The next browser war: Users vs Web Content

Browser wars is a popular (and retro!) topic these days. In this post I’ll discuss another kind of browser war that I’m afraid all browsers are at risk of losing.

One side-effect of a richer web experience with html5, Javascript and CSS is that it becomes increasingly harder for web browsers to stop bad web design practices for the benefit of the user. Firefox is known for putting the user’s needs first and pioneered mainstream use of features designed to make the web experience better for users – the pop-up blocker is perhaps the most notable example.

Features like the pop-up blocker were not designed for web developers — they were designed completely in the interest of users, who were fed up with annoying ads that popped up over and under the web page you were currently visiting. This effectively forced web designers to adjust their practices and keep the users’ interests more prominently in mind. I think this is a wonderful example of how web browsers can change the web for the better. Before the pop-up blocker, web designers were dictating how their web sites should behave, and users had no other choice but to put up with it.

There are of course many other examples of when browser features have helped tame annoying web design practices, such as scrolling text in status bars, disabling the context menu when right-clicking, and blocking third-party cookies — the general theme is that the browser balances the sometimes bad urges of web developers and designers with the actual needs of the user. And as a result, the web becomes a better place. Mozilla has its own spin on this that captures the essence of Firefox: Firefox answers to no one but you.

The yellow pop-up blocker info bar in Firefox. A rare sight these days.

Today, however, you don’t see the little pop-up icon  in the location bar of Firefox very often anymore. This is because “true” pop-ups, (in the traditional/technical sense) are no longer common. It used to be that, in order to display a pop-up, web developers had to use Javascript methods like window.open to tell the browser that it wants a new window to be open so the (usually annoying) ad could be shown.

Back in 2004, when Firefox was first launched, window.open was the way of displaying pop-ups. These kinds of pop-ups are trivial for Firefox to detect, since the web page creates a separate browser window for the ad (this usually happens when a page loads, or at some other event which is straightforward enough for a browser to determine that it isn’t explicitly requested by the user).

Today, most modern web sites have become smarter and use more sophisticated technologies to display pop-up ads embedded within the web page triggering the ad. In fact, a quick anecdotal survey shows that most large, international websites have completely stopped using the traditional pop-ups. You can still find them on smaller or more local websites though (for example, Swedish news sites like aftonbladet.se are typically a year or two behind the more recent web page practices used on websites from the US in general, and the Valley in particular). The original pop-up blocking implementation certainly still matters, but its relevance is decreasing.

New websites use all sorts of clever (and highly annoying) tricks to make sure their ads are not missed by anyone:

  • Inline pop-ups — these behave similar to the traditional pop-ups, but the ad content isn’t actually displayed in a separate window. Instead, the ad is embedded in the web page itself. From a technological point of view, a browser is then unable to distinguish the ad from the rest of the web page, so it can’t block it.
  • Hover ads — this is similar to inline pop-ups, but taken to an increasingly more annoying level: here, the ad doesn’t just block a particular area of the web page, it follows along on your screen as you scroll down on the page — often with a smooth movement to give the impression that it’s actually hovering over the page. It’s like the ad is trying to say “I’m here! Look, I’m still here!”
  • Splash screen ads (I just made this term up) –  these are by far the most annoying ads and are commonly seen on sites like di.se and e24.se (two popular finance websites in Sweden). This is like an ad saying: “Look, I’m not going to let you read the web page until you’ve paid attention to ME!” Web designers do this by overlaying the ad so it completely covers the content of the page (alternatively, it redirects you to a separate page). If you pay close attention, you will see a tiny link to get to the page you actually wanted to visit, but the web designer has usually made it the smallest link on the entire page — despite the fact it’s the link you are most likely going to want to click. These type of web pages clearly answer to no one but the ad provider — certainly not to you.
  • Video ads — as videos are getting more and more mainstream, the most common practice today by content providers is to show an ad before playing the video clip you actually requested. This is similar to those “important messages” you see when inserting some DVDs, and just like those messages, you can’t skip these ads. You simply have no choice but to watch the entire thing. (Some content providers add a small clock countdown in the corner to at least let you know how long you have to put up with watching the ad — it’s clear that they’re aware of the inconvenience for the user here.)

