How The Independent puts ad revenue before user experience

Ad blockers are on the rise and, while I have sympathies for some publishers, others provide such an awful, intrusive experience for the user that it's no wonder people are using them.

Ad blockers are on the rise and, while I have sympathies for some publishers, others provide such an awful, intrusive experience for the user that it’s no wonder people are using them.

One of the biggest – though by no means the only – culprits is The Independent. It’s a prime example of publishers putting ad revenue before the user experience.

I can understand the reasons for this. As print revenues decline, news sites have become desperate for new revenue streams, so the temptation is to take all the ad income they can get.

However, if the result is a poor user experience thanks to intrusive ad formats, then there are two possible problems:

  • Sites force more and more web users to install ad blockers. The reaction from some users seeing intrusive ads is to download adblock software.
  • Future audience growth is affected. As the stats below show, adblock users are more likely to be under 34. This has serious implications for future traffic growth.

Ad blockers: the stats

The IAB recently carried out a survey on attitudes to adblocking. It found that:

  • 15% of British adult web users are using adblocking software.
  • Adblocking is most prevalent amongst It’s most prevalent among the 18-24 (34%) and 25-34 age groups (19%).
  • 52% of adblock software users said their main motivation was to block all ads.
  • 12% said it was to block certain types of ads, 11% say only to block ads from certain websites.
  • While privacy concerns are a factor for some, the main reason people block ads are because of their effect on the user experience.

adblocking stats

Ads on The Independent site

I’m picking on The Indy here as it’s a prime example of a news site that has decided to prioritise ad revenue over users.

Over the last few years, it has become a repository for many of the worst ad formats.

Below, we have ads taking over the whole background, detracting from the article.

independent ads

However, if you install an adblocker, which takes about 20 seconds on Chrome, the experience is much better: 
Indy with adblock

Pre-roll video ads are a major annoyance with newspaper sites in general. Many news sites have added lots of lovely video content, but plonked ads in front of them.

Can I be bothered to watch 30 seconds of ads before viewing a one minute video, one that is probably available ad-free elsewhere?

The quality is awful too.

pre-roll ads

Autoplay audio is one of the worst things a website can impose on users. It’s intrusive and unwelcome.

The Independent doesn’t worry about this. Almost every page contains a video ad halfway through the article, and the audio comes on without warning, as in this ad for Halo.

autoplay video

The cumulative effect of these ad formats is a slowing down of the site. It’s noticeably slower than some others, to the point where I actively avoid it.

As the Independent’s pages load, they are weighed down by all the third party elements that have to load, many of which are connected to the ads. If we load a page using the Ghostery extension, we can see just how many:

Ghostery indy

Google’s page speed tool tells a story here too:

page speed Independent

Then we have the standard third party content recommendations that publishers love to place under articles.

This kind of garbage helps no-one but the sites hosting them and the providers of recommendations.

More often than not, they have no relevance to the article (this one was about the Sinai air crash) and send those users that click them to some unpleasant parts of the web – paginated pages full of even worse ads and some sites you wouldn’t want your children to head to.

It’s fair to say that these recommendations have made the web a worse place than it was before. 

content recommendations

In summary

The Indy isn’t necessarily the worst website for ads, but it’s heading there. Indeed, most newspaper websites have gone down a similar path.

Perhaps they think that, if all the other news sites are doing it, that makes it OK. However, they aren’t necessarily competing online with their traditional print rivals – they’re competing for traffic with international news sites, as well as newer players like The Huffington Post and Buzzfeed.

In the other corner is the argument that people expect something for nothing. They are happy to browse the web and consume content without any concern for how it’s funded. Surely a few ads is a price worth paying?

I have some sympathy with the latter view, and one of the consequences of the use of adblockers will be that more sites will begin to block adblock users. The Washington Post has tried it, as has City AM here in the UK.

I don’t think that’s the answer, but I can understand the thinking behind it. There is no easy answer for publishers, but I don’t think that ignoring the user experience in order to maximise ad revenues is a viable long-term strategy.


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