Robbing Peter to Pay Paul

A few weeks ago I grumbled in a newsletter about the lousy ads I was getting on one of my sites, which were bringing a whopping 4.8 cents per click. I said “I may try Bing ads instead if Google doesn’t get me better [ads] soon.”

A reader I’ll leave nameless replied,

So, when I go to the mugshot website you make four cents each time I just CLICK on an ad? That I all have to do? I could go there and click on every available ad and you would make 4 cents for each click? And then I could go out, enter again, do it all over and you would make more money? Or do the limit it to a certain number per person? Hey, I would be quite happy to spend some time each day (on the days I think about it) happily clicking on the ads on your site(s) if it would give you extra cash. Does it do the same on Jumbo Joke, Groxx et al? I just never before paid any attention to how money was made by sites.

Not Like That

It is one of the primary ways web sites make money, yes, but I definitely don’t want you to go clicking on ads for the sole purpose of making me a few cents here and there: that’s stealing — someone has to pay for those clicks.

Advertisers expect people to click on the ad if they’re interested in the product or service offered. If you see an ad on any of my sites, or any other site, that interests you, then by all means support that site by clicking the ad to see what that advertiser has to offer.

But clicking on ads when you don’t have interest has a name in the industry: “click fraud” — they defraud the advertiser out of cash for no positive return on their investment. There are sophisticated methods for detecting click fraud, and while you (almost certainly!) won’t end up in jail, you won’t help the site, either — and you could hurt it. When click fraud is detected, the clicks are discounted (ignored).

A Lose-Lose Scenario

It can really hurt the advertiser, too — and that’s sometimes what the perpetrators are hoping for. What’s one way to hurt a competitor? Click on his ads to cost him a good chunk of profits without giving them any business. It can be enough sometimes to push a competitor out of business, so this is serious stuff. Like using spam (a way to get “advertising” for free by stealing the resources to send it), it’s an unfair and unethical way to get ahead online.

It doesn’t always work anyway: not all ads are “pay per click.” Some pay only on some action (e.g., you fill out a form so a salesman will call), others pay only on a sale. So just clicking may not do anything for the site. And other ads are paid by the “impression” — just showing it may earn the site a fraction of a cent whether you click it or not.

Bottom line: it really isn’t worth it to try to outsmart the system to create a false reward for the site (or a false cost to a competitor), so again the advice is: only click if you’re actually interested.

They’re Watching You

One of the positives of online advertising is that it’s more “targeted” toward what you want. If you visit home improvement sites, which indicates an interest in fixing up your home, you’ll probably be pitched on home improvement-related products and services, and that’s great: you may find something you’d like that you wouldn’t otherwise have learned about. A company in a small niche who might not be able to afford advertising on TV found you, and you found them — a win-win scenario.

Some people resent online ads, thinking they get in the way of what they want out of a visit to a web site. Some ads are intrusive, popping up windows, flashing in your face, etc., and I understand that: those irritate me, too, and my business philosophy is to treat others the way I want to be treated, so I don’t allow those kinds of ads on my sites.

But some people fight all ads with “ad-blocking” software, and that’s really sad: the trade-off for a site being free is usually that there are ads there to pay the costs of running the site (and, hopefully, some sort of living for the owner). You come and take the entertainment or information, but don’t even give the ads a chance to offer you something of interest, so the site owner gets nothing.

Some web site owners call that stealing, too; I simply call it unfair. But the bottom line is, that’s why so many web sites fail, going under so you can’t get the information or entertainment anymore, and that’s a lose-lose scenario.

So, do you see the balance here? Some want to click ad after ad solely to support the site, others want to block ads. Both are wrong ways to do things. If you don’t like flashy or pop-up ads on sites, punish the owner by not going back. If they treat you well by being respectful of your eyeballs, then at least glance at the ads once in awhile as you visit and see if the site’s advertisers are offering something that you’re interested in — and if so, then should you click on the ad for more information.

Fair enough?

– – –

Things did improve — briefly. But even then, there were still not enough clicks to actually pay for my assistant to research and write up the mug shot posts, let alone bring in profit. And then Google shut the ads off on the entire site, saying that showing mugshots of criminals was “hurtful” to the criminals. So indeed, I gave up on the site, even though it got huge traffic.

Later, I removed the ads on this site, too, in favor of reader support via the button in the sidebar. Not a lot of readers use it, but a few want to ensure the site stays online. -rc

29 Comments on “Robbing Peter to Pay Paul

  1. Just a suggestion – I do use an ad-blocker but try to turn it off on sites I’d like to support. However your stable of multiple domains gives me a problem in that each time you add a site, it’s another one I need to whitelist.

    For example, thisistrue.com is whitelisted, but while clicking through to (say) mugshotmuseum.com my brain won’t often keep up and remind me that I need to turn off ads here again (on one of the many computers I use weekly).

