Online Advertising

One of my very favorite web sites is Techdirt. Earlier this year they started running ads that would pop up and play obnoxious audio and video and freeze my browser so I couldn’t shut them off before they finished “loading”. I complained several times (as a guest poster there, I have special channels I can use to complain) and got the following responses: 1. It’s not supposed to do that, huh, wonder why that’s happening, addendum: we’re working on it, and 2. Get an ad-blocker. What I usually did was 3. Shut the browser as soon as I could and then complain again.

A few days ago I did finally install an ad-blocker (to which I immediately made the requested $5 donation, with gratitude). But I do wonder why those who want to make money through online advertising are practically poking their viewers’ eyes out with pop-up video and flickering GIFs, and assaulting their ears with pop-up audio. If I didn’t already love Techdirt so much, I never would have visited it again, once those godawful ads showed up. Countless other web sites have lost my attention forever because their noisy obnoxious impossible-to-shut-up ads amount to audience abuse.

I can tolerate still ads in moderation, but I won’t miss them, either.

33 comments to Online Advertising

  • Nina,

    This is not accurate and not fair.

    1. The ads do NOT autoplay any audio. They do require certain actions before any such thing happens: specifically you need to hold your mouse over an ad, at which point the ad clearly states that it is going to expand if you don’t move your mouse within a clearly stated period of time.

    2. You unfairly make it sound like we were dismissive of your concerns. While you were one of only a very small number of people who complained, based on your complaint, we have worked with our ad partner to revamp the system and make things clearer for users and to avoid circumstances where it might have appeared as if the ad opened without you doing anything. That is currently in testing and will be rolled out shortly. We told you this.

    3. At no point did we tell you to get an ad-blocker — again, acting as if we were dismissive. While we have no problem with you using an ad-blocker, you make it sound as if we did not care about your concerns. That’s false.

    I recognize that you found the ads annoying, and we immediately went to work improving things. I have no problem with you making statements about disagreeing with us or our strategies publicly. You are of course free to do so. But I’d prefer that you not misrepresent what we’ve said. As someone whose own work and statements are unfortunately frequently misrepresented, I find it a little odd that you would then turn around and do it to us.

    Either way: we apologize that the ads annoy you. We never said we needed such ads to make money. We never said that you should just get an ad blocker. We never were dismissive of your complaints, and in fact have worked hard to make the ads work better, which is exactly what will be happening.

    I just wish you chose not to misrepresent us here.

    • Nina

      Hi Mike,

      I’m really sorry – you’re the last person I want to offend. I didn’t mean to imply that you told me to get an adblocker – that was the majority opinion of others in the discussion.

      I really don’t want to misrepresent you, and I’m glad you clarified here. That said, I was not dishonest. Often communications mean different things to different parties. When I complained about the ads, I did in fact hear (“read”) that this wasn’t supposed to be happening, and what system was I using again, and that it was puzzling – “It’s not supposed to do that, huh, wonder why that’s happening.” I also read that it was being worked on, and I could have included that – my apologies. On the viewers’ side, there is no actual evidence of any improvement yet, and the problem ads persist.

      • Nina,

        Not offended. Just felt that it was important that the full story be told.

        To clarify further, there is a chat room where a bunch of folks (mainly contributors, but not employees of Techdirt) congregate, and some of them recommended an ad blocker. But the buck stops with me, and I wanted to make clear that in no way would I ever have said “go get an adblocker” and meant to be dismissive of your concerns.

        I was genuinely surprised that the ads acted the way you described because, in fact, they are NOT meant to do that. I asked you questions so that we could understand WHY they acted that way for you and to fix it so it didn’t act that way for you any more. Perhaps I’m misreading the way you presented it, but it feels like you implied my asking that was somehow dismissive of your concerns. It was not, at all. It was the opposite. Since the ads are not designed to act as you suggested at all, I wanted to understand why they did so we could stop it from happening again.

        And, yes, the ads still act the same as before, because as noted, we’re testing the new platform. But, again, for most people they do not act the way they apparently acted for you — but we take any complaints seriously and are working hard to change the way the ads function to make sure that they don’t act this way for you or for anyone else.

        • Nina

          Hi Mike,

          It must be annoying to read a misrepresentation of your experience on this blog. I tried to report my own experience honestly, but just from your first reaction I can sense you put more work into solving the problem than I perceived, and you want that to be recognized.

          I don’t want to misrepresent you, but I do want to publicly complain about the ads. I am reassured that you wrote, “I have no problem with you making statements about disagreeing with us or our strategies publicly.”

          As always, I really appreciate the great work you do, and recommend Techdirt widely.

