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July 7, 2001
Ad Revenge
Some Web surfers are taking action against annoying online ads by installing software to block them

In the not-too-distant past, online advertising was mostly non-intrusive and small. Banner ads and smaller tile ads made up the bulk of online advertising. These days, however, it seems as if ads are getting more intrusive and annoying by the minute. First they got bigger, then they started "popping up" and now they're taking over the entire screen and even popping back up after they're closed. Most Web users, analysts say, don't really mind the ads. In fact, many Web users like ads, but even those users are becoming annoyed as the ads become more intrusive and harder to avoid.

Even before online ads started becoming bigger and bolder, some companies began offering ad-blocking software – Ad Subtract, Ad Muncher, JunkBusters and WebWashers are just a few. Until recently, sales and downloads of most ad-blocking software, much of which is free, were relatively low. Within the last two months, things have changed and sites are seeing increases – up to 300% in some cases – in downloads of ad-blocking software. Some companies have also worked out agreements to have their ad-blocking software distributed to customers who buy computer products such as modems.

The software works by examining each Web page before it's loaded into the user's browser and removing anything that resembles an ad. It determines what is an ad by checking the elements of the page against a list of known ads, which originate from common sources such as DoubleClick, and for common technical features of an ad. Then the page is loaded into the user's Web browser with white spaces where the ads would have been.

Advertising agencies and industry analysts aren't too worried about people blocking online ads. They don't think most people really want the ads blocked or want to deal with the hassles of the software. Most ad-blocking software, for instance, turns off cookies – small files placed on users' computers that can track online usage – which are necessary for many sites to function properly. Analysts also say if ad-blocking software does become popular among Web users, ad companies will most likely find a way around it so their messages show up anyway.

Most likely, ad-blocking software won't become as common as ads. It turns out many people who download ad-blocking software set their preferences to allow some ads to pass by the filters. However, ad-blocking does help people be more anonymous online and more difficult to track, and can make pages load faster because ad graphics take a while to load. Some people will choose to use it, so advertisers may be more challenged in the future to get their messages across to online consumers.

- by Julia M. Duncan