The horrible awfulness of online ads

Been thinking a lot about advertising and ad blocking. Last night, I had my “Aha!” moment.

I’ve long used Ghostery as a browser extension to control and, mostly, block trackers that invade my browsing experience, dig for my private data. Ghostery is one of those things that does a lot, but does it mostly under the hood. What I notice is the number of trackers it encounters. Just a number. Even a large number didn’t really register as anything more than, good thing Ghostery is doing its job.

But then I read this article by Rob Leathern.

Rob’s words:

I had heard about heavy mobile web pages, and wondering what was loading that took up SO MUCH BANDWIDTH, I turned on Charles Proxy on my desktop and ran my iPhone’s IP traffic through it, and I only visited one mobile website to test it out: NYPost.com — my guess is there are plenty of other similar sites that will exhibit similar behavior.

In a nutshell, Rob saw exactly two ads, both small and both near the bottom of his iPhone screen, one behind the other. He was on the site for exactly 5 minutes (he timed it) and Charles Proxy recorded all the activity that occurred on that page.

You really must go to Rob’s article to read all the details, but in a nutshell, the loading of the New York Post front page (here’s a link to it, if you dare) produced over 900 HTTP/HTTPS calls, about 10.3 megs of data consumption, and 291 different transactions using his IP address.

To truly get your head around this horrifying madness, take a look at Ghostery’s complete map of the New York Post front page loading activities. If the link doesn’t work, go here, and enter the Post URL in the text field at the top of the window.

The way Rob explains it, there are multiple large .jpg images and invisible/silent autoplay video ads playing underneath the innocuous text ads that appear as the only ads on the page.

Remember, I didn’t see any video content nor any video ads at all. If there is not willful fraud here, loading ads in the background that are impossible to see, then at the very least it is ‘user-hating’ irresponsible behavior to have a 10+mb payload with hundreds of http calls in a mobile browser.

Many publishers simply must have a sense that something nasty is going on — when their users complain about slow page loads on mobile web — but they either don’t have the tech savvy and/or more likely, they won’t ask questions about how their site could possibly be monetizing as well as it is when simple math indicates that their users aren’t watching that many video streams. Many simply turn a blind eye.

Ad industry insiders talk about “improving viewability” — but make no mistake, these are likely not mistakes made by inexperienced workers — just as mobile ads that pop up iTunes Store pages for mobile app installs are not casual errors — this is an industry that persists by helping already-fraught businesses like newspapers and online publishers survive at the expense of the advertisers who supposedly help us users have free content.

Is it any wonder desktop ad blocking has been on the rise, and many iOS users are excited at the prospect of using content blocking in iOS9 to get rid of mobile ads? The industry has only itself to blame.

First things first, please do follow the headline link and read the article. Good for Rob to get the links, good to get the whole story. And pass this along, if you would.

I see ad blocking with new eyes now.



  • Sam Doohickey

    It’s simply too easy for sites like NYPost to abuse your trust. I’d say its compulsory behavior. What really gets my blood boiling is when you pay for news, say NYTimes at $341.38/year, and you still have to deal with all the ad bullshit on top of that. One might think that paying for your subscription would make you exempt from such invasions, but sadly no, it matters not. It wasn’t always like that, though.

    As I’ve said numerous times before, publishers are addicted to ad revenue like a crack addict to cocaine. They will fight the epic battle to maintain the status quo.

    • rick gregory

      to be fair, newspaper subs don’t cover the cost of doing business and never have. Even when they were just paper you still had ads in the printed version. The real value of the subs was in having verifiable readership to enable sales to advertisers.

      • ZanzibarJoe

        Static JPEG ads are not the problem, its the tracking and targeting of ads that I have issue with. Print newspapers cannot track your online movements. The ads there are relatively harmless and benign nuisances.

        So, if it has to cost more for a ‘clean’ experience, then they should offer it as an option. I just wish newspapers were more on the level about what their selling. The shadiness of this practice gives me pause to the validity of what they write. If you can’t trust the customer-seller transaction, then how can you trust what they deliver to be true and accurate?

        I’m not so naive to think capitalist society should run without ‘subsidies’. I’d just like the right to choose which subsidies to endorse.

  • mjtomlin

    Not sure if anyone visits MacDailyNews here, but they’ve started checking to see if someone is blocking ads and if so, they throw up an annoying modal alert dialog box…

    “Blocking ads hurts the sites you love, including MacDailyNews. Please whitelist MacDailyNews. Thank you for your support!”

    This modal box freezes all Safari interaction. And after looking at the code, there’s a line (currently commented out) that will force redirect users to a donation page…

    //window.location.href = ‘[URL of the donate page. Remove the two slashes at the start of thsi line to enable.]’;

    • Haven’t seen that with Ghostery on MDN so far.

      • mjtomlin

        Well after installing Ghostery.. there’s an option that disallows new objects to be created… one of which is the script that enables that “feature”

        • Oh! You mean it’s a third party script? Makes sense. I blocked everything and clicked just the few things I wanted to allow… The Deck, Disqus, a few other commenting engines.

  • The modal boxes are the worst. While I don’t use an ad blocker or Ghostery on a regular basis, I will just not visit sites that give me bad experiences. I hit a link from a friend the other day and a modal box came up every time I scrolled. I will never return to that site. If the topic interests me I’ll Google an alternative source.

    The ad business needed a good shake up.

    • mjtomlin

      I just switched to Ghostery… and whitelisted this site and daringfireball.com.

      The web is so much nicer now!!!

      And I have to say that AppleInsider has “manual” ads that aren’t blocked, which is okay with me, because it’s not arbitrary loaded code that they don’t know about.

      • AI’s front page is horrible — far more space given to ads than content. it will be blocked next month.

  • Moeskido

    It’s interesting to see how publicly adversarial some of these ad networks have become. As though they have an ingrained right to not only monitor our every behavior without permission or compensation, but to consume as much of our expensive bandwidth as they wish.

    Guys, you pissed in the swimming pool once too often. Don’t cry if you find yourself alone at the shallow end.

  • James Hughes

    Type in Macworld.com. That’s pretty bad too.

    • mjtomlin

      Try apple.com…

      So freaken simple… as the web should be.

      There’s 3 bubbles, site, images, and something else… can’t reload it due to my “limit” on ghodtery’s site.

      • James Hughes

        Yup, Apple’s site is the way many sites should be. I had to wait until today to scan it though. I tried Microsoft afterwards, not as good as Apple but not too bad either. Then I tried Google, no ads there.

  • rick gregory

    The thing I love about Ghostery is how transparent it makes some of these interactions and that you can turn individual items (over 2000 of them) off and on.

    I really don’t have an issue with a reasonable amount of ads… I’m a realist and there are only so many ways to make revenue. What I won’t deal with are things like this post notes – the mining for personal information, the tracking and the frankly abusive behavior.

  • Hosni

    “This an industry that persists by helping already-fraught businesses like newspapers and online publishers survive at the expense of the advertisers.”

    In other words, some newspapers and online websites play these tricks so they can report great success displaying messages for corporate advertisers — meanwhile, the ads are kept out of sight so the newspapers and websites don’t annoy and repel readers.

    It seems that if advertisers would visit the sites where they pay for ads to appear, they would realize they are getting hoodwinked. If I were paying the NY Post to run my ads, I would check it today.