By Harry McCracken | Thursday, June 10, 2010 at 2:26 pm
Back in August, I blogged about an article that predicted that all Web browsers would eventually block all ads by default. I ended with a poll in which a plurality of respondents said that sounded like a swell idea.
Ten months later, no browser has introduced sweeping ad-blocking. But on Monday, Apple introduced Safari 5, a new version of its browser with a feature called Reader. It’s not an ad blocker per se, but it does remove ads as part of what it does. And it’s the first significant development in built-in ad, um, discouragers since pop-up blockers became standard equipment years ago.
Like Readability and Instapaper, it examines a Web page with an article on it, strips out navigational elements, Flash modules, and other items other than the story itself, then displays the text and images in a streamlined view that looks a bit like a word-processing document. When an article is broken into multiple pages, it’s also smart enough to stitch all the pages together without making you click on anything.
Here’s what a recent Technologizer story looks like in Reader view:
Judging from the popularity of Instapaper, I expect Reader view to be a hit with Safari users. Safari’s share of the browser market isn’t gigantic–it’s the dominant browser on Macs, of course, but an also-ran on Windows. But popular features nearly always migrate from one browser to others, so it seems like a good bet that Reader-like features will wind up in some or all of the other major browsers.
Apple’s own explanation of Reader says it “removes annoying ads,” but like I say, the feature doesn’t quite count as an ad blocker. You can only switch to Reader view by pressing the “Reader” button after a Web page has been fully loaded, so you’ll see some ads. You won’t, however, be exposed to any that you would have had to scroll down to see, or which were on subsequent pages of multi-page stories. If Reader and Reader-like features came to be the primary way that people consumed Web content, it’s clear that online advertising as we know it would be doomed.
That has some people who create ad-supported Web content spooked. Here’s one who calls Reader a weapon of mass destruction and recommends that online ad kingpin Google sue Apple over it. And here’s Ars Technica’s Ken Fisher pointing out that the chances that anyone will be able to block Apple’s new iAd platform for iPhone and iPad apps are pretty much zilch.
Technologizer–in case you hadn’t noticed–is an ad-supported business: We give away all our content because you guys are a cool bunch of folks who advertisers want to reach. But I persist in my contrarian view that ad blocking doesn’t present an existential threat for sites like this one.
For one thing, it’s okay if some Technologizer readers use Reader or similar tools and therefore don’t see every ad. Under our current business model, we need lots of people to see the ads, but we don’t need every single person to see every single ad. (For decades, TV advertising has worked pretty well even though a meaningful percentage of couch potatoes use commercial breaks as an opportunity to go to the kitchen or bathroom.)
For another, any site whose ads amount to nothing more than an annoyance which most intelligent people want to avoid is doomed whether or not Reader exists. The most effective form of ad blocking will always be simply not going to a site whose ads annoy you in the first place; the most potent tool that publishers have to defeat ad blocking will always be using advertising in a manner that readers find useful…or at least not nightmarishly aggravating.
(I’ve written before of Technologizer’s ad practices, which mostly consist of doing things that I find okay on other sites, and not doing things that drive me bonkers–for instance, we don’t embed text ads in stories, and while we do break long articles into multiple pages, we chop ‘em up far less than most sites.)
My instinct is Pollyannish here: I think that Reader is potentially a positive development for both consumers and creators of Web content. Consumers get a new way to read stuff, and creators are forced to integrate ads into their sites in a manner that the majority of their readers can live with. Which is what we publishers should be doing anyhow.
The example of pop-up blockers is instructive. When they became default browser features, it presumably freaked out some content sites. But pop-ups deserved to die–it’s the people who blocked them, rather than the ones responsible for them, that helped the Web mature as a publishing medium. I’ll be intrigued to see what impact Reader has, but it doesn’t scare me.
If I have any reservations about it, they don’t involve being terrified that people won’t read ads: I worry that people will be less likely to dive into the conversations going on in Technologizer’s comments, since Reader view doesn’t grab the comments or link to them. But making the comments worth reading is my problem, not one for Web browser makers or Web browser users.