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Tue, Dec 09, 2014

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• Post categories: Omni, FOSS, Rant, Technology, My Life, Helpful

That old chestnut, internet advertising. Still causing problems after all these years...

The problem is clicks. When advertisers came to the Web, they realized they could make their adverts clickable. Unfortunately, this single fact caused their brains to melt.

You see, no form of advertising ever has relied on "See ad, buy product". That is an approach that has never worked. It's well known that advertising works on a subtle, slow-and-steady approach: The first half-dozen times you see an advert, you don't even register it. Then the next half-dozen, you vaguely remember having seen it before. Then the next few times, you wonder briefly about the product. Then a few more exposures and you start to think about buying the product. A few more, and you resolve that you WILL buy the product. A few more still, and you finally take action and actually buy the product.

And that's the best-case scenario. Sure, sometimes you'll see an ad that reminds you you already meant to buy a product and you might seem to do "See ad, buy" but those are exceptional edge-cases, not brilliant advertising.

So the whole industry was based around ensuring you saw a product advertised many times, because it was repeated exposure that did the magic. And everybody knew that. A never-ending stream of subtle nudges that ultimately resulted in a purchase.

Nobody ever said "We put up a billboard by the road that says 'Buy cola!' and the drivers didn't immediately pull over and dive into a shop for a cola. Clearly, the advert has failed." That would be nonsense. Advertising doesn't work like that.

Internet advertising should have been just another form of exposure: A reminder of a product, which was linked to a site where you could buy it solely to make your life easier if this happened to be that one-in-a-hundred exposure that caused you to buy the product.

Instead, the entire industry threw out everything they knew about how adverts work, and began a years-long scream of "CLICK ON OUR FUCKING ADVERTS YOU BASTARDS!!!"

Simple text ads not getting clicked? Make them brash colours!

Still not enough clicks? Bright, flashing colours!

Still not enough? Animations! Dancing monkeys!

Still not enough? Full-on movies!

Still not enough? Movies with sound!

And so on....

And so adverts became bigger, brighter, louder, and in every way possible harder to ignore. They even over-shadowed the content people were actually trying to view. And so the ad-blocker was born - a desperation move by people who just wanted to read the content they had clicked on without seizure-inducing movies screaming at them from all sides.

I've used Abdblock Plus in my browser for years. For a while, I tried to maintain my own list of sites to be blocked, but it became harder and harder to stay on top, so ultimately I caved and signed up for the auto-updating filters it offers. And it eliminated the vast majority of obnoxious ads for me, and still allowed harmless ads through: the ones that were just simple text, or static banner.

And that was fine, and indeed still is.

But I also started using a tablet. And ads soon made their unwelcome appearance on that, too. Beyond obnoxious: Simply opening a web page sometimes saw me suddenly finding myself in the Play store being asked to okay the installation of an app. WTF?!?

Not just obnoxious, this was becoming a genuine safety hazard. Something had to be done!

And I discovered my old friend, Adblock Plus, had an Android app. Installed on a tablet you have root on (Which I do), it blocks ads not just in Firefox, but across all applications. Win!

For a while, all was well. But then a couple of problems: Firstly, ABP had a tendency to crash and need a manual restart, which was annoying. Secondly, YouTube started using HTTPS.

This is a problem, because ABP works by being a proxy, diverting all network traffic through it. This works beautifully for filtering out known advertising servers, like doubleclick. However, youtube adverts are videos. They come from youtube.com. And HTTPS obscures all details of a request other than the server: All ABP could see was "Youtube, please send me stuff" - it couldn't distinguish "Video I asked for" from "Advert I don't want"

And youtube, like most other advertising, has been getting slowly more and more intrusive. Un-skippable ads before you can watch a movie, ads that pop up in front of the movie you're watching... all the shit that makes US TV so painful to watch, ported into the web. Lovely.

Youtube was getting steadily worse; ABP couldn't help; Youtube can't realistically be boycotted; Google is only just beginning to consider a "Paid membership" option to remove adverts. What to do?

Well, when you have a technical problem, a useful approach is often to bitch about it on an IRC channel. Which I did, and as hoped, got pointed at something useful. AdAway, and YouTube AdAway.

AdAway, instead of being a proxy, simply updates your hosts file to redirect ad requests. Nice and simple. YouTube AdAway was a plugin for the Xposed framework, a handy little framework that can alter the way the system, and any installed apps, work.

So, there was a certain amount of jumping through hoops - install F-Droid to use it to get AdAway, install the Xposed Installer to get the framework to get the YouTube AdAway module...

But I got it all done, and the end result? So far, no ads in YouTube: No pre-video clips, no pop-ups during the vid. YouTube is no longer annoying.

Browsing, I have more ads than I'm used to - I've not yet done anything to customise AdAway - but less ads than I'd get with no block at all. And so far, none of the dangerous "Hey, install this app!" crap.

So I count it as a win.

A couple of other things I've picked up lately that may be of use to desktop users. Firstly, that old favourite, the video player VLC: It can open YouTube vids from the URL. If you just want to watch a movie without any ads, suggested "What to watch next" vids, etc. then this is a quick & simple way to get it.

Secondly, if you use ABP, there's also an extension that will work with it called AdNauseam - ABP simply blocks everything, AN adds a simple addition: It simulates clicking on everything blocked.

This answers two of the common objections to adblockers: "You should support sites you like by clicking on their ads!" and "I don't want my preferences to be tracked" - clicking on everything makes your preferences unknowable, costs advertisers money, and raises funds for your favoured sites.

Lastly, if you worry about how much Google knows about you, this has some links that will allow you to not only see what Google knows, but also to correct and even delete some of it.

Have fun!


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