Content blockers, bad ads, and what we're doing about it

Shortly after WWDC 2015 and the introduction of content blocker extensions for Safari, Dean Murphy put them to the test—using iMore as the example.

After turning off all 3rd party scripts, the homepage took 2 seconds to load, down from 11 seconds. Also, the network activity stopped as soon as the page loaded so it should be less strain on the battery.

I responded to it briefly at the time, and said we were aware of the problems and working on them. That response piece ended up being used as a further example by Nick Heer, and the whole situation has now been summed up by John Gruber on Daring Fireball:

I love iMore. I think they're the best staff covering Apple today, and their content is great. But count me in with Nick Heer — their website is shit-ass. Rene Ritchie's response acknowledges the problem, but a web page like that — Rene's 537-word all-text response — should not weigh 14 MB.

It's not just the download size, long initial page load time, and the ads that cover valuable screen real estate as fixed elements. The fact that these JavaScript trackers hit the network for a full-minute after the page has completed loaded is downright criminal.

Dean's right, Nick's right, and John's right. Of course they are. As I said in the original response, I know that, you know that, and everyone working at iMore and our parent network, Mobile Nations, knows that. Ads in and of themselves aren't bad, and can indeed provide a service where everyone wins, which is why so many sites and so many mediums employ them. But many of the ads—and the services that deliver them—suck. We all know that.

Saying "bad ads suck; you hate them and so do we," is a ten-word answer, though. It's easy. What's hard are the next ten words, and the ten words after that—how are we going to fix it?.

Page load

First, the content size issue. 14MB is infuriating. My guess is that he was getting a video ad on the page that's no longer being served. We've been testing internally and getting consistently under 4MB for that page, which is still hefty.

A large part of that is ads, certainly, but even "plain text" articles have a font, as well as Retina graphics for at least one very large photo and a lot of thumbnails.

We—and by "we" I mean the Mobile Nations design and tech teams—have done a lot to streamline the site templates over the last few months. We rolled out new review templates, new article templates, and just last week, a new home page template. All are considerably lighter and faster than anything we've ever had before. And it's something we're continuing to work on and make even better.

The same applies to the ads. Currently, ads pay the bills at iMore and Mobile Nations. That hasn't always been the case. Back in the heyday of TreoCentral and CrackBerry, accessory and app sales provided significant revenue. So much so that, for a while, we had zero ads.

Now that app stores are built into the operating systems, phone cases are available at every mall kiosk, and sells gear at steep discounts, that revenue has largely gone away.

So, ads...

iMore just passed the 10 million unique readers milestone. Mobile Nations just had its best month ever, and passed 37.4 million unique readers. We're incredibly grateful for the support each and every one of you have shown us.

iMore just passed the 10 million unique readers milestone.

With that growth, however, comes bills to match. Mobile Nations is still an independent company, with no media conglomerate or VC funding behind us, and we still have to pay our dozens of writers, videographers, developers, designers, and support staff, and all of our expenses.

While we sell premium ads directly to advertisers, that only fills a small subset of the required "inventory" to support the network. Some 85% of ads we served last month were "programmatic"—provided by ad exchanges like Google Adx and Appnexus. Those exchanges are pretty much black boxes. We get a tag, we insert it, and ads appear.

The black box

Each ad gets its own iframe, so load is asynchronous and, if one fails, it doesn't kill the entire site. Unfortunately, that also means each one fires its own trackers, even if those trackers are identical across ads. It's terribly inefficient.

We've tried to find or figure out a way to streamline them, but haven't been able to. They're built into the foundations of all the major networks, ad and social, ostensibly to provide more "relevant" content.

When we do get good ads, as soon as they finish their allotted impressions, they go away, and the ad spot gets back-filled with "remnants" which get progressively worse and worse the more we refresh the site.

Yes, we're well aware of how insane that sounds.

We also have no ability to screen ad exchange ads ahead of time; we get what they give us. We can and have set policies, for example, to disallow autoplay video or audio ads. But we get them anyway, even from Google. Whether advertisers make mistakes or try to sneak around the restrictions and don't get caught, we can't tell. It happens, though, all the time.

When bad ads appear, we report them and ask that they be disabled. Since different people in different geographies see different ads, it can be a challenge to identify them, and it can take a while to get them pulled. It's a horrible process for everyone involved.

