An Update on the Ad Situation

I’ve gotten a lot of complaints about bad and intrusive ads over the last few weeks, and justifiably so. I wanted to give our readers an update on what we’re doing. I just got off a conference call with the techs at the company that is providing our ads (it’s Patheos, actually; I don’t know if I’ve ever revealed that publicly before, but they are providing our ads now). There are several specific problems we talked about.

1. Autoplay audio. This is a problem that is not just happening here, it’s happening all over the web. Starting a few weeks ago, there was a concerted effort by vendors to violate the rules of the ad networks and sneak in code for autoplay audio into ads that weren’t supposed to have them. We’ve had a particular problem with Verizon doing this. But it usually happens in the middle of a long string of ads that show flash video without audio. You may have noticed that some of the ad slots will show video (without audio) ads for multiple companies or products, one after the other. And in the middle of a string of those, suddenly one of them has audio. Very, very annoying. The techs think they have identified the two networks responsible for those ads and they are shutting them out of our feed (they get ads from a large number of ad networks, so it can be difficult to track them down). It is inevitable that some of these will sneak through now and then, but it’s been happening far too much and they think they’ve done the sleuthing necessary to slow that down.

2. Pop up ads. Our rule is simple: One pop up ad that easily and immediately clicks off if you hit the X. But we’ve had two pop ups going some of the time and it’s because one of the ad codes was written incorrectly. That should be fixed now. We’ve also had a problem with a pop up ad that doesn’t click off immediately but gives you a second “are you sure you want to leave” window. That ad should be killed in the next day or two.

3. Mobile ads that go straight to the Google Play or iPhone stores. Lots of complaints about that lately from those who view the site on tablets or phones. Patheos has had the same problem, as have many other sites, and they’re working on killing those ads as well.

4. The slider ad that kills the scroll bar. This one may actually take some changes in the way our html renders to fix. We’re setting up a call with our site tech and their tech people to figure out how to fix this. It only seems to be happening on certain browsers (particular IE). I’ve never seen it, neither have most of our readers. But we’re going to fix it, whether it takes changing the ad code, changing our site code, or both.

I apologize for the inconvenience. Believe me, I’m as annoyed as you all are with this stuff. But some of it is not just us, it’s all over the internet and it requires the big ad networks to do more to screen the ads they serve and it’s not easy to get them to do that. The Patheos folks are going to a conference next week where the ad networks and major publishers will be getting together to discuss those issues and put some pressure on the networks to do more to prevent these problems. I promise you, we’re working on fixing it.

In the meantime, please do keep sending those tech help emails. When you do, give us as much information as you can — your OS, browser and version, the company the ad is for, a screenshot of it, anything you can. It’s important that I know this stuff so I can fix it. And even if we don’t reply to each of you that sends one, please know that I’m taking it seriously and working with Patheos to address the problems. And thank you for your patience and understanding.

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  • Chiroptera

    My problem is that when I use a browser that doesn’t have an add-on that kills the scripts, it bogs down terribly. Every function runs so slow; even typing, I type entire sentences but have to wait until they finally display on the screen. Sometimes it freezes completely and I have to shut the browser down.

    Eventually I’m going to add that add-on to the browser that I’m using now and it won’t be a problem for me on this computer (being able to fix this myself is why I haven’t complained to tech support), but I wonder how many other people are having this problem?

  • Al Dente

    Thanks Ed.

  • Trebuchet

    What ads? I’ve gone with the ad-free option. At $30/yr, it’s pretty cheap.

    Meanwhile, I still don’t understand why companies think that annoying the heck out of people is a good way to sell products.

    Oh, and I still hate the current main page.

  • moarscienceplz

    4. The slider ad that kills the scroll bar… It only seems to be happening on certain browsers (particular IE). I’ve never seen it, neither have most of our readers.

    I have only been using Chrome, and I used to see this every time, but it hasn’t happened for the last 3 or 4 weeks. Would prefer sliders get deep-sixed altogether, scroll bar or no scroll bar.

  • phhht

    I no longer read Patheos sites (Friendly Atheist, etc) because of their pop-up ads.

    If I start to see such ads here, I will stop reading your site too.

  • Hercules Grytpype-Thynne

    Ed,

    While we’re cataloguing grievances, has anyone complained about the below the “Dispatches” banner? Most of the time I get a Verizon ad that slides down maybe a third of an inch when the cursor touches it. This means that if I’m at all careless with my cursor position when i go to click a link to the next or previous post, the ad slides down to cover the very link I’m aiming for. Needless to say, this is very annoying. It’s like “before you go on to the next page, LOOK AT ME LOOK AT ME LOOK AT ME!!!”

