What If All Web Ads Were Blocked? Ten Speculative Scenarios

By  |  Wednesday, August 12, 2009 at 2:41 am

The Ad-Blocking ZoneLast week, I blogged about a post over at Windows IT Pro that posited that all browsers would include ad-blocking as a standard feature within five years, and that it would be turned on by default. My post inspired some interesting debate both on this site and off it. I also included a poll: A plurality of the people who took it thought ads should be blocked by default, and a majority said browsers should include ad blocking as a standard feature.

I still don’t see any scenario under which the companies behind today’s widely-used browsers start blocking ads automatically. Google is the biggest company in Web advertising, Microsoft is spending a fortune to take Google on in that field, Apple is a major consumer advertiser, Mozilla and Opera make millions of dollars a year from the searches performed on their browsers’ home pages. They all simply have too much to lose on an ad-free Web.

Of course, something unforeseen could always happen. Maybe all these browsers will lose favor to one or more from one or more companies not so profoundly invested in Web advertising. Let’s engage in a bit of Twilight Zonesque speculation about what might happen if ad-blocking did become the default state of the Web. (At least for most folks–in a world in which some people will still be using IE6 in 2014, we’re not going to get to 100% ad blockage no matter what happens.)

As the proprietor of a Web site that’s mostly supported by advertising, I can’t claim to be a dispassionate bystander here…but I hope that at least some of the scenarios I outline below (not all of which are mutually exclusive) make clear that I’m not trying to prove a particular point.

Scenario #1: Ads would go away. There is, of course, precedent for the idea of browsers instituting automatic ad-blocking: In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the Web was overrun was truly aggravating pop-up and pop-under ads (remember X10?). Then browsers started blocking them by default, and they basically died as a form of advertising. (Every once in awhile, I turn off ad-blocking just for yucks. I see a few pop-ups–Netflix still seems to like ’em– but just a few.) If all browsers instituted blocking of all ads that was as effective as that of the Firefox add-in Adblock Plus, maybe ads would simply disappear. (More on the implications of that in a moment.) However, other scenarios are far more likely, such as…

Scenario #2: Ads would get more annoying. Traditional pop-ups may be largely extinct, but the idea of covering up content with advertising didn’t go away–in fact, advertising companies simply came up with new ways to cover up content (such as the page peel) which appeared right within your primary browsing window, where they’re harder to defeat. The prestitial or roadblock, which occupies the entire page, was also borne of the demise of pop-ups. If Adblock Plus-type blocking proved effective, advertisers might come back at us with new in-your-face formats that couldn’t be blocked, at least at first.

Scenario #3: Ads would get less annoying. The surest strategy for preventing people from blocking ads is to make them useful and/or pleasant. And at the same time that pesky new ad formats appeared on the Web early this decade, Google was in the process of becoming a billion-dollar behemoth based on tiny little text ads that appear next to its search results.Maybe at least some advertisers would react to hardcore ad blocking by turning Web advertising into something that all but the most obsessive anti-advertising absolutists would tolerate, if not actively welcome.

Scenario #4: Ads would work their way into content. The emergence of DVRs that make it a cinch to ignore TV ads without leaving the living room for the kitchen or bathroom helped usher in the icky era of prime-time product placement we now live in. Product placement is presumably the toughest type of advertising to block–if I were to suddenly start rhapsodizing about the Potato Salad P1000 laptop in every other post, you would get immediately suspicious, but your browser probably wouldn’t notice. Product placement already exists on the Web, and already causes controversy. Actually, now that I think about it, this is less of a scenario and more of a reality–but one which would accelerate if traditional ads went away.

Scenario #5: People would choose to turn ad-blocking off. Eighteen percent of the people who took my poll said that they didn’t think browsers should incorporate Web-blocking as a standard feature, because it would destroy the Web as we know it. Maybe those folks would turn it off. Maybe they’d be joined by lots of others, if formerly ad-supported content started to vanish,. Right now, though, this scenario seems almost as implausible as ads being blocked by default in the first place does.

Scenario #6: Professional content dies almost immediately. Let’s say that almost all Web advertising goes away, and consumers don’t want to pay for much of anything. Isn’t the most likely outcome that nearly all content produced by real people doing it full time goes away? With the magazine and newspaper businesses on the ropes, wouldn’t most of the iconic American content brands that didn’t make TV shows or movies simply have to fold, or at least grind themselves down to a form that could be produced by a handful of poorly-paid people, possibly in some other country?