All of these types of web ads have one thing in common: it’s next to impossible for web browsers to block them. These ads are, from a technical point of view, integral parts of the web page itself, and as such they’re indistinguishable from the “good” content on the page.

Where do we go from here?

Web browsers make at least a bit of an effort to block advertisement today with their aged pop-up blocker feature, but it’s also clear that they are not able to block all attempts of displaying advertisement on the web. (And should they? Unless we can create a world where advertisement is not just generally unwanted, but also not necessary to make the online economy spin, I would say we probably shouldn’t try to block them all. But that’s a much deeper discussion than I’m aiming for in this blog post.)

More importantly, however, web browsers are no longer stopping bad design practices. Showing an ad as a splash overlay covering the entire page and blocking the user from seeing the actual content of the page is exactly the kind of thing that Firefox effectively stopped in 2004 — but so far there is no solution in place in any web browser on the market to stop the new pop-up behavior that is at least as bad as the traditional pop-ups.

Taking a step back, what is the role of the browser in this new world where web pages are becoming more like web applications that live a life on their own terms? How can we ensure that the browser still acts as a balance that puts the user first? Of course, I don’t have the answers to these broad questions, but it’s definitely something I think must be discussed.

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14 thoughts on “The next browser war: Users vs Web Content

  1. Matjaž Horvat

    Very well structured, good job!

    Of course we can use AdBlock and the likes, but only if ads are Flash-based. I belive sooner or later most of the ads will be developed using W3C standards.

    And what then?

    It will be really hard, but I bet we can still win. Ad networks will probably integrate ads into website through iframes, so we can still blacklist most of them if not else.

    But we might only be interested in blocking the most annoying ads, e.g. pop-ups 2.0 or splash screen ads, as you call them. Well, those will be trickier to identify.

    Reply
  2. Kroc Camen

    This is very important.

    I don’t believe that a browser should block adverts by default, it should allow control over the mechanisms of adverts.

    Pop-up blocking didn’t block ads. It controlled them — you could always allow the popup though yourself.

    Firefox should allow the user to control the following easily:

    * Turn CSS animation on/off
    * Mute audio across tabs / across the browser
    * Override HTML video & audio to not autoplay / autobuffer

    This will give control back to the users, just like the popup blocker gave them back control. If Firefox has an option to not allow videos to autoplay, then eventually advertisers will be forced to design accordingly. That is the next big win on the web–click-to-view ads instead of LOOK-AT-ME ads.

    Reply
  3. squib

    Not that it really matters too much, but I think the term for what you call “splash screen” ads is “interstitial”.

    Reply
  4. David Illsley

    I think there is a big difference between then and now. Then, the pop-ups/unders affected and degraded 3rd party sites and the user experience after the user had left a site. The current generation ads merely degrade the sites which have opted in to them, often in order to fund the sites.

    So I think the case for aggressive action is less clear, and we’ve not spent a lot of time looking at the carrot side of the equation. Could, and should Firefox support advertising APIs which make ads more pleasant for users to follow/star for reminder? Or something to make voluntary payment easy “You’ve read 10 articles at qualityjournalism.com, so you want to tip them 10c an article?”?

    Reply
  5. Mardeg

    I really thought this was going to turn into a plug/tutorial for the Element Hiding Helper companion extension for Adblock Plus (link in my name), which is what I use to eliminate those interstitial fake popups.

    Reply
  6. Erunno

    @Matjaž Horvat

    “I belive sooner or later most of the ads will be developed using W3C standards.”

    This won’t be a problem as long as ads are distributed from dedicated third-party ad servers as the Adblock Plus subscriptions block already block these irregardless of what technology is used to create the ads. Judging by my personal experience with ads I’d say that applies to > 90% of all ads currently served.

    Reply
  7. Seascape

    “[S]o far there is no solution in place in any web browser on the market to stop the new pop-up behavior that is at least as bad as the traditional pop-ups.”