  • Hercules Grytpype-Thynne

    P.S. Not just Verizon. I just got one for Blue Cross/Blue Shield that does the very same thing.

  • Hercules Grytpype-Thynne

    P.P.S. “about the ads below the ‘Dispatches’ banner”

  • Michael Heath

    Ed,

    For your regular readers who are subscribing to all your blog posts and the reading the comments, which way makes you more money?

    As a businessman I don’t mind the ads since I’m always interested in understanding marketing efforts (though I do block pop-ups and Flash). I also enjoy watching advertisers follow me around various websites and what they present for me to buy. Right now Amazon is particularly intent on selling me Johnston and Murphy shoes. Last year Stihl really wanted to sell me a leaf blower in spite my buying one from one of their dealers years prior to that.

    So if it’s a nit, I’ll stick with the ads. But if you make a lot more with ad-free subscribers, then I’ll happily sign up for that option.

  • Suido

    I haven’t had the problem with FtB, but I’ve definitely clicked links to various pages while on my phone, and after a few seconds on the page have been diverted to the app store. Ridiculous. I’m trying to read what’s at the link. Going back and re-clicking the link doesn’t work, I tend to either give up or find the content on another site – neither of which are good for the original site I was trying to access.

  • Chelydra

    I was having a very similar problem to that which Chiroptera mentions, but it seems to have stopped with a reset of the browser (Safari 4.1.3 on Mac OS 10.4.11). [Correction: unblocking the Flash-based ad below the list of “Science Blogs” just triggered the problem, a minutes-long series of spinning-beachball-of-death-cursors during which the browser is unusable. Just visiting FTB caused this behavior before, even with Flash blocked.]

    The clickbait is obnoxious (often misogynistic or fearmongering), and the popups I get are either scareware or all-natural male enhancement (disguised as a fake healthy living site). I gather that’s all you get with advertising these days, though.

  • Rowan vet-tech

    I’ve had to stop reading patheos blogs, precisely because of the 8 billion advertisements. It slows my computer to a crawl and often crashes firefox. I *had* to purchase the $30/yr thing to get rid of the ads, because I didn’t want to have to abandon this place as well.

    There’s having a few ads, and then there’s have DOZENS on each page.

  • Onamission5

    Ah, so when I said the site was now less functional than patheos, that’s the reason.

  • gerryl

    I consistently have the slider problem. I use IE11. Here is the routine:

    Launch FreeThoughtBlogs. Click on Dispatches in left channel. New screen reveals long vertical ad on left that pushes all text to right.

    Before I can scroll I must close the ad and then refresh the page. This has been going on for a couple of weeks.

    As I wrote this I was finding that I kept missing keystrokes. I thought it was me, so I began watching as I typed. It wasn’t me. Almost every other keystroke did not register. Scrolled up and saw that a video ad was running. Turned it off and the keystroke problem disappeared.

  • dmcclean

    I agree with #1, the performance impact is almost worse than the auto-play audio. Even if I just leave a FTB tab open while I do other things, it cripples the whole machine.

  • grumpyoldfart

    the company that is providing our ads (it’s Patheos, actually;

    They would be the dopiest marketers on the Internet. They plonk a pop-up for their own newsletter right on top their own articles. When you switch it off, it pops right back up again.

  • eric

    This will be a somewhat mixed comment.

    1. I come here for the content. I will continue to come here for the content, because it’s worth it to me.

    2. Thank you for your efforts. I appreciate it and give kudos for your efforts to both rein in the ads and keep us informed.

    3. Having said that, this site is the most ad-problematic site I visit regularly. Probably the worst in my last 10 years of surfing the net. That is not a place you want to be, because it means my point #1 could change. In all fairness this is only partly FtB’s fault; I often visit from heavily regulated computers, and I suspect a lot of the problems I experience have to do with these system’s attempts to fight the ads, as it is a problem of the ads itself. Nevertheless, it’s a problem.

    4. Keep up the good posts and the efforts to fix the problems. I don’t demand perfection, but it would sure be nice to get to a point where (a) half the screen and scroll bar doesn’t disappear once every visit, and (b) I don’t lose half my characters when I try to post, as my system attempts to fight off the more aggressive pop-up or auto-play ads.

  • chris

    I use Firefox. What I do when I come to freethoughtblogs is to start the Windows task manager (right mouse click on the taskbar which is at the bottom of my Windows 7* screen, choose “Start Task Manager”), then click to “Processes”, choose the “CPU” tab, and when FlashPlayer shows up… catch it, click on it, hit the right mouse button and kill the process. I also have to do this with news pages and ScienceBlogs (like Respectful Insolence).

