.

The AdBlock Plus policy relies on the honor system. Sites and advertisers agreeing to abide by the nonintrusive ad policy are policed manually. The AdBlock Plus Agreements page states that the service doesn't charge small sites and blogs to be whitelisted but does take money from "larger properties that serve non-intrusive ads" to pay for management of the list.

Selective ad blocking lets you support your favorite sites
Many AdBlock Plus users who upgrade to version 2.0 may not notice that some ads are now whitelisted by default. If you wish to set the extension to block all ads, click the ABP icon in the bottom-left corner of the browser window and choose Filter Options. Under the Filter Subscriptions tab, uncheck "Allow some nonintrusive advertising."

AdBlock Plus Filter Preferences dialog box
To prevent ads from companies on AdBlock Plus's whitelist from appearing, uncheck the option in the program's Filter Preferences to allow nonintrusive ads. Screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

I'm no fan of Web ads, but neither am I a moocher. I'm cool with the AdBlock Plus whitelist, even if some vendors pay to make the list. I'm also inclined to supplement the default whitelist of sites whose ads are allowed by adding my favorites. (Repeat after me: "C-N-E-T.")

To allow a site's ads, open the site, click the ABP icon in the bottom-left corner of the browser window, and choose "Disable on [site name]." You can also disable ad blocking on the current page only or on all sites.

AdBlock Plus blocking options
Unblock nonintrusive ads on the current site, the current page, or everywhere by selecting the option that appears when you click the ABP icon in the bottom-left corner of the browser window. Screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

If you're curious about the blockable elements on the current page, click the ABP icon and choose "Open blockable items" to open a window below the page content listing each element the program has blocked (shown in the screen at the top of this post).

The outlook for micropayments as a Web-ad alternative
Since the dawn of the Web, researchers have predicted the arrival of micropayment systems that would allow people to pay a small amount to the sites they visit in lieu of viewing ads on the site's pages. It hasn't happened yet. People's reluctance to pay for Web content has convinced many sites that ads are here to stay.

Yet Bitcoin and Google Wallet make it more practical for sites to charge visitors for specific content rather than making them pay for a monthly subscription to the entire site, a la the New York Times, Washington Post, and other publications.

As Matthew Ingram reported on the PaidContent site last May, Web sites have resisted implementing micropayment systems because they perceive the process as overly cumbersome for the sites and their visitors alike.

A new company named Znak It hopes to convince media sites that micropayments are a more lucrative option than paywalls. Companies big and small continue to experiment with micropayments: from Paypal to Esquire, to Flattr.

Flattr's approach is to let you set a monthly budget for the money you want to distribute to your favorite Web content providers. Each time you "like" or otherwise favor an item, a portion of your monthly Flattr budget is paid to the provider. So if you've set a monthly budget of $25, for example, and you "like" 50 items in a month, each of those providers will be paid 50 cents (Flattr takes 10 percent off the top).

Of course, if the people whose content you designate don't have a Flattr account, they don't receive any payment. Last April, Choire Sicha wrote on The Awl site that Twitter considers Flattr a violation of Twitter's terms of service, which prohibit compensation for "tweet actions."

One big fan of micropayments is Internet visionary Jaron Lanier, whose recent book "Who Owns the Future?" posits that the free model threatens the "creative class" of writers, musicians, and artists, and ultimately the middle class as a whole. Lanier describes his idea for a person-to-person payment system in an interview with Eric Allen Been on the Nieman Journalism Lab site.