Sunday, July 12, 2015 [Tweets] [Favorites]

Safari Content Blocker and Web Advertising

Dean Murphy:

Ok, so the website I decided to try “fixing”, is one that I see linked often, iMore. Let me start this by saying I really like the content that iMore provide and enjoy the personas of their staff on their many podcasts (Debug is one of my favourites!), but I hate the experience of their mobile website as it has several ad’s by many different providers, all tracking me across all different sites. They have super tiny ‘close’ buttons that are near impossible to hit, they follow you as you scroll and there is a slow loading full page interstitial that loads on every page refresh. Urgh!

[…]

With no content blocked, there are 38 3rd party scripts (scripts not hosted on the host domain) running when the homepage is opened, which takes a total of 11 seconds. Some of these scripts are hosted by companies I know, Google, Amazon, Twitter and lots from companies I don’t know. Most of which I assume are used to display adverts or track my activity, as the network activity was still active after a minute of leaving the page dormant. I decided to turn them all off all 3rd party scripts and see what would happen.

After turning off all 3rd party scripts, the homepage took 2 seconds to load, down from 11 seconds. Also, the network activity stopped as soon as the page loaded so it should be less strain on the battery.

Rene Ritchie:

I don’t block ads because, as someone who works for a site that has ads, I understand the cost of content and the current realities involved in paying for it at scale. (I don’t skip podcast sponsorships—the ultimate in native, intercept ads—for the same reason).

Both via Nick Heer:

His “response” article — which, I should point out, is entirely text-based, unlike a media-heavy review — weighs in at a whopping 14 MB with 330 requests.

John Gruber:

Rene Ritchie’s response acknowledges the problem, but a web page like that — Rene’s 537-word all-text response — should not weigh 14 MB.

[…]

With Safari Content Blockers, Apple is poised to allow users to fight back. Apple has zeroed in on what we need: not a way to block ads per se, but a way to block obnoxious JavaScript code. A reckoning is coming.

Rene Ritchie (via John Gruber):

First, the content size issue. 14MB is infuriating. My guess is that he was getting a video ad on the page that’s no longer being served. We’ve been testing internally and getting consistently under 4MB for that page, which is still hefty.

[…]

While we sell premium ads directly to advertisers, that only fills a small subset of the required “inventory” to support the network. Some 85% of ads we served last month were “programmatic”—provided by ad exchanges like Google Adx and Appnexus. Those exchanges are pretty much black boxes. We get a tag, we insert it, and ads appear.

[…]

Each ad gets its own iframe, so load is asynchronous and, if one fails, it doesn’t kill the entire site. Unfortunately, that also means each one fires its own trackers, even if those trackers are identical across ads. It’s terribly inefficient.

[…]

We also have no ability to screen ad exchange ads ahead of time; we get what they give us. We can and have set policies, for example, to disallow autoplay video or audio ads. But we get them anyway, even from Google. Whether advertisers make mistakes or try to sneak around the restrictions and don’t get caught, we can’t tell. It happens, though, all the time.

Glenn Fleishman (via John Gruber):

Advertising, analytics, social media, and other tracking networks use JavaScript, tiny images, and other embedded methods to install tracking IDs on your browser when you visit sites that incorporate their signals. This might be a site that uses Google Analytics, Doubleclick, GeoTrust, or dozens of others—or even dozens on one site.

All legitimate networks offer some kind of opt-out method, but many work poorly, and you have to opt out often for every browser by network, and sometimes only for a limited period of time. And, as with the Do Not Track quibble, opting out of tracking can mean you’re tracked with a promise to not use identifying information.

Because of all this, users have increasingly installed ad-blocking software, which throws the baby out with the filthy bathwater. Poor baby! The baby is the revenue from advertising that allows sites such as Macworld and hundreds of thousands—or maybe millions—of others to pay the bills that make publications go from a part-time self-employed blogging gig to a newsroom of hundreds of reporters.

[…]

I like [Firefox] Tracking Protection because of its integration and seemingly light hand in what it does. But Disconnect (which helped provided the blocklist for the feature), Ghostery, and others offer similar or better features. Ghostery, for instance, shows you a count of how many tracking elements on a site when the page loads, and lets you block whichever you like. Ghostery is focused on privacy, not malice. Disconnect has its feet on both pedestals.

