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Slashdot joins the ad-free melee

"News for Nerds" Web site Slashdot.org joins the dark side, lining up with leagues of other Net publishers to start placing a premium on promotion-free pages.

"News for Nerds" Web site Slashdot.org has joined the dark side, lining up with leagues of other Net publishers to start selling larger, more imposing advertisements and placing a premium on commercial-free pages.

Slashdot, whose discussion boards are a favorite among techies, will start displaying bigger ads on its Web pages Monday, after announcing it would do so in late October. To placate visitors opposed to ads altogether, the site will also sell a subscription to promotion-free pages.

"The large ads that you see on many other sites are coming here," read a note posted on the site from Slashdot co-founder Rob "CmdrTaco" Malda on Friday. "We really don't have an option; these are what advertisers want, and if we don't provide them, we won't be around much longer. But we want to give you an option to see Slashdot without these ads."

The changes at Slashdot are part of a ripple effect in Web publishing that began with the dot-com bust, when previously free-flowing ad dollars ran dry. Since early 2001, bigger, more intrusive ads spread like wildfire across mainstream Web sites in publishers' attempts to grab reader attention and encourage skeptical marketers to spend online. Subscriptions have also become more common at previously free Web venues.

Last February, CNET Networks, publisher of News.com, was the first to introduce a larger interactive ad, called a messaging unit, set directly in the middle of a Web page. Sites such as NYTimes.com and Yahoo quickly adopted the ad unit, among other fast-growing experiments in Web advertising, including pop-under ads, skyscrapers and "leader board" ads--large banners that run atop the page.

So far, larger ads are improving response and brand recall from Web visitors, researchers say.

On Monday, Slashdot will introduce the messaging units and larger banners. One of its first advertisers will be IBM, according to Jeff "Hemos" Bates, Slashdot's director and executive editor.

The site will also offer subscribers an inventive way to avoid ads. Unlike many other Web publishers that employ a monthly or annual subscription rate, Slashdot will charge $5 for every 1,000 ad-free pages. For about 80 percent of its roughly 330,000 daily visitors, this amounts to little less than $20 a year, the cost of a typical magazine subscription. But for avid visitors, about 15 percent of its audience, the rate will go up to about $5 a month.

"The problem with other subscription systems is that they're essentially one-size-fits-all systems," Bates said. "We wanted to create a system that catered more to our individual people."

Already, Slashdot visitors have posted more than 1,400 messages on the topic, with arguments weighted strongly against a sliding scale.

"I'm a big fan of Slashdot and read it all the time," wrote one visitor. "Given my reading habits (and that I post fairly frequently) I'm positive I fall in at least the top 15 percent ($5 a month)...I'd love to support Slashdot, but not on these terms."

Others saw the silver lining in the move.

"It was completely predictable that a lot of people would complain about this," wrote another reader. "I suspect it's largely the same group who complain about everything. When all is said and done, the majority of them will continue to read Slashdot.

"I, for one, was happy to have the chance to help support Slashdot, and I bought a lot of page views," the reader continued. "People have compared the subscription rates to those of newspapers, but Slashdot is worth much more to me than any newspaper."