Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Ad-block, Flash-block, the web may become less accommodating to advertising as the browser evolves

It may have started with pop-up blockers, but the browser continues to evolve in ways that publishers may not like as users become able to block the ads that make news sites worth publishing.

Yesterday, Apple introduced a new version of its web-kit based browser, Safari. Already bloggers and tech writers are noticing some of the changes integrated into the new version and remarking on the consequences. The biggest change is what Apple is calling Safari Reader, and publishers had best pay attention.

"Safari Reader removes annoying ads and other visual distractions from online articles. So you get the whole story and nothing but the story," the Apple website reads.

Left: an article on the NYT site as seen normally using Safari;
Right: Safari Reader creates a text overlay, without ads.

In essence, Apple's integration of reader code is nothing more than an add-on like that seen on many news sites where the user is given the opportunity to create a text-only page for printing -- though it should be said that many of those printer versions also contain ads.

But this change is part of a bigger movement to allow web users to customize the format of the website they are reading. I, for instance, use a Flash-blocker on my browser simply to load the pages quicker and to allow me to concentrate on the text on a page without being distracted by the Flash animations usually found in advertising. (A quick click exposes the Flash element, so the blocker never eliminates the content only hides it.)

Safari is hardly the only browser that allows this kind of customization. In fact, Apple is a bit late to the party. Google's Chrome browser, as well as Firefox, allow add-ons and other customizable elements.

But the impact on publishers today is negligible, but will become significant if click-through rates start to decline because of reader add-ons and Flash blocking. The alternative, of course, is to concentrate publishing efforts in more controllable environments -- print, mobile, tablets -- rather that the web. But it is more likely that web publishing will also evolve to compensate as the browser itself evolves.