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How to Fund a Free Web

April 14, 2015

Excessive use of obtrusive online ad formats and privacy concerns are driving users to opt out of advertising by installing privacy tools and ad blockers. If we stay on the path we're on the free internet as we know it would cease to exist. We have an idea about what to do.

Who Likes Ads?

Right, almost no one. But they provide the lifeline of the web. Without ads the web would not exist the way we know it. Most websites rely on ads to keep the lights on and pay their employees, from big publishers like Huffington Post and TechCrunch, all the way to your friend's mama's blog.

Ads keep the web free. But they're not without problems. Often they are too obtrusive, annoying, and abuse our attention. And then there are privacy issues, too. Since nothing is really free, publishers are not just selling ad spaces, they also sell user data. This means there are tens, if not hundreds, of companies we don't know, which their entire business is collecting data about us and reselling it to the highest bidder.

The result?

The citizens of the web are revolting

In the last few years we've watched, with growing concerns, how ad blockers are taking over the world. Those tools disconnect users from ads, and deprive publishers from the revenue they need to run their businesses. Ad blockers, privacy tools, and other types of similar software tools are being used by hundreds of millions of people. And it's growing at over 60% a year. Just look at this Google Trends chart for the term "ad block":

But it's not like you can blame users. What other option does someone have, if one is concerned about privacy or had enough with the obnoxiously obtrusive ads? Part of the problem is that all the tools are binary - you can either be all-in, or all-out.

  • Ad blockers block all ads, on all sites (by default). They don't block just pop-ups, for example.
  • Privacy tools, like Ghostery, will block all trackers, de-facto blocking all ads.

So it's very hard for someone who cares about keeping the web free, to use tools that provide both a pleasant experience, a sense of privacy, while letting ads sponsor the websites one frequent. And so adoption of those tools grows, and in some demographics almost 40% of users are not participating in the process that funds the websites they visit.

Interestingly, according to a 2014 survey by PageFair over 50% of those who use Ad Blockers don't necessarily hate ads altogether. Most Ad Block users actually state that they use it since they see too many ads, that the ads are too obtrusive, and because they are concerned about their privacy. We'll get back to that later on.

What has been tried so far

The online (ad) ecosystem is well aware of this problem, and has been trying to find a solution for some time now.

Industry Efforts

Understanding that better privacy controls could help, the industry started moving in that direction, encouraged by impending regulation on the subject by the FTC.

In 2009, the ad industry launched the Online Behavioral Advertising (Ad Choices) program, meant to "help protect consumers' privacy rights and expectations in ad-supported online media". The plan was to let users opt-in and out of online tracking as it relates to advertising. Even though most of the companies in the space participated, the interaction of users with the program was virtually non-existent: just 0.02% of users participated.

Around the same time, The "Do Not Track" (DNT) header was introduced to the HTTP protocol. Originally, the plan was for users to activate that in their browser, and then online ad companies would know they shouldn't track them. Unfortunately, this didn't work as planned. Not everyone in the ad industry could agree on how to treat users who activate the DNT header, and then Microsoft decided to activate it by default in IE9. That, in turn, made the ad industry push back on accepting DNT as a standard, claiming stuff like "it can't be said that users actively opted to use the feature".

Publishers' Efforts

Publishers have tried solving this on their court, mostly individually. OKCupid for example, used the blocked-out ad space to very nicely ask ad-blocking users to consider paying the site or removing the ad-blocker.

Exactly how effective this was we can't tell, but most signs point to very a low conversion rate (and hardcore ad blocking users even found a way to block these requests). Other sites who have tried similar approaches have seen similar discouraging results. While some users will whitelist some sites, most will not, and so the negative impact on the web remains the same.

Publishers also tried offering paywalls or premium paid programs, which are ad-free, but most users will agree to pay only for truly exceptional content, and success has been limited to a small group of sites.

The arms race continues

When all of that didn't work, and the ad-blocking problem continued to grow, new technologies were built to fight them. Companies like ClarityRay (acquired by Yahoo) and Secret Media, provide publishers tools that will pierce through ad blockers, and find a way to serve an ad nonetheless.

The result? Ad-blocking tools were quick to find a way to overcome those new technologies, and new tools, such as "Hide My Ad Blocker" are gaining traction in the different app stores.

Re-imagining how the free web is funded

Could there be another solution? Maybe the answer is not to fight the users, who are voting in their millions, on what their preferences are?

What if instead of treating users as a product, we will treat them as equals? Instead of selling their profiles, we will allow them to participate in the transaction that is done on their behalf every time an ad is displayed online?

What if we could solve the problem of the most annoying ads, protect our privacy, and use the billions advertisers are paying to reach us for a good cause?

We believe that the right technology could allow users to dictate the terms of online engagement. And we're building Stands to power that evolution. It's an opportunity to build a sustainable free web, and it puts the user in the center. We're focused on 3 main principles:

  • Users dictate the web experience. We started by prioritizing the loading of content before ads, and removing popups, takeovers, and the most problematic ad formats. We plan to give users complete control over what ads they allow.
  • Privacy is a basic right. We eliminate 3rd party ad tracking and no user data is sent to our servers. We're building technology that will allow targeted ads - without exposing the user.
  • Users are included in the transaction. On Stands, part of every dollar an advertiser pays is directed at a charity, causes, or movement the user choose to support.

What's your take? Drop us a line at info@standsapp.org