    This isn’t quite correct. It’s true that browser cores are lacking tools to detect and block intrusive advertising. But there are some rather excellent add-ons available. And not just AdBlock Plus,

    Use Firefox with AdBlock, NoScript and RequestPolicy, and ads of virtually all kinds completely disappear. Together, the three add-ons defeat virtually kind of advertising there is.

    Most intrusive advertising is powered by JavaScript. Disable JavaScript using a tool like NoScript, and you’re more than halfway there.

    I never see pop-ups of any kind, ever, because I have Firefox fortified with NoScript, RequestPolicy, and AdBlock Plus.

    These tools really ought to be in the browser core. It is unsafe to browse the web with JavaScript on by default. It should be off. Yes, it’s inconvenient (at least at first) to build a whitelist of trusted sites, but it’s better to be safe than sorry. By using tools like NoScript and RequestPolicy, you can help stop your computer from being infected by malware and spyware. You can also safeguard your web browsing from web beacons and trackers.

    Reply
  8. David Tenser

    Seascape, it’s been a while since I used AdBlock, but I was under the impression that it’s only really capable of blocking the ads themselves (mostly integrated into the site), not the way they’re presented. Would AdBlock (or another add-on) be capable of blocking the entire experience of a “splash”/interstitial ad, including the interim page container? If not, the experience is just as disruptive as with the actual ad displaying.

    I also probably should have been clearer that my post isn’t just about ads, but about bad design practices and how web browsers have an increasingly difficult time stopping it as the web sites become more like apps. Ads are of course a prominent example of annoying web experiences, but there are other things too, such as not being able to use the Back button without losing all the information you entered into an app-like interface. Some web sites gracefully handle it, and others don’t. Can the browser play a role in facilitating the user even when there are no clear ways for it to detect the peculiarities of each individual web site through normal algorithms?

    Reply
  9. David Tenser

    Erunno, to be clear, I have no problems with advertisement per se. My problem is the way they’re sometimes presented, which disrupts the web browsing experience. The splash ads example I used is one of the most annoying experiences, and as far as I can tell, there’s no way currently for AdBlock to automatically skip past that ad by finding the tiny “Skip this ad and proceed to the article” link and clicking it.

    Maybe what we really need is some sort of artificial intelligence built into browsers that can handle the inconsistencies in these types of web designs in a way that acts on the user’s behalf.

    Reply
  10. David Tenser

    Colby: Thanks for pointing me to that blog post. Asa offers a reasonable approach to the problem, but I think it misses an opportunity to take Firefox one step closer to the user by pushing the envelope on what kind of web practices we would like to promote. I think the browser should continue to play a role in how the web is shaped for the benefit of users. That, to me, is a core part of Firefox’s brand promise.

    And to be clear, I don’t really talk about advertisement here, but practices that make the web a more annoying experience. Disabling right-click context menus is one example of how Firefox actually went out of its way to block annoyance on a site-specific level too. So, it’s not just about pollution outside the active tab. At least not historically, for Firefox.

    Reply
  11. Jeffrey

    At first I was like “Well, you could just build in Ad Block Plus”, but then I found out you were talking about design practices.

    Why doesn’t some one from Mozilla at least *attempt* to make a inline popup, hover ad etc. blocker? I find the idea that it’s technologically impossible for a browser to tell the difference hard to accept. I’m sure there are some patterns among the popular implementations that can be detected.

    Reply
  12. Benjamin Otte

    So, what about this:
    - set a timer (somewhere between 5-15 seconds? Maybe more?)
    - when the timer fires, play an audio ad
    - trigger another timer in ~a minute

    Such an audio ad would:
    - force you to notice it as it’s hard to turn off your ears
    - not be stoppable as you don’t know where they’re from
    - not obscure content you care about
    - even be noticed if you switched attention elsewhere (different tabs _or_ different applications)

    Essentially, it’s a sure way to get the ad through to you. I don’t know why people don’t focus on audio more…

    Reply
  13. CICI

    Adblock plus is very useful and I can add it in firefox and Avant browser 2012.
    More and more browsers can use Adblock plus in their browsers and ADS is very annoying. This is a good thing. Right?

    Reply

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