    Now I’m not sure how to solve it other than to serve them all from a common source, or to use one of those nifty ad-block-detection scripts to show a red box reminding me.

    Just sayin’ – the multiple site thing might be a problem for others like me.

    I understand the problem, but it typically makes sense to have things on separate domains, rather than ask people to dig down and find their favorite sections of one huge site (e.g., the mug shots portion). So I’ll suggest that the “proper” solution is to whitelist by default, and block the ads for cause rather than by default. -rc

  2. One interesting perspective that Dennis Prager frequently offers is the “Shopkeeper’s Law” from the Talmud.

    Under the Shopkeeper’s Law, you are forbidden to ask the price of an item if you know you aren’t going to buy it from that shop. The underlying premise is that such an action is theft of the shopkeeper’s time, as well as falsely raising his hopes of making a sale.

    Translated into modern shopping, we may surmise that it is forbidden to go into a shop and ask a salesman to demonstrate, say, a camera for you, if you know for a fact that you will be buying it at a discount over the Internet.

    If you honestly believe you might buy the camera there, go ahead and pester the salesman. The law forbids taking up a salesman’s time when you know he will receive nothing for his effort.

    And yes, by extension, it’s perfectly reasonable to apply the same logic to clicking on website ads when you know you have no intention of making a purchase. You are spending a sponsor’s money, with the knowledge that the sponsor will get no return for that money.

    And as the saying goes, time is money.

  3. Funny you post this today. I just added an Ad-Blocker to Firefox today because I got hit with a virus that seems to have come from a pop-up (several of us got hit with it, and that’s the only thing in common that we’ve been able to tell so far). So I finally installed it as a “defensive” measure. Now I’ll have to see if I can reverse it to whitelist by default as you suggest in the previous comment, although that would allow the problem I just mentioned, at least on the first visit to the site. (The site itself is not doing it, at least not on purpose; they are trying to weed it out as well.)

    It’s unlikely — well, OK, impossible — that you got a virus from a legitimate ad (since by definition, a legit ad wouldn’t do that). Hopefully, you can isolate the actual cause and address that issue without hurting the honest sites (and their advertisers). -rc

  4. Not all ads and popups are legit and are the primary source of adware, spyware, viruses, and other forms of malware. If they were all legit, then we wouldn’t need 90% of the protections that are now required on a computer. I use popup blockers since that keeps the more annoying ads at bay, but regular ads don’t really bother me. If I don’t like them, I can always ignore them. To the reader above…popup blockers only block popups, but not ads (unless of course they are popup ads *grin*). Best defense is common sense (since this site is a testament to the lack of common sense…so I guess that is a bit moot hehehe) and a good anti-virus program. There are several excellent free ones out there that are actually better than the pay ones.

  5. I do try to click on ads that interest me on sites I enjoy or otherwise get something out of. Conveniently, tonight there’s a free-trip-to-London contest ad on your site. You bet that interests me!

    Not everyone will see that: ads can be slanted according to location, interests, etc. The bottom line is, you never know what might be of interest! Glad you found something that piqued yours. -rc

  6. I do not block image ads as I agree with your points in this article. I do however block flash ads, as they very frequently will crash my browser.

    I’ve never had a Flash-based ad crash my browser, but I’ve had popups do that, and therefore do block them. I also object to the fact that I typically cannot tell what site a popup came from, and thus cannot pin blame and complain about problems to the site owner. I thus consider them inherently dishonest, which is another reason I won’t allow them on my sites, even though I lose a lot of income by taking that stand. -rc

  7. I used to use Ad-blockers when most ads were those very large and longtime downloading flashers and my ISP was on 56K.

    A thing of the past as now most sites use Google, or similar, with unobtrusive ads, besides which even the large ads load easily now most people are on DSL or quicker.

  8. If you feel it’s unfair to block ads, do you also believe it’s unfair to record shows on a DVR and then fast-forward through the commercials?

  9. I have no complaints with static, “well-behaved” ads, but several types aggravate me: ads that activate a drop-down or pop-up or audio when moused over or when the page is accessed; ads that take forever to load their content, which in general prevents me from proceeding down the page until all content has loaded; and ad space that cycles among several vendors. Regarding the latter, invariably I will spot something that interests me on one of those cyclical ads the second after I have clicked away from the page. Upon returning, I can never seem to get that same ad to come back up! Oy!

  10. Thanks to Firefox, I have no problems with popup ads. I prefer text ads because I can read them when I have time and because I’m *so* visually oriented that the slightest movement is a distraction. Because of that, I got a flash blocker addon. I have it set to stop all flash items, but it shows a play button I can click. It’s usually very useful; I don’t like the music or speeches some sites play automatically. As a full-time student, my research has me running into those often. And if I’m on YouTube or would like to poke around, I can click the play button to view the item anyway. It makes browsing *much* faster, without blocking static picture ads or text ads.