Scenario #7: Volunteers and charity cases would take over journalism. Some of the best blogging being done anywhere isn’t done for money. (Related note: Many of the people who comment on my posts here are at least as smart and articulate as I am, even though they aren’t in it for the money.) People are already wondering whether media titans such as the New York Times and Boston Globe should consider becoming nonprofit institutions. Consumer Reports (whose editorial director, Kevin McKean is my friend and former boss) is a nonprofit institution, and has one of the few large sites that lots of people pay for. If Web advertising went away, maybe most of the big for-pay sites we know would disappear, but the slack would be taken up by folks who weren’t in it to turn a profit, and who could seek donations in NPR-like fashion. Or just do it for the sheer pleasure.

Scenario #8: Professional content would adjust, and flourish. It may be a scary time for people in the (ahem) media business, but it’s really a pretty resilient group of industries. Radio didn’t kill magazines and newspapers; TV didn’t kill radio; cable didn’t kill broadcast TV. If Hollywood can figure out how to pay Sylvester Stallone $20 million to star in a movie I don’t even remember hearing about without going bankrupt, maybe old media can come up with a survival strategy even if its principal source of revenue disappears overnight. For instance, it’s not utterly inconceivable that…

Scenario #9: Paywalls would go up, successfully. If advertisers can’t pay for Web content, most content providers have only one other source of income to go to: the consumers who do the consuming. Right now, there’s plenty of talk about sites charging consumers, but nobody has a good answer to the question which confronts nearly every content site on the planet: “How can your site get people to pay if all of your many worthy competitors continue to be free?” If every site lost all nearly all of its advertising revenue–which is presumably what would happen if nearly all ads were blocked–every site would have a profound incentive to start charging, all at the same time. In other words, they’d get a do-over on the decision they made in the mid-1990s not to charge for Web content.

Scenario #10: Even more ads everywhere else. If almost nobody sees ads on the Web, almost no marketer will advertise on the Web. But they’ll still advertise. The death of Web marketing could mean even more TV commercials, even more billboards, twice as many ads before the movie you paid $10 to see, and more ads in places that previously provided a respite from commercialism. After all, it’s a lot easier to eliminate Web ads than it is to avoid ones plastered alongside the highway, affixed to your shopping cart, or hovering in the sky.

Any thoughts on the likelihood that any of these scenarios would come to pass if ads went away? How about scenarios I missed?



21 Comments For This Post

  1. tom matrullo Says:

    I would advise caution in using unreflected terms like “professional content.” Indeed, the whole notion of “content” is a complex and difficult one. Some “content” exists merely to provide glue to cause people to encounter ads. One could suggest it’s professional, in the way of the world’s oldest prof. There are many other categories.

    It’s useful to look at the scenarios you sketch, since advertising was created at a time before user driven interactivity existed. One must look beyond advertising for revenue. See, e.g.,


  2. Emil Bengtsson Says:

    Possible 11:
    The few papers that do news stories of their own survive the crash, pick up new readers and fill out a large part of the newly emptied space. TT & Reuters survive thanks to Metro and other ‘free’ newspapers.

    I’ve never seen the point of paying for a newspaper where the vast majority of all ‘news’ is from either TT or Reuters.

  3. ediedi Says:

    The remote has existed for quite a while, so that one could change channels during commercials. Web adblocking is the same: some will choose to use it actively, many will not, but web ads will always exist, as will tv ads.

  4. K. Welch Says:

    “With the magazine and newspaper businesses on the ropes, wouldn’t most of the iconic American content brands that didn’t make TV shows or movies simply have to fold, or at least grind themselves down to a form that could be produced by a handful of poorly-paid people, possibly in some other country?”

    Sounds like what’s happened to every other American industry.

  5. Blake Robinson Says:

    Well, I’m not a scientist, but I expect the sun would collapse in upon itself, casting our galaxy into a lightless, lifeless existence.

  6. pond Says:

    I’m surprised this one didn’t occur to you – is it impossible to achieve?

