Steve Lambert’s Web Fight: Blocking Ads and Adding Art

The NY Times Business section for 13 May 2007 reports on the work of open-source artist and programmer Steve Lambert, Web Fight: Blocking Ads and Adding Art. It says in part

Steve Lambert, a conceptual artist, plans to add his own twist to one type of software that blots out commercial messages. His add-on will replace the display ads — which are usually papered over with blank windows — with curator-picked artwork from contemporary artists.

Mr. Lambert, 30, said he and Evan Harper, an artist, are not starting from scratch, but rather were modifying the program Adblock Plus. “Why reinvent the wheel when you can insert a gear and make it run backwards?” said Mr. Lambert.

Far from taking umbrage, the developer of Adblock Plus, Wladimir Palant, who lives in Norway, wrote in an e-mail response to questions, “Replacing annoying and obtrusive ads with some eye candy, turning them into their exact opposite, is a consequent continuation of what Adblock started — making the Web endurable and enjoyable.”

As open-sourcers, Mr. Lambert and Mr. Palant give away software and encourage others to tinker with it, which they believe improves the Internet by putting users’ interests over commercial ones. They have renounced their intellectual property rights to join a community where, in a sense, when everyone kicks off their shoes, stepping on someone’s toes is not an issue.

The article laters details the travails of a web advertising firm:

“There ultimately has to be a balance established where consumers recognize that if they don’t take the ads, there won’t be free content,” said Dave Morgan, founder of Tacoda, a Web advertising firm. In fact, EnvironmentalChemistry.com, a news and educational site, in 2004 began blocking anyone with ad-blocking software.

Kenneth Barbalace, its owner, said that heavy traffic on the site kept exceeding his available bandwidth, costing him up to $300 more monthly. Meanwhile, 10 percent of users were blocking ads, so he bid them adieu to reduce his traffic — and expense.

“A user who comes to my site and is blocking the ads is essentially denying me the ability to pay for the content that they are getting to access for free,” said Mr. Barbalace, who lives in Portland, Me. He said he found himself in “a little arms race” with software developers: they would rewrite the program to access his site, and he would in turn rejigger it to block them.

Finally, in 2006, Mr. Barbalace called a truce. Bandwidth is much cheaper now, and his ad revenue is way up. Plus, all the extra code he wrote for the site to keep ad blockers out made the pages load slowly. “I saw the 5 or 10 percent of people using ad blockers as an annoyance, as a philosophical problem, but not as a business problem,” Mr. Barbalace said.

What a refreshing thought –a businessman adjusts to changing technology by revising his business model. The idea of “calling a truce” is even more refreshing. Would that other businesses uncertain how to deal with open-source would take the same approach.

The article ends with these final words from Mr. Lambert:

“I don’t make money from this, so if it bothers some people, that’s O.K. Art should bother some people.”

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One Comment

  1. Posted May 16, 2007 at 13:12 | Permalink | Reply

    Although the article in question quoted the gist of what I said pretty well, there were some minor errors. First I actually started blocking ads at the end of 2003, not in 2004. Also the reason I did this was my server load and bandwidth needs were about to push me to a dedicated server solution, which would have tripled my costs increasing them to around $300 a month. Blocking those who blocked my ads allowed me to avoid moving to a dedicated server.

    One part of the article that I felt was a little misleading was the numbers of users that have ad-blocking software installed because these numbers did not differentiate between “software” that blocks behaviors like popups and flash objects and that software that specifically targets ads. I personally do not think popup blockers and the Firefox Extension Flashblock should be considered ad-blocking programs because they target behaviors that have been known to cause problems for users (e.g. Flash objects have frequently crashed my browser) regardless of whether the blocked behaviors are ads or actual content.

    Last year I disabled my ad-blocking countermeasures as an experiment to see how it affected revenues and traffic. The reason I was willing to revisit my ad-blocking policy was because my ad revenues had significantly improved as more advertisers moved from traditional media to the Internet and there were more advertisers for my niche. This wasn’t so much a truce with those who blocked ads, but an effort to provide better service to the majority of my users who do not block ads.

    As part of this change I also dumped about half of my least productive ads to reduce noise and speed up the loading of my website. Ironically what I found is that by reducing the number of ads on my site and reducing its load time for individual pages I was able to increase ad revenues as my best performing ads had less competition for attention and users tended to stick around my site longer.

    I do monitor the ad-blocking situation and if I find it necessary in the future, I can quite easily turn my ad-blocking countermeasures back on. I’d really prefer to leave the countermeasures turned off, but I must be able to make a living. If I see ad-blocking become a serious concern again in the future I will take actions.

    Users should make no mistake about it. Generating high quality contest costs a great deal of money and requires a great amount of effort. These are expenses that website publishers like myself MUST be compensated for. Either users can allow publishers like myself to earn compensation for our efforts via the display of advertising or users will have to pay to access said content.

    Short of this, high quality independent content sites like mine will disappear and the only thing left will be amateur hobby sites, e-commerce sites and sites run by big media companies. This is not to say that websites don’t need to exercise more restraint with their advertising. As my experience has shown, sometimes less ads equals more ad-revenue and greater reader loyalty.

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