Skip to main content

Never Paint Your House With a Flamethrower

Blocking Firefox is a Bad Idea

A friend of mine forwarded me a link to (no, I won't link to them, because I won't feed this particular bit of link bait.) He asked: what are these people smoking?

My initial response probably makes him wonder what I've been smoking!

AdBlock Plus Is Not The Problem

In a nutshell, at least one webmaster has (and perhaps others have) decided to try to block site visitors who are using Firefox, because of the existence of a popular extension called AdBlock Plus, which has the ability to allow one to visit web sites and never see any ads.

I've been reading up on the issue, and it seems that Firefox-blocking webmasters' position is may be summarized as:

  • Firefox users with AdBlock installed are engaging in "theft" (their words, not mine) because they are visiting sites that depend on commercial advertising revenues to support the site, and
  • AdBlock developers have taken steps to circumvent webmaster attempts to detect and defeat AdBlock use by site visitors.

(There are other, non-essential and even more inflammatory arguments made about some Firefox users and promoters, but I won't bother with them here because they have nothing to do with the matter at hand.)

As to the "theft" charge, I think that's not quite right - while such visitors may be consuming site resources in violation of the site's terms and conditions (which may or may not be enforceable), I'd argue that if there is a case to be made against such users, it's more like a (minor) form of trespass than outright theft.

But tossing around theft charges against Firefox users who are using AdBlock Plus is a great way to inflame the passions of a large number of people, and makes for great linkbait.

Another Arms Race

A long time ago, I used to use Proxomitron to prevent certain kinds of obnoxious pop-up content from annoying me.

I thought it was just wickedly cool to be able to intercept and rewrite the incoming HTML/JavaScript stream - and I did just that, with every new annoyance or Internet Explorer vulnerability, I'd tweak and adjust my filter set to make the web browsing experience safer and less annoying.

I've been using Firefox as my main browser, and since it has a very effective pop-up blocker built in, pop-ups are no longer any kind of issue at all. Security is still an issue with any software, but I've learned to deal with security on another level - I no longer care about browser security holes so much, since I learned how to reduce the overall vulnerability level of Windows in other ways. (Note to all the Windows haters: Yeah, I know, Windows will never be secure, it's crap, etc. Ok. Thanks. Now back to the topic at hand.)

Beyond the pop-up blocking built in to Firefox, I no longer use ad blocking of any kind. (I do block flash and java content across the board but that's because I'm often on a slow internet connection and any kind of fat content causes problems.)

Frankly, I have better things to do with my time. Now that pop-up ads are no longer a problem, I can spend my time dealing with more important things.

The last thing we need is another arms race - where we see escalating measures and countermeasures - akin to the one we've seen between virus/malware authors and antivirus/anti-malware vendors, or the ancient copy protection wars of the past.

The New Media Moguls

I have participated in the development of several commercial websites (that is, they are part of a for-profit commercial enterprise) that are funded in large part by advertising revenues. We develop what we hope is useful content, promote the sites, and try to generate legitimate, organic traffic to the sites. In return, we receive revenues from ads on the sites. We offer free access to the content, because, we think it's the best way to build the sites. The ads are there to help defray the costs involved in building the sites - and, we hope, provide profits.

I've learned a few things about online advertising - mainly, that it's pretty damn difficult to get visitors to notice ads without being totally annoying (and possibly violating the ad program's terms of service.) We do not wish to force our ads upon anyone - if the ads annoy you, then we understand that you may try to block them. We do reserve the right to change our access policies at any time - if, at some time in the future, we find that we aren't receiving sufficient revenues from advertising, we'll have to change our revenue models.

What, You Mean Google Lied?

Here's a quote from the AdSense home page, as of 8/19/2007:
AdSense for content automatically crawls the content of your pages and delivers ads (you can choose both text or image ads) that are relevant to your audience and your site content—ads so well-matched, in fact, that your readers will actually find them useful.

Source: Google AdSense home page

You mean that site visitors might not find Google's ads useful? So much so, that they might actually take steps to block them? I'm shocked!

"Free" Media Isn't Really Free

I've also learned that "free" web sites aren't really free - on any site with a reasonable level of traffic, someone has to pay for server resources and bandwidth. And, the costs tend to rise with increased traffic and popularity.

I admit I have mixed feelings about this - on the one hand, I understand completely the desire to remove annoying content when browsing the web. On the other hand, if ad revenues decline significantly, I know that many of the web sites I've developed would probably cease to operate - unless I can come up with some other method of funding operations, and one hopes, turning a profit.

What are the alternatives to ad-based funding?

  • Mandatory membership fees/subscription.
  • Voluntary donations.
  • Porn. (Just kidding.)

I'm not so sure that membership fees and/or voluntary donations can work for any but the most popular sites (and I'm not sure they work for many of the most popular sites.)

And, I'm trying to figure out how a young, smaller site will ever grow to become a larger, popular site with the kind of visitor base required to cover costs and (gasp) make a profit, if advertising-based income is not one of the options.

What About Google?

You can bet your booties that Google is (and other companies are) watching this issue with great interest. Many fortunes will rise and fall with the health of the online advertising industry.

Does the Big G use the tools at their disposal (Google toolbar, for example) to track the visibility of their ads? I'm assuming that, if they can, they do.

Google recently introduced CPM (cost per impression) ads - Google and webmasters earn money based on the number of ads viewed, rather than per-click revenues.

If ad blocking technology ever becomes part of basic browser distributions, we'll see a major impact - a majority of webmasters will be scrambling to find a new revenue model. (I'm betting that such technology is unlikely to be a standard part of Firefox or Internet Explorer, for a variety of reasons. In the case of Internet Explorer, Microsoft would face massive lawsuits and antitrust charges since it would be viewed as a move against Google.)

How bad is this problem, really?

Does anyone really know what percentage of site visitors are blocking ads? What kinds of webmaster tools can help analyze and understand the percentage of site visitors who are blocking ads? I can think of ways to do this kind of analysis, but has anyone really measured this?

Blocking Firefox Is Dumb And It Won't Work

Blocking web site visitors based on the user agent string is just lame. As anyone with any technical savvy or experience as a webmaster knows, user agent strings can be faked with ridiculous ease (See: general.useragent.extra.firefox and general.useragent.override).

So Firefox visitors will still be able to view your site content. I'm betting they won't bother (unless you have a compelling website, which, I'm betting you don't, or you wouldn't be worrying about AdBlock users.)

I do think that it is completely within the rights of any webmaster to choose a policy disallowing site visitors who block ad content. I'll let others engage in a vigorous debate about whether that's a wise policy. I think it's not.

Personally, I'd prefer that my site visitors tell me that the ads are annoying them, and that they are blocking or will block them, but I realize that it's unreasonable to expect them to do that. So, if I want to know if ads are annoying, I'll have to find some way of determining how many of the visitors circumvent ads.

I'm experiencing mixed feelings about running ads on my sites - I've been investigating other ways to finance operations, but so far, the ads are the simplest way to do it.

In the meantime, here's my tip for the webmasters who think they should block Firefox browsers:
Never paint your house with a flamethrower.