    Scenario #11. Ads become part of the web page; syndication of ads dies. If I can see the Technologizer blog post, and the images attached to it, I must see static ads that are part of that blog post, both text and images. I can’t see any way the browser could block it if this post had text at the end, ‘Buy at The Shack! Today’s Special:…’ and an image of the Radio Shack logo just the way you had one in your ‘The Shack’ posts.

    It might mean more work for sites such as yours, or maybe the whole deal could be automated. It would mean a lot more bandwidth you’d have to pay for, but the ad sellers would then have to pay you for bandwidth as well as eyeballs.

  7. Seumas Says:

    This is clearly a serious issue to all five people on the planet who actually make a solid living merely blogging. And maybe all the news outlets that want to charge $5/mo to let me read the same AP articles that I can read for free in a million other places.

    However, for the rest of the world . . . I would just prefer that people get a real job and stop thinking they’re going to be the next Pulitzer candidate for all of their insightful online commentary and punditry.

    I have a serious beef that I continue to air over the whole idea that everything you ever do online absolutely has to achieve monetary gain. What’s wrong with just having your voice heard? Or what’s wrong with offering a community and service because you enjoy it and not because you have dreams of becoming the next Kevin Rose or Rob Malda and sleeping on a bed of cash you earned from teh internets?

    I have less of an issue for people who use advertising to truly offset heavy costs of operation. In some cases, hardware and bandwidth can be quite expensive for large operations that still remain non-commercial. I can see the benefit of compensating for your $500/mo site bills with a few banners.

    Then again, web services and offerings are often cheaper than people make it out to be. The government may be paying $18,000,000 to redesign recovery.gov and all of these start-ups seeking VC/angel funding have this odd idea that to even start-up the most basic site requires six or seven figures… But I started my site for about 100,000 active members for almost nothing and spent less than an average of $3,000/yr over almost a dozen years to operate it. Quite cheap.

    And the initial digg code was created for less than $900! (Kevin Rose paid some college kid to write some code to spec instead of spending the time to do it himself, in which case it would have been closer to $0 than $900).

    But why do there have to be ads on every square inch of every surface online? Every armchair pundit and every jackhole with a blog or website has to plaster it with advertising. I bet they probably rush to their AdSense accounts three times a day just to watch the pennies roll in, too!

    So how about the value of the content? The average blogger should be PAYING us to read their crap; not even considering making money on their end. And even the “professionals” should reconsider. I’m sorry, but I can’t think of anyone on the entire web that I would pay to read. If for no other reason than the fact that for every jackass trying to rake in the bucks with their content, there are tons who are just as high quality giving it away because they are thrilled merely to have people read what they have to say.

    Worse, most of this “blogging” crap — just like podcasting and IPTV — is nothing but a bunch of clique-ish navel-gazing. Especially in the tech world. It’s the same handful of people with shows having the same handful of people from other shows or sites on each other’s sites or podcasts or video casts giving the same pundit commentary — often about other people in the navel gazing jerk-off circle. I have nothing against these people — but it’s always the same people. Adam Curry, John Dvorak, Natalie DelConte, Veronica Belmont, John Scoble, Leo Laporte, yadda yadda yadda yadda yadda.

    Why am I willing to pay money for a movie or a videogame? Because that is a massive undertaking. Very few people can go out and just make a massive movie or produce a huge videogame. Everyone can talk and write. And even people like myself — with a few bucks and spare time — can develop an entire original software engine for managing an auction site that services many millions of dollars of sales between users… with just my one set of hands.

    I have no sympathy for people whining about not being able to monetize their content. I’ve given away my content and services for more than a decade and am grateful for the chance to do so. If you can somehow get people to pay you to write for a living or offer a web service for a living, then awesome! If the only way you can make any money (and almost certainly not enough to make a living — everyone knows you don’t get rich with web-ads) is by plastering your site and content with advertising… then why even bother? Cut the ads, get a real job, and view the web as an enthusiast outlet where you can let yourself be heard by a loud audience. Stop worrying about milking every penny.

    Speaking of which, advertising makes content ugly. It pockmarks it. If you can become seriously rich from it, then fine. I guess I would do that too. But I’m not cheap. I’m not willing to molest my site and content with eyesores for just a few hundred or thousand dollars a month. I would rather get ZERO dollars and be able to maintain some integrity by not having any ads at all.

