Ad Blockers, Readability Plugins and Your Content

Question: Can the design of your site impact how much value you get from your content?

Obviously, the answer is yes. Any good designer knows that design supports the content. Helping the reader navigate to it, consume it and move on from it.

But can good design help deal with some of the more vexing issues that designers face when it comes to their content? Namely the rise in use of adblockers and readers (such as Readbility)? The answer, most likely, is also yes.

While having a good design won’t fix the issues that these tools create, they can limit their use on your site and encourage you readers to view your ads, participate in your community and generally be more engaged in your site.

In short, if you want to maximize the benefit that you get from your hard work, the place start may be with your theme thinking about your user’s experience.

The Problem with Ad Blockers

The problem with ad blockers is something that is both pretty obvious and something we’ve discussed before. Ad blockers basically prevent advertisements from loading, depriving the sites they run on of any source of ad-based revenue.

Many have taken a very hard-line view on this, calling it a form of piracy. Though some have experimented with ways of defeating ad blockers, such as Ars Technica, those experiments, if anything, have lead to cat-and-mouse games public controversies that far outstripped the problem.

Still, there’s no doubt that the use of ad blockers is growing. There are ad blocking extensions available for every major browser and AdBlock Plus, one of the most popular of the extensions, reports that at least 12 million people use it every day, with a total of 30 million users worldwide.

While that may not be a huge percentage of Internet users, it is likely to continue to grow. And while Ad Block Plus may have opened its doors to “acceptable” ads, other extensions still take a more nuclear approach.

And that “nuclear” approach may be expanding as a new startup, AdTrap, has launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund manufacture of a hardware ad blocker that sites between the cable modem and router, blocking all ads for all devices in the house.

But as painful as ad blocking can be for some sites, it may not be the biggest site modification challenge. That instead may be from a very different breed of plugin.

aArticle Readers and Your Content

Readability LogoThe concept of readers that remove “clutter” from webpages and provide a streamlined, clean reading experience leapt to popularity with Readability, which became loathed among webmasters almost as soon as it was launched.

The controversy aimed at Readability was largely over how Readability creates its own copy of the content on its servers, creating a new “readable” URL. But since then other browser-based plugins have also risen up including Evernote Clearly (formerly Readable) and iReader.

However, perhaps most damming is that, in 2010, Apple added a “Reader” function directly in its Safari browser (based at least in part on Readbility’s open source code), becoming the first major browser to have this functionality without an extension.

But regardless of the method used, they all provide largely the same function, creating a version of the content with a format, design and size that is easy to read – usually large black text on a white background with a great deal of spacing between the lines. It’s meant to make reading text much easier on the screen.

However, these tools have the side effect of blocking or hiding every other element of the site. This includes advertising, social media buttons, comments and anything else the extension deems as “distracting”.

This makes it very difficult to earn revenue from advertising, engage readers with the discussion or get any other action from the visitor beyond merely reading the content.

While these tools aren’t nearly as commonly used as ad blockers, especially considering they don’t run passively like ad blockers do, they are growing in popularity as users seek a more comfortable reading experience.

Are These Tools Legal?

Readability’s legal status has been challenged because of the way it copies the content to an external link on Readability’s servers. While Readability did have a publisher partner program, it was recently shuttered due to, according to Readability’s creators, a lack of publisher participation (Note: I received a $0.92 from Readability from this closure.)

However, most of the tools, ad blockers and readers alike, run in the browser and don’t make additional copies of the work. They simply alter what is displayed/downloaded by the browser and how that content is viewed.

Unfortunately while the ethics/legality debate about ad blocking has been going on for over 8 years, there hasn’t been a legal test case. However, generally, it’s believed that users have the right to modify how their browser works and displays pages. The legal concerns have, mostly, been aimed at the developers of the plugins, not their users.

That being said, there doesn’t seem to be many legal challenges likely to succeed, especially against users. For example, though many websites bar ad blocking in their TOS, a recent ruling against Zappos struck down the idea of “browsewrap” licenses or terms that the user doesn’t actively agree to, which describes the majority of such TOSes.

There is another argument that adblocking and other forms of site manipulation are illegal buecause they constitute the creation of a derivative work. The Aimster decision in 2003 touched on this idea briefly, saying that removing commercials from a TV show was the creation of an unlawful derivative work, but, obviously, a Web page is very different from a TV show in structure.

In the end, the prevailing belief right now is that ad blockers and related tools are legal to use and write. But even if they aren’t, legislating or litigating against this will prove perilous and difficult.

In short, these aren’t problems that can be easily solved through law.

Design as the (Partial) Solution

With this type of issue, it’s uncertain, at best, that copyright law is being broken so there are no DMCA notices to send, no legal cases to push. There are technological ways to thwart or reduce the use of these tools, but that amounts to a game of cat and mouse that, in the end, is only pursing what is, most likely, a small percentage of users.

Instead, the better path is to focus on the design of your site and try to make your visitors want to use such services as little as possible.

This, specifically, includes three things:

  1. Reducing Clutter: Ads are fine, social media buttons are fine, but keep the focus on the content and give the reader what they want as much as possible. Balancing the need for revenue with a positive user experience is difficult, but many sites do it well and can be learned from.
  2. Comfortable Reading: Focus on making your text comfortable to read. Read up a little bit on Typography and focus on making your site comfortable to read, even at a distance, on high-resolution monitors (that can often shrink text). THis means large text, clean fonts and simple colors.
  3. Focus on Non-Annoying Ads: Adblock Plus announced last year that it was letting acceptable ads through its filters. Strongly avoid ads that annoy users including those with animation, sound or that block the content. According to Adblock Pro’s stats, only a fraction of its users are universally opposed to ads, opening the door for compromise.

However, this won’t solve one of the key problems with ad blockers, namely that they are used broadly and proactively. Users find one or two sites that annoy them with ads, install an ad blocker and then block ads on the thousands of sites that don’t. It’s unfair, but reality. However, there are ways to reach out to adblockers with friendly messages and ask them to whitelist your site.

While these solutions aren’t perfect, they’re less like to create the cat-and-mouse problems common among attempts to thwart ad blockers outright.

In short, the way to best mitigate this problem is not to go to war with it, but to try and learn from it and create a better user experience that works well for you and for everyone who visits your site.

Bottom Line

The good news in all of this is that, despite nearly a decade of existence, ad blocking has grown but not reached levels of widespread use that risk most sites. Despite anecdotal evidence of the harm of ad blocking, revenue from online advertising has grown steadily year over year.

Still, for many sites, in particular those that target a tech-savvy audience more likely to use such technology, this is a serious concern and one they wrestle with every day.

There are no easy answers, but with few options legally and technically, the solution has to come more from a service standpoint. While thinking about infringement from a service standpoint is important with all types of questionable content use, both infringing and non-infringing, with these issues it plays an even larger role.

The impact is already being felt. More and more sites are already tweaking their layouts to be more content-centric and focusing on a good reading experience. On that front, it’s a lesson any site can learn from, regardless of whether or not these tools have negatively impacted them.

After all, creating a better user experience is pretty much never a bad thing.

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