        • Randy Wieck

          Just thought I’d add my two cents worth, because I had the same problem. I use NoScript, but it took me a while to find what to block (I’m still not sure.)

    • Drizzt

      While you were one of only a very small number of people who complained […]

      That is almost disingenuous. You can probably assume that most of your readers are at least somewhat technically adept, meaning most of them will have an adblock system running already (this is based on my experience, which kind of people already have adblockers and which need a tip first). I mean you’re the one constantly emphasizing how important it is to meet the expectations of your visitors/customers/etc. (not disagreeing with that sentiment) and then you go and attack Nina on these grounds? Really? Not what I would’ve expected.

      Obviously I can’t comment on your internal communication and what happened there, so the above specifically focuses on the quoted part.

      • Drizzt

        I should probably clarify, that I meant, most of your readers might not have noticed any ads (including myself), because they’re tech savvy and have an adblocker running. So the number of people complaining is just so low because of that.

        Sorry, forgot that part.

        • Hi Drizzt,

          That’s potentially true, but the numbers don’t seem to hold that. We do track these things, and somewhere around 5% of our readers use some form of ad-blocker (i.e., the ads do not load for about 5% of our readership).

          And, we are very sensitive to any complaints because, as you noted, we want to provide the very best experience possible. I wasn’t trying to minimize Nina’s concerns by saying only a few people had complained. I was trying to point out that a single complaint is enough to make us concerned and to work to overcome any issues that the ads may present. In a similar vein I didn’t mention the flip side (people who actually have complimented us on the new ads). While that’s happened it’s not relevant if people are finding problems with them as well.

          And, as stated, we’re close to improving the ad situation. I don’t expect Nina to turn off her ad blocker (or you either). I just wanted to make sure people knew that we were not dismissive of any concerns with the ads.

          • Drizzt

            Hm, depending on your setup you might just track people with scripting enabled but still blocking ads…

            Apart from that: I would probably never complain to a site operator if I’m forced to see ads (in my case: I can’t block them), I’d just never visit them again and drop the feed from my list. E.g. there is a certain news site, which started serving ads through its feed which where basically unblockable, so dropped them from my feeds and so far haven’t visited it again. No point in writing them because I’d almost certainly would get back some PR mumbo-jumbo and if not I’d hear “but you’re just one person complaining”.

            Though, I can’t really say, whether that’s true for you…

    • Nina

      I forgot to mention – the ads definitely play audio. No misrepresentation there. Our definitions of – and more likely experiences of – “autoplay” seem to differ.

  • suede

    As someone who works on the Tech side of Online Advertising, I feel your pain. Most websites dont directly interact with the advertiser for returning visitors and instead use ad-networks to fill the inventory. These are filled by run-of-network junk ads that are basically loud and obnoxious and dying to get you to click on them.

    AdBlockPlus plugin for firefox (and its equivalent for chrome) are your best recourse. The plugin blocks all the most common networks and you can teach it to block even more content by adding rules. There is a sub-plugin for ABP called “element hiding helper for adblockplus” which makes it even more easier to declunk websites.

  • Nick Coghlan

    I had whitelisted TD’s ads for a while, but a recent misbehaving ad prompted me to block them again.

  • Joe

    Unless you’re using quite an old version of Internet Explorer, you don’t have to get a separate ad-blocker. Nowadays, Firefox, Chrome and even IE come with a built-in pop-up blocker, usually under Tools -> Options or Tools -> Internet Options.

  • Drizzt

    I like to get the old days back when everybody was off the internet. You didn’t have to use AdBlock Plus* (don’t forget the Element Hiding Helper!) and NoScript! to get just the content of a website and not be assaulted by ads I’ll never click on anyway. And what I really don’t get: the people running the big websites call you all names under the sun for daring to use an ad-blocker and that you make the go bankrupt, when it was them who overdid the advertisements. I mean, when the first banner ads appeared, it was on banner on a side, it was small and didn’t slow the loading of a page (even on a dial-in connection) too much. Nowadays you need to search for the content beneath and underneath the whole ad crap. When this started and the first Flash ads appeared I decided to block them all. No exceptions.


    * I can recommend Dr. Evil’s filter list (it’s made by a German, but it worked for me on almost all sites so far) and if you like to hide the social media button (and tracking) stuff too, I recommend the SMB list by MonztA.

    • -

      I find it extremely sad that nowadays internet is hardly usable w/out heavy anti-advert tools. I totally share Drizzt’s sentiment, things are very bad nowadays. Blocking breaks sites and even if they work, layout is often totally messed up. With blocking off, adverts are flying all over the screen and shouting at users. It’s totally distracting and I can’t stand it.

