Is The Washington Post Right to Block Ad Block Users?

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This week The Washington Post began experimenting with ways to deal with Web users that have installed ad-blocking software. Is this the right approach to the issue of ad blockers, or should publishers be looking to deal with the issues leading to the growth of ad blockers instead? 

With the help of an ad-blocking plugin for Chrome, I’ve been looking at the The Washington Post‘s approach. 

Are the Ads That Bad on the Site? 

My first visit was without ad-blocking software, and I didn’t feel the ads were especially intrusive. A couple of retargeted banners ads were all I saw immediately, and didn’t detract from my ability to read the article. 

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Further down, there was an ad in the middle of the article. But again, it wasn’t catastrophic for the user experience.

This banner ad is far less intrusive than the videos and rollovers you see in the middle of some articles. 

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At the bottom of the article, we have the third-party content recommendations which are now prevalent on most publishers’ websites. This jumble of clickbait is completely unrelated to the content above – the article on Trump. In my opinion, this removes credibility from the site.

Also, do sites really want to send their readers to low-rent sites with articles split over 25 pages to inflate their pageview numbers? Would they be better advised to send them to their own content and keep them on site for longer? 

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In this instance, The Washington Post is no worse than most other news sites. Indeed these recommendations are slightly more tasteful than some I’ve seen. The ad blocker removes all of these ads, though truthfully none of them really spoiled my ability to read the article. 

How the Ad-Blocking Plugin Works

I switched on the ad-blocking plugin and headed back to The Washington Post website, and encountered this message below. 

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It asks me to disable my ad blocker to continue, and reassures me about safe ads. I can just click on the cross and ignore this message before carrying on reading. 

Though if I persist, I eventually reach a dead end. I must either subscribe, remove the ad blocker, or find another news site. 

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According to a Washington Post spokesman, quoted on Buzzfeed

“Many people already receive our journalism for free online, with digital advertising paying only a portion of the cost. Without income via subscriptions or advertising, we are unable to deliver the journalism that people coming to our site expect from us. We are currently running a test using a few different approaches to see what moves these readers to either enable ads on The Washington Post, or subscribe.”

So, it seems to be an experiment in how to deal with ad-blocker users, and I can see other publishers following suit. Since these ad-blocker users were never going to click on ads, then any extra income from subscription would be welcome for The Washington Post. However, it’s likely that most will just bounce and head to a free site. 

The Growth of Ad Blocking: Stats

According to an Adobe/Pagefair report from 2014 (PDF) the growth of ad-blockers presents a significant problem for publishers. 

  • In Q2 2014 there were around 144 million global ad-blocker users, which equates to 4.9 percent of all web users). 
  • This has increased by 69 percent over the previous 12 months.
  • It seems Google Chrome is helping to drive this growth, thanks in part to the ease of installing ad blockers – it took me less then 30 seconds. 

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So Are the Ads on The Washington Post Website Really That Bad? 

As someone who has never deliberately clicked on a banner ad, I’d happily browse the Web without having to see ads. However, the ads on The Washington Post are not so awful. They don’t interfere with the content, and are far less obvious than other sites I could name. 

There are far worse ad formats out there, such as autoplay videos, interstitials, and rollover ads that do genuinely spoil the user experience – especially on mobile. I didn’t see any of these on The Washington Post.  

Should Publishers Be Looking to Avoid Terrible Ad Formats? 

In a word, yes. I can understand the desperation of publishers to find extra revenue streams to replace declining offline advertising income, but I fear many are going too far to appease advertisers. 

Take this example from Scotland’s Daily Record. In the middle of reading an article, users are forced to answer two questions before they can continue. 

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If extra ad income comes at the cost of harming the user experience and long-term user growth, is it worth it? The growth in the use of ad blockers underlines the key fact that ads do annoy people enough to download such software. Publishers do need to take notice of this fact. Additionally, they need to consider the balance between ad income and harming the brand through a poor user experience. 

Are Web Users Expecting Something for Nothing? 

Again, yes. 

Since the early days of Napster, Pirate Bay, and others people have been accessing content which costs money to produce, and expecting to pay nothing at all for it.  Many fail to appreciate the relationship between the ads on the site and the content they’re accessing free of charge on publisher’s sites.

The Adobe survey mentioned earlier found that the following:

  • 80 percent of respondents were unwilling to pay for ad-free content. 
  • 61 percent of these same respondents were “completely unwilling” to view ads which support free content. 

With this attitude to ads and free content, users are more likely to just head for another free site with less annoying ads than subscribe or take any other action to view content. 

Conclusion 

I have a lot of sympathy with The Washington Post‘s position here. It isn’t forcing awful intrusive ads onto its users like some publishers do, so expecting users to not block them isn’t a completely unreasonable position to take.

Another problem for publishers which shun intrusive ad formats is that there are plenty of other sites forcing autoplay videos and all manner of heinous ad formats onto users. These sites are driving users to download ad-blocking extensions. 

On the user side, I think people need to realize that content isn’t free on the web. Someone has to pay for it. 

I’m not sure whether The Washington Post‘s approach to the ad-blocking issue will work. As the users its blocking aren’t contributing anything to the site, perhaps its justified. If it does work, expect to see many more publishers follow suit. 

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