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Are ad blockers worthwhile?

Posted on May 5th, 2014 at 10:51 AM EDT

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These days, everyone recommends using an ad blocker of some kind to prevent unwanted advertisements from showing up in the web browser. Seems like a good idea, right? Well, maybe not. It’s a bit unconventional of me, and is sure to generate some controversy, but my advice would be not to use an ad blocker. Yes, I hear the chorus of yelling and objections I just caused, but hear me out.

I see a lot of people these days complaining about advertisements in their web browsers, and a lot of them are using ad blockers as a solution to the problem. However, a growing cause of ads in the web browser is adware. I’ve written a lot about adware, both in articles published here and in my Adware Removal Guide. Adware generally sneaks into your system by piggybacking on a legit program downloaded from a bad site, or by pretending to be something else, or through downloading of illegal materials from torrents or piracy sites. Once on your system, it causes redirects (often hijacking your browser’s search engine) and pop-up ads, while doing who knows what else in the background. Monitoring your browsing activity? Certainly. Phoning home? Yup. Trying to trick you into going to other bad sites? Absolutely.

Worse, the problems may not even be caused by adware. Many people these days are having their wireless routers hacked. Numerous vulnerabilities exist in some popular routers, and botnets are constantly on the prowl, scouring the ‘net for any vulnerable devices. Once your router is hacked, any site you visit is suspect… you simply are not safe any longer. Trying to visit your bank site or somewhere like Amazon.com could result in being redirected to a lookalike site designed to harvest your login information, so hackers can steal from you. Or you may end up being redirected to some other site trying to get you to download malicious software. One common scam is to redirect to a fake Adobe Flash Player update site.

If you try to use an ad blocker to solve these problems, you may just be shooting yourself in the foot. An ad blocker can, at best, merely cover up these symptoms without solving the underlying problem. Adware could still be tracking your activities, and a hacked router could still be redirecting you to malicious sites. Using adware in this situation is much like taking an aspirin every day to deal with chronic pain that could turn out to be caused by a serious medical condition. In both cases, treating the symptoms without dealing with the causes of the problems could end up causing you very serious problems in the long run.

adwareI hear the objections starting up again. “But I don’t have adware,” you say, “I just don’t like all the annoying ads on the side of the page on [insert favorite site here]. So I should use an ad blocker, right?” No!

First, really obnoxious ads and pop-ups are often a sign that you probably shouldn’t be visiting a site at all. I’m not saying that all advertising is bad, but if a site throws too much advertising in your face in a really obnoxious way, that’s important information. That tells you the site is more interested in ad revenue than anything else, and is willing to compromise the experience of its visitors just to get some extra ad views. Do you really think you should trust any of the information on such a site? There are always exceptions to any rule, but overall, probably not. Blocking those ads could mask important information you can use to decide whether the site is trustworthy.

Second, many sites remain free precisely because of their ability to generate revenue through advertising. By blocking those ads entirely, you rob that site of a potential source of revenue. Just as new technology that gave us the ability to fast-forward past ads on free television stations caused problems for the TV networks, so too do ad blockers create problems for the creators of free online content.

Consider this site, for example. I work hard to produce information-rich content, and until the recent addition of the Donate button (instead of advertising), I did so for free, on my own dime. The danger was that this could cause the site’s quality to fall if some future employment demanded more of my time, making it hard to justify spending free time here. By finding a way to earn a little money from the site, I can be more assured of keeping it going long-term. The same is true of sites that use advertising.

Thus, rather than using an ad blocker, allow your favorite sites to show you ads. If the ads are too much for you, consider contacting the site’s “webmaster” about the problem, being sure to be clear about what you object to. Boycott sites that show excessive or overly-pushy ads, or that advertise bad products (like MacKeeper). And if ads start showing up in places where they shouldn’t, you’ll know you’ve got a potentially serious problem that needs to be solved.

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23 Comments

  • daire says:

    this makes no sense

    • Thomas says:

      If you disagree with what I’ve said, I’m happy to listen to your reasons, but you’ll need to say more than just “this makes no sense.”