      Built in blocking? Bad joke.

      • Drizzt

        The real evil there is, that you might be ok with the fact, that whoever runs the site can track your visit to some extent. But you can’t opt out of having the whole info sent to countless ad networks too, unless you block them in some way (even if some kind of Do-Not-Track headers was mandatory by law, I’d never trust a private company (or the government for that matter), to abide by it). So while blocking traffic to the big ad networks on OSI layer three might be feasible, there is no sane way to keep the list up-to-date for the smaller ones, and you’re really left with AdBlock Plus+Element Hiding Helper and NoScript! and hoping, that no data, including tracking cookies/images, are left over.

  • I for one find it completely retarded that YouTube “disables embedding by request”. Hobbling the viral nature of YouTube videos makes them less effectively shareable, and I find myself never wanting to click through embed disabled videos to “watch on YouTube” because they’ve willfully blocked me from watching it on the page I’m currently on. I don’t *want* to leave the page I’m on, thanks.

    Why don’t people realize that it’s to everyone’s benefit to embed? The content gets to spread. YouTube gets to put something in front of my face while I’m on SOME OTHER SITE. It’s like someone getting the chance to put up a billboard in front of my TV screen – what ad revenue hungry fool wouldn’t want that??

  • Nina – I am TOTALLY on your side here. My MAIN problem was that the ads popped up when I neither “clicked” nor “rolled-over” the labeled areas. They simply BLASTED UP on Site Display, while my cursor never left the command bar.
    This happened with 2 sites I visit : I complained politely once, they apologized, two days later it was fixed. Good, honest people – they never blamed anyone else, they never told ME to change something about my path, they apparently didn’t know that their advertiser had set it up.
    Second site :, First they ignored me. So I chose a couple advertisers and wrote them directly – said they were #$^*&%! RUDE & I would NEVER buy anything from them, and copied GoComics with my e-mail.
    GoComics blocked my LogOn.
    Yea, GoComics!
    I don’t know what the final solution is – personally, I will drop the site from my visit list before I EVER purchase/use a product to block #$^*&%! RUDENESS. I don’t fly any more since the Nazi TSA took over airports, but many people disagree with me on that subject also.
    Sigh 🙂

    Have fun out there, y’all 🙂

    Regarding Mike Masnick’s response to you : “Either way: we apologize that the ads annoy you. We never said we needed such ads to make money. We never said that you should just get an ad blocker. We never were dismissive of your complaints, and in fact have worked hard to make the ads work better, which is exactly what will be happening.”
    +++ Mike, WHY would you put up ANNOYING ads in the first place? Do you NEED to be told not to be annoying? Sorry, that makes your “innocence” & “worked hard” claims weak.

    P.S.: Anybody know how to get my own pic up on my post here instead of a stock icon?

    • Claude,

      In response to “WHY would you put up ANNOYING ads in the first place? Do you NEED to be told not to be annoying? Sorry, that makes your “innocence” & “worked hard” claims weak.”

      The ads are NOT supposed to be annoying. That’s why we’re so concerned that they acted in a way that makes them seem annoying. We partnered with our ad partner because their entire mission is around making sure ads are not annoying. The problem was that the ads were not functioning as they were supposed to, which made them annoying. And we’re working hard to fix that.

      • OK Mike, I’ll give you points for trying.

        BUT you said “The problem was that the ads were not functioning as they were supposed to, which made them annoying.”
        +++ Not buying this one. I have been a programmer since 1959 and can say from knowing how computers work that ANY programming ALWAYS works EXACTLY the way it was programmed. All my programming always did. I HAVE made programming mistakes, where the program didn’t do what I or the customer wanted it to do, but I NEVER blamed the customer or told them to change operating systems or add utilities to compensate for my mistake, or claimed that OTHER customers LIKED it that way.
        I just fixed it – told them WHEN it would be fixed and fixed it when I said I would. Professional pride. Hint to all : If a vendor ever tells you “The program can’t do that.” or “You need to change your O.S. or ISP or Firewall or Whatever to make our software work.” … Well, ya’ need another vendor.

        Have fun out there, y’all 🙂

        • -

          Maybe Mike watches his site via an ad blocker?

          I do so with my blog and I didn’t even know it had ads until I saw clicks on links that I didn’t enter.

  • This cartoon is very descriptive of what is inappropriate with commercial advertising. They believe that they have a right to commit a tort (poke in the eye) in order to make a sale.

    Think about it, why should you have to buy a “poke blocker” to protect yourself? You shouldn’t companies need to learn self-restraint.