  11. Phil, San Antonio, I agree that cycling adverts are annoying (partly because I subconsciously ignore the irrelevant content of a page until I’ve read the information I came for and moved on (for which reason I don’t have any blockers beyond what came by default with my anti-virus software)), but isn’t that in the nature of the beast? The systems decide what ad to display once a user loads a page and it can see where they are coming from, so I think we should be more surprised to see the same advert twice in a row than not.

  12. I would have been willing to click a few ads for Randy’s benefits once a week but, since he told us not to do so, I went looking about his sites to see if there were actually any ads that I wanted to click on…

    I found ads for guns, medical insurance covering organ transplants and international adoptions. I didn’t want to click on any of them. But I promise, if I run across anything that I might find useful, I’ll click. Promise.

    I think if you were shown ads you weren’t interested in, you did the right thing by not clicking them! -rc

  13. I’m in the process of building a site – and NO popup ads will be allowed. Those things annoy the dickens out of me, and, like you, Randy, under Golden Rule principles, they will not be permitted.

    But thanks for posting a reasoned, balanced article on the care and feeding of web sites – and the advertising that brings them to you!

  14. I use both an ad blocker and noscript. Both have whitelists for sites that I visit regularly.

    I prefer whitelisting over blacklisting for a very simple reason: I like to follow links to new sites that might have interesting content. They might also have annoying ads or attempt to do nasty things using javascript. Blocking those by default means they can’t harm my computer.

  15. Well, I have to say it is those in you face and in your way ads that cause me to run an ad-blocker. I’ve never objected to ads that are along the sides of the page, even top or bottom. However when the ads block the content, over writing the formatting or randomly thrust themselves in my face, ad blocker is like the mute button on the TV remote.

    What is it called when the ads make enjoying the content of a site impossible? I call it “never coming here again”. If the ads are bad enough I’ll note the advertiser to not buy anything from them.

    So if the mute button and ad blocker exist it is because advertisers have caused their invention by being more forward than the traffic will allow.
    My personal site? I pay yearly for the privilege of not running ads. Add free, all of it.

  16. well, its a little hard to find an ad that interest me, I don’t know if is because I’m checking the site from México but usually the ads that appear in most of the sites are from weight loss sites (what are suggesting your ads, Randy?), job classifieds, sometimes polls about American politics even though I live in México, and the always classic “get rich fast without working” ads.

    And sometimes, some bizarre ads, like this one that appeared on this blog entry on Google ads “Airplanes for Sale Submit your aircraft. Free of charge, unlimited!” I’m not joking, this ad actually appeared in this blog entry, if you know why please tell me, I want to know.

    No idea. Pretty bizarre. -rc

  17. I understand that blocking ads can block revenue for the website owners on whose pages the ads appear. However, I wanted to point out one legitimate and important reason I block ads.

    As a person who has struggled for over twenty years with an eating disorder, diet ads are very problematic for me. I NEED to limit my exposure to them. Unfortunately, since there isn’t CURRENTLY a way for me to switch off those particular ad types, I often wind up blocking ads entirely on some sites.

    I will note that I don’t block all ads on all sites. However, when I am on a page where a diet ad appears, I block that ad and any further ads from that advertising company. Some types of websites have ads that don’t shove dieting in my face, and those ads are allowed to stay (webcomics tend to have good ads in general).

    Facebook permits me to select an ad I don’t like and give them my reason for not liking it; it is then replaced by items that are usually in a different category. After marking all the diet ads I’ve seen on Facebook as “offensive”, I now almost never see any of that type. I’ve also been able to train their ad program to stop sending me political ads that are for the opposite of my own views. If more advertisers would follow Facebook’s example, I’d be so happy; training the ad program has resulted in it actually putting up ads for things that interested me enough to click!

    I know that a lot of people might just tell me to shut up and “grow a thicker skin”, but if you’ve never been in the hellhole of disordered eating, it just isn’t that simple. I’ve realized that, since I started managing my ad exposure, I’ve been far less negative about eating and food. Before, I probably got about 600 to 700 Calories in a day on average, while lately I’ve been managing to get 900 or so.

    Ads can be damaging to people, and because of that, some of us have to monitor what we view.

  18. I feel your pain. My main site (www.JigsawADay.com) often gets just a penny per click from Google, which is why I’m running ads from other places, but no pop-ups. At one point it was earning me nearly $25 a day, but Google keeps on slapping those of us who run their ads, and so far today, I’ve earned a whopping $3.26, and the day is almost over.

  19. I use the Adblock Plus plugin for Firefox. You can set it to block all ads (by “subscribing” to a list of patterns that someone has put collected) — but I don’t do that. Instead, I just blacklist the ads that I find obnoxious… the ones that blink, scroll, or refresh every 10 seconds. All I have to do is right-click on the offending ad and select Block Image. Or, with a few keystrokes more, I can block the entire frame that contains the ad.