It's so bad, our tech team has been exploring their own "bad ads" extension that would identify any resource-heavy ads that violate our policies, and provide us with better information so the ad network can more easily find and kill them. And yes, we're well aware of how insane that sounds.

Going mobile

Just as desktop ads pay far less than old-fashioned print ads, mobile ads pay far less than desktop. Because phone displays are smaller than desktop, ads are also far harder to ignore. They're not off to the side or a small strip on a big screen. They're in our faces and in our way.

As more and more people move to mobile, revenue goes down, and the typical response is to amp up the ads in an attempt to mitigate the loss. That, of course, just makes them even more annoying.

Ad networks have not responded well to any of this. Hell, they still haven't fully responded to Retina and HiDPI displays, and those came out in 2011.

Maybe content blockers in Safari will help.

You'd think the ad industry would be at the forefront of user experience, and that making gorgeous, high performance, highly engaging ads would boost conversion and ultimately income for everyone. Unfortunately, it seems like whatever math they're running shows bad ads perform well enough that making great ads isn't worth the extra effort.

Mobile Nations, big as we are, are nowhere nearly big enough to force the ad exchanges to fix the bad programmatic ads, let alone influence them towards making better ones. Likewise, many advertisers simply don't want to expend the resources needed to make great ads and maintain relationships with multiple publications, so they're content to let the exchanges handle everything. That further limits our options.

Maybe content blockers in Safari will help. Maybe they'll affect ad exchanges enough that they're forced to provide better, flatter experiences. Maybe they'll encourage advertisers to consider more creative work. (We held similar hopes for Safari Reader and similar services.) Likely it'll get worse before it gets better.

Either way, even though it's an industry-wide problem, ultimately it's our site and our network, and responsibility for improving the experience falls entirely on us.

Going native

To try and provide a better experience for our most frequent readers, we've invested several years and a non-insigificant amount of money making a native iPhone app for iMore.

It's not only free, but we've deliberately kept it ad-free. We've also recently made it universal for the iPad as well. I sincerely don't know how long we'll be able to maintain it, but for now and the foreseeable future, it's there for anyone and everyone who wants it.

Ad alternatives

Subscriptions and memberships haven't historically worked for sites our size. Most people simply don't see the value in paying for content. We're all too used to getting everything "for free".

That leaves fully disclosed "native ads" (not the duplicitous kind, but the equivalent of a TV ad or podcast sponsor read—the kind Ben Thompson has expounded on in the past), and sponsored content.

The latter, if done carefully and smartly, can lead to a true win-win-win for the advertiser, the publisher, and most importantly, the readers.

Talk Mobile 2013

In recent years, Mobile Nations has run several extremely successful sponsored campaigns. Talk Mobile 2013, made possible with the support of BlackBerry, allowed us to produce 50 videos and articles, and kick off a conversation around privacy, security, social responsibility, and other topics important to our community. Moreover, it helped us significantly improve the level and scale of our content creation.

Windows Central Hidden Gems, sponsored for the third time now by Microsoft, has helped us shine a spotlight on great apps that weren't getting the attention they deserved, and bring together our community for some early summer fun. It also let us further improve our content and the system that manages it.

Never mind as a content creator, as a reader, this is the type of stuff I want to see more of. Making it work not only at scale, but at sufficient revenue levels, and consistently over time, however, is still an ongoing challenge.

The future

One of the great things about Mobile Nations is that everyone here is a tech enthusiast and content creator. Our CEO ran VisorCentral and TreoCentral, and still writes code for us almost every day (his latest project is our brand new notification/follow system). Our President ran Treonauts. Our Chief Media Officer ran CrackBerry and, despite his insane schedule, is starting up a new review series because creating content is something he loves to do.

While they have the responsibility of making sure Mobile Nations continues to remain financially viable and, hopefully, grows and thrives, they also care desperately about the reader experience. And they're incredibly frustrated by all of this as well.

That's why we make sure everyone on the iMore and Mobile Nations team read every tweet, every comment, and every email complaint we get—so we never, not for a minute, forget we have to make this better.

We appreciate everyone's feedback. Please keep it coming!

Kevin Michaluk and Marcus Adolfsson contributed to this article.

VECTOR | Rene Ritchie


We may earn a commission for purchases using our links. Learn more.