    Just last night, I registered a product. The card basically said that they would be distributing my contact information so that I could receive “valuable” information. If I wanted to opt-out, that I would have to spend additional effort to make a phone call. Clearly they could have had a simple check box on the form to opt-out.

    My point, companies need to learn self-restraint, they do NOT have a right to commit a tort in-order to sell products and services.

  • It’s great to hear that Techdirt is both responsive to visitor concern re: onsite advertising, and working to correct the problem. Yay Mike.

    I much prefer (non-invasive) advertising to paywalls.

    So, I consider Techdirt’s actions to fall into my idea of best practices, and would like to mention that it is certainly *not* the norm.

  • Justin P

    From reading this I can tell I’ll never be going to that site. If the sites business model is to get revenue from visitors clicking on ads, them using ads that need to be blocked kind of defeats the purpose doesn’t it? Once an ad campaign starts losing you customers and potential customers, that ad campaign should be scrapped immediately.

    Mike’s initial response to Nina is a case study on what not to do when a customer complains. First few sentences and he uses caps…knowing full well that’s yelling on the internet. Alright of the bat he is yelling. Perceptions matter. First impressions matter. I made up my mind not to go to that site from the first paragraph his response. His very first sentence always should start with an apology, not yelling at a customer.

    I just finished reading a twitter feed of a business that was trashing its customers for being “stupid” then complaining why business is slow…so reading this thread got my blood going.

    • Nina

      That’s too bad, because Techdirt is one of the best sites out there. The invasive ad thing is a real anomaly, which is why I brought attention to it.

  • Adverts remove value from a site in exchange for revenue that is a tiny fraction of the loss in value caused by the ads. But, if you need cash more than the value it removes from your product then it’s difficult to resist the ‘eyeball monetisation opportunity’.

    The invasive and value-removing advertising we must tolerate today is the result of a communications failure – a failure to enable customers to communicate their needs to vendors (so vendors have to compensate by carpet-bombing their communications of products/services available). See for details of a project that aims to remedy this.

    Ideally TechDirt should ditch its advertising and sell its writing to its true customers, i.e. its readers. Unfortunately, the technology isn’t really here yet (I started something with but I’ve not finished it yet). Flattr is not really the right model, but it’s an interesting venture. Paywalls are counter-productive, so there’s no hope for them either.

    We’ll get there.

    • Nina

      Mike wrote above, “We never said we needed such ads to make money,” which is true. I’m pretty sure Mike monetizes Techdirt in other ways. Others insist ads are necessary to make money, hence Eunice’s justification in the comic. The comic is about annoying online ads in general, the text in the blog post is about my problems with ads on Techdirt, which provoked me to do the strip about online advertising.

      I’m guessing that the popularity and high profile of Techdirt allow Mike to command higher fees for consulting and speaking, and get his pick of more gigs; there’s also his “CwF+RtB” experiment, through which he has sold merch and services. I’d be interested to see how TD’s various revenue streams compare with each other.

      I’ve been able to monetize Sita Sings the Blues without any advertising, although there are no restrictions on others adding ads to their distributions. Also, I can’t know how much additional revenue I might have gotten had I pursued an advertising model. The reason I keep ads off my own distributions is because I want as many people to see it as possible, and ads are a turn-off. I want and like fans, and poking their eyes out would alienate them. They’d know it was me poking their eyes out, too, which would make them less inclined to support me.

      • If the ads aren’t necessary then perhaps Techdirt could make them optional (like its toolbar)? Then those readers who find ads improve their experience can enable them, and those who find they’re irritating can disable them.

        Don’t sell your readers. Sell your writing.

    • Justin P

      It’s not so much the ads. Like I said if you have pop up ads that get blocked…there really isn’t a point to the pop ups. I usually support the blogs I read by clicking on ads and buying if I can. For example, I wanted to read a book by one of the bloggers at but instead of just going to amazon through my Xoom, I made sure to go to the blog and click the link to his book from there, so he gets money from the ads. I know it’s not much but I enjoy the blog and don’t mind it.

      My problem is the “customer service” skills. I find them completely counter intuitive. Maybe it’s cool like that for Nina and Mike, since they seem to know each other, but as a bystander watching in…it’s just horrible.

  • Matthew

    Just get Opera. You won’t even need to get extensions like ad-block or anything.

    But concerning ads, I too don’t understand why people who want to add advertisement don’t to it withing their own pages in a manner that doesn’t involve a 3rd party breaking their site in chunks.
    For example look at how ars does it, the NYT, or the register.

  • The funniest part is that there’s actually a plugin required in order to see/hear many (most? all?) of these ads–and that I don’t have it means that the adspace is just filled with a message telling me that I’m missing a plugin and that I should go get it if I want to see the ad.

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