    Anyway, what seriously makes “bloggers” so special? There are aspiring authors around the world who toil on the great american novel or some great short-stories or a biography about some person and they’d be grateful just to be read (the salary of the average author is what drove me to stop aspiring to be a writer when I was young). Or musicians or artists. They do what they do because they love it. If they can somehow make money out of it, they’re happy. But they’re not going to throw advertising all over their creation (well, you could say that musicians sometimes do via royalties for use in various third party content, I guess…).

    You can keep worrying about how to monetize your content. I’ll just focus on making great content. If I don’t make a dime from it, I don’t really care. I’m not whoring myself out. I’m doing what I enjoy and whether or not it leads to monetary gain is so far outside of my circle of concerns that it’s not even worth contemplating.

  8. Seumas Says:

    I would also further ask “what is professional content”?

    Do you mean when I go read content on a news site like ABC or CNN or Salon? (Okay, I know nobody actually reads content on Salon because it’s just not worth paying for, but still…)

    Or do you mean every moron that calls themselves a professional? There are a lot of bloggers and writers and podcasters that may call themselves “professionals” simply because in their head they’re doing it “for reals” and looking to make money from it.

    I would suggest that unless you are getting paid by someone to produce content, you are not a professional. You may be an enthusiast with a lot of knowledge and experience, but you are not a professional.

    Anyway, I’m going to go back to not giving a damn. I’m less concerned with “monetizing the web” than I am with the web becoming a total wastebin of crap because absolutely everyone insists absolutely everything must absolutely bring in some sort of revenue.

  9. Mike Cerm Says:

    I’m with Pond on this one. If ads were static images hosted by the sites you were visiting, or if they were served by 1st-party javascript (the kind that I almost always allow using NoScript, while blocking most 3rd-party javascript on sites), the ads would get through without a problem. Of course, you also couldn’t host them out of a single, easily blocked directory, i.e. */ads/*, so many it wouldn’t be THAT easy to get ads through to the audience.

    However, think of this: if more and more ads are blocked, the ones that do get through will be that much more effective and, therefore, that much more expensive.

  10. Harry McCracken Says:

    Tom (and Seumas), I agree that “professional” is a complicated term–unless you want to define it as simply meaning “done by someone who was paid for his or her work,” in which case it’s in no way a verdict on its quality. Some of the best content in the world isn’t “professional,” and much of what is, is junk.

    There are certain virtues to being paid for your work (mostly that it ensures you can devote a large block of time to doing it right without worrying about how to put a roof over your head) but some take advantage of them and others don’t.

    (Side note: Technologizer is “professional,” but some of the writing I’ve enjoyed most, and which got the best response, made me no money–I edited a whole magazine for four years which I never saw or sought a penny from.

  11. Josh Zehtabchi Says:

    Here is another one, what if you news sites like CNN, DailyTech, Slashdot, etc would force users to pay to access the news on their site. Since the ads would supplement the costs of their servers and some overhead, wouldn’t they have to make money somehow with out going out of business?

    It’s an interesting thought though, I don’t see the internet ever being advertisement free… The world and companies just couldn’t afford it.

    It’s like the saying “women, can’t live with them, can’t live without them”


  12. Loren Pechtel Says:

    While the most obnoxious ads are less common they are still out there and large flash-based ads are still common. Most of them aren’t too obnoxious but it’s amazing how much slower the web is away from home when all that stuff isn’t blocked.

    Unfortunately the need for ad blocking is driven by the offensive sites, not by the guys who behave reasonably.

  13. Ferd Says:

    Another possibility:

    Content producers would deny access to users using browsers which disable ads, potentially forcing users to use something else.
    If your browser blocks ads but can’t access content, you’re more likely to stop using it. It’s partially why IE is still used so much in corporations: intranet sites (which can be vital) might break with other browsers.

    This, of course, doesn’t take account of browsers like Opera which can spoof their user agent to appear like they are a different browser.

  14. tom matrullo Says:

    Ferd, I’d be surprised if content producers could ever wield that sort of control. They’re afloat in an infinite sea of incontinent content – more content than any learned librarian of Alexandria or scholastic philosopher could shake a stick at.

    In an infinite system, there is no economic leverage.