Previously: Introduction to WebKit Content Blockers.

Update (2015-07-12): Nick Heer:

The rise of content and ad blockers has required companies to get creative about how they show us ads. Buzzfeed has mastered the art of “native” advertising on the web, but that also kinda sucks for readers because it feels deceptive. The short sponsor posts popular among many sites feel more honest, but they’re straddling a fine line between a clearly-marked sponsor post and a native ad.

It’s a hard question: how do you get paid on the internet in a way that feels respectful to readers? Is it as simple as clearly labelling sponsored content as such? Is there a better way?

Update (2015-07-22): TJ VanToll (via Chris Johnson):

This article makes for a good showcase of web cruft. All I wanted to do was read about psycopaths, as one does, but before reading I had to sift through a bunch of junk that I don’t care about—like social buttons, the temperature, and a terms-of-service modal — all for an article that’s about 2,000 words. I can’t even see the start of the article on my oversized iPhone 6+.

Loading this article took 200+ HTTP requests and used ~2MB of data. The article took about 3 seconds to load on my WiFi, and web page test says it would take about 13 seconds to load on an average mobile network.

I don’t bring up this example to single out CNN, because, as sad as this is to say, this article is now representative of the average web experience. According to the http archive, the average web page surpassed 2MB this May, and is now at 2.08MB. It’s not hard to find a far worse example out there.

Update (2015-07-29): See also this episode of The Talk Show with Jason Snell.

9 Comments

This post by John Welch I found quite interesting too: https://medium.com/@johncwelch/you-re-blaming-the-wrong-people-2878ab149faf

Point splendidly missed by John C. Welch, as is his wont.

His analysis is fairly correct, but the problem is that "if you don't click on our ads we don't survive" and "the only way to make the ad business stop working like this is to make the ads stop working and kick them right in the Cayman Islands, so don't fucking click" have become concurrent truths. And since it does work, it just gets louder and louder and louder. (See: the Shoe Event Horizon.) The only solution to support them without approving of the ads is to give them an alternate revenue stream, and that's why some of us are keen on doing that, not because of whatever John Gruber calls himself in his Twitter bio. But he's probably right that the numbers break down.

So the only way out is for something to change. I would be as happy as he would, presumably, if there was something saner to immediately jump ship to. It looks as though there isn't. It looks as though when the 3D printers start being good, cheap and fast enough in 30 years or so, we're looking at our old friend the piracy debate, only with a sizable bit of the factory-produced stuff in the world in the balance. We'd better do some goddamn thinking about how this shit is gonna work until then.

"Point splendidly missed by John C. Welch, as is his wont."

Generally agree with you on John C. Welch - aka always worth reading, but very often wrong - but not here.

"So the only way out is for something to change. I would be as happy as he would, presumably, if there was something saner to immediately jump ship to. It looks as though there isn't."

Well, isn't that sorta the point, and why he's correct here, no? I mean, this has been going on in one form or another since the mid-90's. Crazy pop-up and under ads were the thing then. (Which is when I started surfing with JavaScript disabled.) And without an economic alternative, we're in Underpants Gnomes territory. Teevee ads have always been designed to be incredibly annoying, with the volume pumped up way over the volume of the show, and that model worked swimmingly until the ad-blocking DVR came along relatively simultaneously with other ways for the well-off to consume video content sans ads. Annoying, but the model sustained for many decades, and still works in an only slightly diminished capacity.

(And FWIW, the Shoe Event Horizon posits that the dynamics allow the shoe industry to do fantastically well out of the dysfunction, with only the entire collapse of planetary society finally putting an end to the thing...)

Well, if the dynamics allow them to do "fantastically well" don't allow entering the pre-emptive destruction of alternative models because of the invalidation of viability of even trying, then gosh darn it, Chucky, I love me some economics. Wait, no, the other one - loathe with every fiber of my being, being a numbers game measuring some things and presuming to provide the answers for everything outside of its purview by mind-numbing repatriation of every alien concern as simply an unclean and undocumented variant of its own Key Performance Indicators.