  20. I read this article a week or so ago, and it made me realise the effect of ad-blocking on hard working web content creators. I have now removed the web blocking software from my PC.

  21. I do a lot of shopping on the web but not on the spur of the moment off of web page ads. I run NoScript and AdBlock Plus in Firefox. Why? NoScript keeps out the automated scripts that can load a virus without me doing anything but browsing to the page. I am in a rural area and have slow internet. Not loading ads help me browse faster.

  22. Just a note to “Rio” who marks ads as offensive on Facebook: Getting too many of your ads marked as offensive can get an advertiser’s account banned. Best suggestion – just ignore them.

  23. Randy, thanks for bringing this issue to light. While I’m not a religious man in any ordinary sense of the word, I am always delighted when I find someone speaking up for decency and common sense. Too many people use ‘morality’ as a sledge-hammer — do what I say is right or fry in hell — without offering any explanation (other than ‘because God said so’), but you have clearly stated not only what the problem is but also why it’s a problem. Thank you for your clear-headed thinking and for showing that it’s possible to be moral without believing in someone else’s idea of God (even though I don’t think that was your intent).

  24. I just read your segment about ads on your pages. I use the Adblock Plus (ABP) plugin in Firefox because graphic (especially animated) ads on pages are a distraction. However, ABP makes it easy to allow ads from a website or specific page. After reading your segment, I went to your Mugshot Museum page and enabled ads. It looks like I’m unlikely to get targeted ads of interest on that page, but if you’re paid by impression on any, you’ll get my impressions.

    Also, I’ll keep in mind your comment about the ads and will now allow ads on sites that I frequently visit.

  25. FYI, this is why I run an ad-blocker with the default being block all ads.

    Assuming that’s true, that’s something Google, et al, should be ashamed of. I hope they clean things up fast. -rc

  26. Web browsers such as Google obtain all IP addresses through the use of cookies. These allow these browsers to place a limit on the number of payable clicks any IP address user may make in any single day. Click fraud used to be an issue in days gone by, but isn’t any more.

    You don’t have a very good understanding of how things work (or, at least, didn’t describe it accurately). Google doesn’t need any special element added to a browser (or even a cookie) to count clicks: if the ad is displayed, they know what IP address it’s displayed to. Counting the clicks from an IP is one way to detect click fraud, but it’s hardly a perfect solution, since some ISPs (notably AOL) reuse IPs frequently on the one side, and on the other, scammers can rotate through as many IPs as they need to avoid that level of detection. A complete solution is much more sophisticated. -rc

  27. What you are asking, Randy, is that I run your software on my computer.

    Okay, it may not literally be _your_ software, but it is Javascript that has been fed to my browser as a result of my visiting your site.

    Any Javascript could contain malicious elements; and, as previous comments here suggest, ads are an attractive vector for malware purveyors. So ads (or the software that implements them) are more likely to be unsafe than the other software served from an otherwise trustworthy site.
    Therefore, one of two conclusions:

    1. the website user must take extra care in allowing ad-serving software to run; and the safest way for most non IT-savvy people to do that across the board is to ban ads altogether.

    2. to make an outright ban not the safest approach, the ad vendors and the ad servers (ie you, Randy) need to put in place active steps to guarantee the quality (and non-maliciousness) of your software….Perhaps add some certificates to assert the software has been tested/inspected for malware; my browser would then happily run ad software with a valid certificate from a recognized certifying authority. I’d expect the ad serving parties (you, Google, Bing, the cert auth, etc; work out who is responsible among yourselves before implementing certificates) to pay the costs of any damage to my machine if a certified ad was a malware vector.

    Basically, there is no trust in the ad industry. You could start to change all that. Maybe make some more money by making ad blockers a thing of the past too.

  28. Randy: not gonna happen. Ad networks have been delivering malware on a regular basis for years now. Preventing it would require actually checking the ads they run, and that’s just not economical for the big ad networks.

    Though I spend about 10 hours/day online, and DON’T run an antivirus program, I’ve never, EVER had a virus. Yet you claim that the ad networks spread them. I just have to think this is unfounded paranoia. -rc

  29. By experience, (it is now 2014,) I have found that there’s NO WAY to tell in advance if an ad is going to be a blinking one. The blinking ones give me a migraine so I can’t ‘afford’ to see one first, before blocking it. Sorry, I will continue to run ABP everywhere.

    That said, I’m finding that Safari in OS X (Mac) is so much easier to deal with than just about any browser in Windows, so I’ve given up on Windows, even from BootCamp.

    [Oh, I’m not money-rich by any means: My computers (2) nowadays are both “hand-me-downs”.]

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