      • daire says:

        a hacked router has nothing to do with ads or adblocking, you can take care of adware with your adware tool, which is installed as you say by piggy backing on something else(to be honest it doesn’t even exist if your smart enough to read what it says when your computer installs something), so i don’t see what adblocker have to do with any of this?
        im sure there are people that know very little about computers,osx etc that use your information to stay safe, now they’re all going to think adblockers are a botnet just because of this article.

        • Thomas says:

          Actually, a hacked router or other network issue (such as a compromised DNS hack) can result in ads in the web browser, which people try to solve using an ad blocker. Trust me, I’ve seen this a number of times. And I’m not sure where you get the idea that I think “adblockers are a botnet”… where on Earth did that come from?

          I’ve also got to say, it’s rather uncharitable to imply that people who install adware are not smart, and is unlikely to be a popular point of view with readers of this blog.

        • Débora says:

          I don’t think adblockers are a botnet after reading this article.

          The other day I realised I had adware in my mac and I can assure you I’m not a stupid person. I certainly write in English better than you and it’s not even my first language.

          Anyway, this site helped me get rid of it after days researching and I’m very thankful to Thomas. I believe his point of view in this article will always be his own and anyone is free to disagree.
          To me, it makes a lot of sense, specially with all the ads I was getting from adware. If I had adblocks installed I would be just getting harmed without knowing it. The sudden increase of advertising I was getting made me alert and after a few days of it still happening I was sure something was wrong.

          What seems ridiculous is advertisement on paid television, but I never searched how that works.

  • Charlie says:

    Ghostery is an ad blocker or tracking blocker?

    • Thomas says:

      Ghostery is a tracking blocker. It’s been a while since I tried Ghostery, but I don’t believe it did any ad blocking. That might have changed, or my recollection could be bad, but I believe it’s different than an ad blocker.

  • The Flagada says:

    First of all, I want to congratulate you on the path you chose for your blod, i.e. no ads, but a simple donate button.

    Let me try to explain why I use an ad blocker (at the gateway level), and provide it along with regularly updated blacklists to all my customers :

    I want all the sites that rely on advertising to fail.
    Why would I want that ?

    Well, let me put it that way : advertising corrupts. Everything.
    For news sites, advertising means they can no longer provide true independent information. This is blatantly visible in the Video Game reviews : no VG journalist can criticize anything anymore.

    For sites that are more interested in ad revenue than user experience, like you said, they don’t deserve revenue at all, so while we’re at it, why couldn’t we accelerate their downfall by sycking content for free, wasting their bandwidth and effort for nothing ?

    So, ad blocking isn’t just about passively avoiding obnoxios ads, it’s about taking a stand for what we want and what we do not want to see online, hoping the bad sites will go away. Think darwinism on steroids…

    You may argue that intermediate entities who sell the ads provide some sort of firewall between the advertisers and the site, but when something does not suit the advertiser, you have no idea how fast bad stuff will hit the proverbial fan.

    So, to sum up, I hope that getting rid of the ads will make for a better Internet.

    • Thomas says:

      Advertising certainly can corrupt. To say that it corrupts everything is as false as most absolute statements are. Further, as someone who had to make the choice between advertising and asking for donations, I definitely take exception to the idea that people would want to kill off sites using advertising by “sucking content for free.” There are plenty of valuable sites that use limited, tasteful advertising, and I don’t agree with taking away their right to do so.

    • Al says:

      I certainly wouldn’t mind a better Internet at all and I’m quite willing to pay for such a thing, but I fear that I and possibly you are very much in the minority. The “Me” generation isn’t willing to pay a cent for something they believe they are owed for free and make that very clear. If the Internet were truly pay-as-you go I’m certain it would be a better computing experience with much less advertising.

      And just to be clear, I know that most of us already pay something to our ISP’s, but that simply gives us access, probably an e-mail address and some routing services, which is useless without all the free content we make use of. Search engines, blogs, many news sites, etc. must all rely on some other means of support to keep them going. That’s the real Internet and without ads most could not continue to exist without subscription or deep-pocket backers.

