The Open Web is At Risk with Content Blocking

EU Cookie Law and Content Blocking

I wasn’t originally going to add a blog to this site, but there are so many developments and contraversial issues cropping up now that I think periodically I will add non-tutorial content here too.

The reason this kick-started was the recent announcement that iOS9 includes content blocking in the mobile Safari browser. Before digging more into this, I want to discuss an inconsistency in how people think. Warning: these are my opinions and open to discussion (comments are welcome!)

We Are Used to Advertising

For as long as I have been alive and much before then, since the first ads hit black-and-white television, we have been exposed to advertising. There are ads on TV, on the radio, on billboards next to roads, in the middle of streaming video and even on the sides of buses and on underground trains.

Businesses need advertising in order to raise awareness of their products and services, and to be frank, to survive. In the UK we pay a television license, yet on many channels who don’t get a bite of that money, we still have advertising. Even the BBC advertises its own shows.

Yet we don’t turn around and say, well I’m going to stop watching channels that show me ads. We don’t change our drive to work so that we don’t come across signage and billboards. And we don’t choose to not take a bus because there might be ads inside!

So why does the web seem to induce different behaviours?

The Open and Free Web is at Risk

One of the things that keeps the web open and free is advertising. If you adhere, for example, to Google’s Adsense Guidelines, then people who place ads using that platform (others are available), are not encouraged to click, and cannot be requested to click ads. So there is literally no pressure to engage with these ads.

However, the web has encouraged what I would call an entitlement complex – we feel we should have everything for free. Now I here I am more than happy to share my HTML5 and CSS3 Tutorials for free. But running a free website still costs – website hosting, domain registrations and time invested.

With the release of the Adblock Browser, and more disturbingly iOS9’s Content Blocking feature, there are a number of risks to the open web.

  • Websites Will Grow through Guesswork, rather than data: people fear ‘tracking’. And rightly so, if it is misused. But Google Analytics has been an industry standard for many years. It is used to make websites better, easier to use and to help produce more content that people love. If this is blocked more often than not, then website owners will have to guess how people might be interacting with their site. This could lead to lower-quality content or at least less-engaging websites.
  • Free Content Will Become Less Prevalent: Except for large publishers who have multiple income streams already, the ability for smaller sites and blogs to produce free content will diminish. They may be forced to find another business model, with more traffic going to larger websites and businesses. This could harm the availability of ‘free content’ as we know it.
  • Less Regulated Analytics: one discussion I’ve had this week was around the possibility of ‘self-hosted Analytics’. Not based on cookies and with less accuracy, it may be that companies start developing their own systems. Some will be able to pull it off, but can we trust all companies to respect people’s privacy?

So, in my view, the ‘open web’ as we currently know it is at risk. It is one thing to block ads, but going so far as to block whole websites that may show ads in one step too far.
Information Commission Cookie Opt-In

The EU’s New Cookie Law Further Compounds the Problem

If you’re in the EU (or more accurately, if your website or business is situated in the EU) then you must abide by the new version of their cookie law. They attempted to enforce such a law a few years ago, but given ICO themselves use an opt-out (implicit) rather than opt-in (explicit), then I guess we can follow their example.

Update: one kind soul informed me on Twitter, that ICO now have watered down the requirement to allow implied consent.

You must tell people if you set cookies, and clearly explain what the cookies do and why. You must also get the user’s consent. Consent can be implied, but must be knowingly given.

This doesn’t change my view that the open and free web is at risk, because adblocking is still prevalent (and encouraged) and iOS9 are rolling out content blocking anyway!

Ads and Website Speed

One of the complaints about sites with advertising is that they slow down page load time. On mobile devices, this is an understandable concern. Here are a couple of suggestions to keep a fast site while serving ads.

Move JavaScript to the Footer

If your <head> section is filled with <script> tags, these are most likely render-blocking. If you move them to the footer, then the page content can load happily and then get adjusted afterwards.

The one exception to this is jQuery Libraries which often don’t work as well. But if that’s the only Script sat in your head, then you should be fine.

Enable Asynchronous Loading

An alternative to placing your scripts at the end of your page is to use the async attribute:

<script type="text/javascript" src="/path/to/scripts.jpg" async>

This also allows the page to load while loading your scripts at the same time. I suggest you do this on a script-by-script basis though, as you could run into functionality issues.

Think Adaptive Web Design

You can use JavaScript to only load your ads over certain screen sizes, using attributes such as innerWidth or clientWidth for example. This is more effective than simply doing a display:none; in your CSS because your ad segment literally won’t load if you use JavaScript to insert the ad.

The Future of Content Blocking?

Sadly, I suspect content blocking is here to stay. It feels like the web is degraded to a lower value platform because of it and I worry about the open web. As we speak I am looking at non-cookie related Analytics packages.

Despite implied consent, websites have to show they are abiding by implied consent rules. The challenge is doing it in a way which fits your website design and doesn’t slow your site down any more than necessary!

What are your views? Feel free to use the comments!

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Martin Oxby

Martin Oxby has been building websites for many years, from simple coded ones to bespoke website software. He currently co-runs Summit Web Solutions based in Inverness, Scotland.