Are ad blockers worthwhile?
Published May 5th, 2014 at 10:51 AM EDT , modified May 5th, 2014 at 10:51 AM EDT
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.
I 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.