Ad blockers, load times, and why we raise our eyebrows at widgets

Ok, that’s a lot to cover in one post, so maybe we’ll just cover the essentials about the common element behind all of these: scripts, a.k.a. trackers.

Why everyone’s talking about trackers now

Earlier this month, Apple announced that iPhone and iPad users would be able to install ad-blocking extensions to their Web browsers. That’s caused a lot of concern among publishers, for obvious reason. Ad blocking isn’t a new idea. See the chart below, which graphs a few related search terms over time.

Notice the small bump in the green “Do Not Track” line around 2012? Do Not Track was one method of providing user anonymity as a browser setting, but since there’s no requirement (technical or legal) to honor it, many publishers simply ignore it. More proactive solutions like ad blockers evolved from that concept. For a long time, ad blocking was a bit of a fringe movement and not available to mobile users. The Apple decision makes the practice much more mainstream and accessible.

Why is everyone so upset?

Mostly, it comes down to performance. Digital ad systems, widgets, animations, and pretty much every piece of dynamic, tracking and display feature on a website happens because of a script.

Scripts are little programs that happen automatically when a page is loaded, many of them in the background and after a lot of the content has been already loaded on the page. The worst of them cause errors on the page, load slowly or not completely, and generally do two of the big no-nos when it comes to mobile devices: drain battery and use up your data.

They also send information to third-parties: ad networks attempting to show you products you’ve searched for or viewed in the past, website owners wanting to see what people do on their pages, content-recommendation engines trying to monetize your clicks. All that big-brother stuff tends to creep people out.

Ad blockers stop those scripts from ever being loaded on the page. When they’re in place, most pages load lightning fast and remove distractions.

What does that mean to us?

Don’t panic, but iOS users make up a significant portion of the traffic on our sites.

That doesn’t count Android users and web users, all of whom also have access to ad-block extensions.

In order to deliver advertisements to our readers, better understand what they do on our sites, and offer flexibility and function, our sites load a pretty long list of scripts. Here’s a breakdown:

  • Display advertising
  • AP content widgets
  • Weather
  • Sharing buttons
  • Search
  • Event calendar listings
  • Commenting
  • ‘Trending’ and ‘Most Read’ boxes
  • Classified ad displays
  • Site analytics
  • Security and optimization
  • Social network widgets
  • Remarketing
  • Ad networks
  • Subscriptions and paywall

Plus, we load a pile of scripts to offer basic website functions, too: photo galleries, video players, page layout, maps, slideshows.

What are we going to do about it?

For starters, you’re probably going to hear more skepticism from the digital team when it comes to adding scripts and widgets on our sites. That means we’ll need to test how requested scripts behave and what audience information they collect. Every script we add taxes readers’ devices and data and reduces the practical usefulness of our sites, so benefits must outweigh the costs.

We’d like for readers to turn off their ad blockers, but ultimately, we (like all publishers faced with software that cuts right to the bottom line) will have to experiment with some other revenue options.

On the upside, a poll by the developer of one of the most popular iOS ad blockers showed that nearly 3/4 of users would “whitelist” (allow scripts on) sites that “are optimized for performance, maintain transparent privacy policies and only serve ads that meet ‘acceptable’ criteria.” Seems legit.

Feel free to hit up the Digital Team with questions.