  • john says:

    I’m very happy using glimmer blocker to stop the obtrusive ads, now if I could rid my internet experience of those terrible auto play ads. Do you hear me WSJ? I’m curious what you think of glimmer blocker http://glimmerblocker.org For tracking, I use DoNotTrackMe

    • Thomas says:

      Auto-playing audio or video ads are thoroughly evil. I refuse to visit any sites that do that. MacWorld made my list when they published an article promoting the theft of Mac OS X, and the page had an auto-play video ad. I refuse to visit the MacWorld site at this point. They hadn’t published anything worth reading in a while anyway.

      This an example of my theory that you should use the ads as an indicator of the quality of the site. If a site uses awful advertising techniques, don’t block the ads and keep visiting… find an alternate site that has more appropriate (or no) ads.

    • Derek Currie says:

      I admonished MacWorld for auto-play advertising videos on article pages when I witnessed them playing Samsung iPhone ripoff ads, of all things. That’s horrendously poor marketing. MacWorld’s marketing folks have turned maniacal and abusive lately, never a good sign.

  • xx says:

    Honestly, I couldn’t live without adblock. Ads are so annoying and lots of times the files have been starting downloading by themselves w/o any permission.
    Ad block is needed.

    • Thomas says:

      AdBlock should not be used as a means for visiting junk sites without consequence. If the ads on a site are doing things like initiating downloads without asking, then that site should be avoided!

      • xx says:

        I can’t bring you specific examples of American websites, but in my country even the news sites are full of annoying ads, which makes the site look ugly and annoying.
        When I have adblock on I can surf web easily and very well.

  • Derek Currie says:

    Hi Thomas!

    I do believe is fair for a useful website to make revenue from ads. I’ve even made some deliberate click-throughs for websites I want to support, just to toss them a penny or two from the advertisers.

    But I do have a couple guilty pleasures where ad block add-ons come in handy. (shh!)
    1) MacDailyNews: I contribute a lot of stuff in the comments and don’t feel too bad about occasionally blocking the BARRAGE of ads there. Today they had 32 ads on one page. Thirty-two.
    2) Veetle.com: I enjoy watching ancient old sci-fi films there, but don’t enjoy the interrupting ad videos. Using Ad Block Plus with Firefox (doesn’t do this on Safari) will make the video ads disappear. Rapture. Uninterrupted alien invasions.

  • cavenewt says:

    I must confess I run AdBlock and Ghostery in Safari. However, I do whitelist sites I like, such as MacInTouch.com and this site. Am I depriving any site owner of revenue by blocking their ads, when I *never ever* click on ads anyway?

  • aaanouel says:

    First: Thanks for your Adware Removal Tool, it worked perfectly!!!.

    My Safari had gotten infected with “Dynamic Pricer”… and BEFORE reading this article I had purchased MacKeeper for getting rid of banners and ads but it didn’t work at all… “or that advertise bad products (like MacKeeper)” you said, bad news for me!

    I had suspected why, since gotten infected with “Dynamic Pricer” and trying to find a solution why MacKeeper Ad was always the first to appear. Should I block Paypal paying them?.

    ✎ ✔✔✔✔✔ Txs4Sharing

    • Thomas says:

      MacKeeper is not a means for blocking ads or removing adware. It’s a scam product, currently the subject of two separate class-action lawsuits alleging fraud. You definitely should remove it, and should stop any payment to Zeobit or Kromtech, or request a refund from them if that’s no longer possible.

  • aaanouel says:

    Thanks a lot for your invaluable help, Thomas.
    I will proceed as you advice me.

    Thanks again
    Augusto Nouel Perera

    PS.: I own you two!!!
    I ever thinking in coming to Costa Rica just tell me for helping you to plan a profitable and pleasurable trip.

  • aaanouel says:

    Hi Thomas
    MacKeeper refunded my money back without any trouble…
    Ironically, they were who gave me the link to your page… so I think they’re not so bad persons after all.
    To God which is of God, to the devil which is of the devil…

    Thanks for your advice.
    aaanouel

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