TV ads didn't get more and more horrible in the same way that web advertisement is more and more horrible. Assuming that John's report from Real Lifeā„¢ is correct, it is beyond certifiably insane that no one has the option (be it either practical or realistic) of building a functioning system where ad networks can give ad hosting sites insight and hold ad purchasers accountable for what sort of shit they push. If TV ads weren't manually approved ads, conforming to a content policy (if flimsy and dubious at times), but instead were whatever random shit could insert the appropriate amount of mad coin at the right time, would you be willing to bet that it wouldn't be more annoying and that it wouldn't have had more trouble sustaining itself?

"Chucky, I love me some economics. Wait, no, the other one - loathe with every fiber of my being"

To paraphrase Lev Davidovich Bronstein: "You may not be interested in economics, but economics is interested in you."

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"If TV ads weren't manually approved ads, conforming to a content policy (if flimsy and dubious at times), but instead were whatever random shit could insert the appropriate amount of mad coin at the right time, would you be willing to bet that it wouldn't be more annoying and that it wouldn't have had more trouble sustaining itself?"

A perfectly fair point, Jesper. Though at least in the US, standards & practices for advertising have been gradually disappearing since the mid-1970's.

And directly to your point, the not always correct but always worth reading Ben Thompson just chimed in on the topic.

His theory is that web advertising is going to move pretty exclusively to closed platforms. So everything will appear on Facebook, or whatever Apple iAd platform evolves, and maybe a few competitors. (Which explains why Gruber has picked up the cause.) To a certain degree, this will mirror the manually approved TV ads you bring up.

While the current situation is obviously not in the same neighborhood as optimal, that "solution" seems far worse to me. The death of the open web as it turns into a few walled platforms would be the end-game logic. As Thompson ends his post:

What is very much in question is exactly how users will feel when they finally get what they claim they wish for.

The idea that you would host crap in your web site that neither you nor the person you're getting it from knows what it is, has tested to make sure it's not malicious or blatant fraud attempts is insane. It may very well be the case that it's still the "best thing going". That doesn't mean that people wouldn't flock to a sane solution, one that quacks more like a traditional ad network in terms of which pixel dimension holes they fill in their clients' web sites, but aren't a horrible gangrenous liability in the kind of shit that might happen by accident.

Maybe it will take for the networks to actually start breaking down their web sites (even more so than simply functionally ruining them) for such a network to take a foothold. I do hold out hope, dumb as it may seem. For example, it took many years of web before Braintree and Stripe came along with payment solutions that were actually approaching sane for people to integrate. People's brains are still turned on and miracles do happen. It's not as if providing a sane(r) ad network to publishers currently between a rock and a hard place wouldn't be a draw.

Every ad in a newspaper is manually approved. These people are trying to run newspaper-like sites. Ad networks should be giving them more solutions, not more problems. If they're not, they should have their lunches eaten by people who will. Welch stops at the notion that The Deck won't work for CNN, but doesn't consider that the crap that's out there can be improved even an iota. I don't mind realistic assessments, I mind it when they are followed by "so we should all pack up, go home and get nice seats for the Adpocalypse".

"Every ad in a newspaper is manually approved."

Jim Romenesko is now partially retired, but he's been running a semi-regular feature of 'manually approved' newspaper gun ads featured next to headlines about US gun massacres.

The ad business is, and has always been messy.

"I don't mind realistic assessments, I mind it when they are followed by "so we should all pack up, go home and get nice seats for the Adpocalypse".

Sure. But let's not lose sight of the big picture. News sites are mightily struggling to finance their news gathering mission in light of the inadequate nature of online advertising. The Deck is fine for a specialized propaganda site like Gruber's, but that doesn't help a wide audience public interest news site.

As stated, the Brave New World is that of "news" appearing on Facebook, or whatever Apple iAd platform evolves, and maybe a few competitors. On a certain level, that's most certainly saner for people to integrate. The question is whether or not that is that is more in the public interest than the current 'dysfunctional' system. Beware what you wish for.

[…] Previously: Safari Content Blocker and Web Advertising. […]

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