  15. Ric Says:

    Pond hit the nail right on the head. I am in final Dev on a social network where we built the ad system from the ground up and it will be incorporated into the site. This not only offers a much more valuable ad product its going to allow us to tailor the system to meet advertisers needs down the road as online advertising changes. We ultimately hope to blaze a new path to a whole range of interactive based marketing. I see the death of the standard CPM-Click through scheme being highly imminent

  16. Ferd Says:

    We’re talking about a scenario where every ad becomes obsolete because browsers block them.

    I wouldn’t be surprised to see desperate measures come from desperate people deprived of their main revenue. After all, it may cost more to serve people that won’t bring you any money than not serving them at all.

  17. tom matrullo Says:

    @ferd, I’m not sure content creators are quite desperate enough. If they were, it might begin to interest them that while they are starving, the folks who built the pipes that deliver their content are making billions every quarter. From pipes – nothing much going on there, just bits a flowin’ thru tubes.

    Why not look at this schizoid situation – megabucks to pipes, none to creatives – as the improperly split halves of one whole – the ecology of net economics, which cannot work unless the base and superstructure, pipes and content, support each other with the same indivisibility which in fact obtains in reality. Fact is, no one would use the pipes if there were nothing to see.

  18. Hoqenishy Says:

    @tom matrullo –
    Wrong. Don’t know how long YOU’VE been on the web, but I can remember when there wasn’t such a thing as banner ads or popups or spam. That’s right – it was full of people who were interested in research or connecting with other niche groups, and didn’t expect to make huge (or any) return. If 95% of all bloggers and websites dependent on advertising dried up tomorrow, you know what that would be? A good start. The web has become a narcissistic cesspool, filled with self-described “professional bloggers” and pundits who believe that people actually care enough about their opinions alone to put up with ads.

    If web content was really all that valuable, then everyone could throw up a pay wall TODAY and not go under… only we know that’s not the case. Singular web content is not all that valuable – it’s the massive indexing, archival, and interconnectedness that makes it valuable, and that’s not delivered enough by any single entity enough to warrant paying for it.

  19. tom matrullo Says:


    I must not have been clear. The research and interrelationships you describe are content. My approach would lessen the need for ads by moving revenue that now goes solely to pipes to support content. If you wish to continue to build content of value and to have others do so, while the guys who own the pipes make all the revenue users can spend without sharing it, this is your choice. I’m trying to suggest there are other non-business models that might be worth looking at. I’ve done a poor job of discussing this here:


    and here, among other places:


  20. Nobu Says:

    with everyone talking about rights, adverts that use tricky code to put information you didn’t ask for onto your hard drive is what’s wrong. It doesn’t matter if it’s a simple cache file or temp images. All undesired content should have the capability to be blocked. Blacklisting ips, turning on add-ons in ff like ad block and flashkiller, disabling dynamic html scripts, and other protection methods are still too much work for basic computer users. Once the annoyance factor gets to critical, most will seek out these basic methods. But a lot of the nets pull in advertising is easy enough to block from your browser or your brain. All anyone ever asks is for ads that don’t suck, don’t eat space and memory and time, and make us laugh and forget what they were selling. Impossible tasks of the consumerist world.

  21. jarod Says:

    the problem with online advertising is users just dont want to see it, the most annoying intrusive advertising is created out of america, too many advertisers are in it ro make an easy $ and go to the extremes to earn revenue with this miserable advertising, the internet started ad free website never shut down because they didnt advertise so i do not believe for 1 minute if website did not advertise they would shut down, they will find other ways to make easy $ so this cannot be used as an excuse and thats all it is ..an excuse.. basically because these advertisers would need to real employment instead of infesting a website with pay per click advertising. bottom line is people do hate advertising and they also hate advertisers, that is a common fact no matter what thew argument, ad blockers know that an ad free internet is the only way to browse online. I block all forms of online advertising and i have not come across any ad i cannot block. im now starting to block entire websites that persist with over the top advertising and to tell the truth i do not care if they go broke or shut down, their bad luck. It is Americans that have caused this problem through greed and the thought they can make an easy dollar from it without ever having to do an honest days work and in many cases they infect poeople computers or track what thery do online. millions of users are blocking your ads because they are sick of seeing them infest every website there is not a god damn thing these advertisers can do about it and now they are losing revenue they are starting to cry about it, well thats too bad get used to it because ad blockers are here to stay and id advise any1 online to block all forms of advertising. its your right to view what you want.

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