    Actually I don’t mind the advertisements. I just wish they would find a way to use less of my computer’s resources. The idiotic Flash videos take up too much of the CPU’s resources (up to 50%!).

    I have the Web of Trust plugin added to my browser. What is interesting is that the FTB ads that popup in a separate Firefox page always have a WoT red warning on them. I typically just close them from the taskbar.

    * Yes my computer is old, but I like it. It seems to have an issue with Flash videos. I don’t care, it runs the programs I need. Plus we replaced a child’s computer with a new one, but the old one was under an extended warranty so it was repaired. It is now my video laptop.

  • Rick Pikul

    @Trebuchet

    Meanwhile, I still don’t understand why companies think that annoying the heck out of people is a good way to sell products.

    I think it’s the long-term impact of an early overreaction that led to an arms race.

    When ads first came to the web, they ran into a culture that really didn’t like ads so you had a fair number of people who were doing things to block the ad servers and even more who totally ignored them. Had the ad companies simply waited, the new people who were coming on line would have had no problem with the rather low-key advertising that was used at the start, (new users not having the anti-advertising culture of the 80s/early90s Internet).

    Instead, the advertisers decided to bypass people’s blocks and to try and force people to pay attention to their ads[1]. This led to people coming up with better ad blocking and more people want to block, which the advertisers reacted to by coming up with new filter workarounds and even more intrusive ads, which led to….

    [1] Ironically, making it harder to block ended up making it easier, (it went from ‘edit these system files in a particular way’ to ‘install this browser extension and click here to subscribe to a maintained filter list’), and the things aimed at forcing people to look at the ads made more people want to block them.

  • raven

    I haven’t had problems worth noting about FTB ads.

    There was a slider problem but that went away long ago.

  • reddiaperbaby1942

    I don’t seem to have the technical problems that some others do, and normally I don’t pay any attention to the ads, but I really detest one of them. It’s hard to ignore because it’s one of those “bouncy” ones. ( I don’t know the technical term, and at my age I can’t be bothered to learn it, but I mean the kind that keeps bouncing around on the screen instead of just sitting still like a good ad should.)

    What makes it detestable is its content: “I’m a … (fill in “teacher”, “father” or any other word for an ordinary everyday role) and I’m openly secular”. It’s bad enough using the phrase “openly gay” (which I notice seems to be less common nowadays); but “openly secular”?

    I live in Finland (and so does my laptop). I know that ad content varies somewhat according to location and previous browsing history, and some of the ads are clearly derived for instance from my recent Amazon activity, but this ones seems pertinent to FtB. Is there nothing we can do about it?

  • flex

    I have the same problem Chris at #18 has, although my computer isn’t old. It’s heavily locked down by our IT department so browser or flash updates are nigh-impossible.

    So when FTB starts taking forever to load, I open up the task manager and find 1 of the 2 FlashPlayerPlugin_15_0_0_189.exe *32 loaded (for some reason FTB starts more than one running, probably for multiple ads, but this itself may be part of the trouble), the one sucking up more than 100,000 K of memory, and kill the process.

    Firefox then tells me that the plugin is non-responsive and I tell it, “Good!”

    Within a half hour I have to do it again.

  • hunter

    Chiroptera @1: I’m having the same problem, not so much here but at other sites — it’s a regular occurrence, but never the same site twice. I’m using Firefox (the latest version, whatever that is — I have it set to update automatically), and eventually it just freezes and I have to restart. (I also get scrambled input if I try to leave a comment — it pauses, then comes out jumbled.)

    The thing is, this happens usually between 9 and 10 am my time. I was thinking I’m hitting peak load on my ISP’s servers, but maybe it’s the ads.

    If you can recommend an add-on that will block them, I’m all ears (in a manner of speaking).

  • Anri

    Speaking personally I would be leery at best about visiting a website that a friend described as “It’s good, but make sure you have something like adblock before going there”, as would (I suspect) most even slightly net-savvy people.

    Guess what I have to say about FtB.

  • colnago80

    I don’t want to play computer expert here but I suspect that much of the problems visitors are experience with ads is due to poorly designed scripts. I use Firefox but experiments with Chrome seem to have the same problems. Oddly enough, Safari seems to have fewer problems with scripts, possibly because the folks at Apple have designed the browser to mesh better with OS operating systems. I don’t know about Safari for Windows.

  • feministhomemaker

    I use Safari and the most annoying popup ad is the one that won’t let me quit Safari. Multiple windows sit open behind my Safari browser window and they foreground when I try to close Safari. They won’t close until I force quit. I have to force quit every time. It happens almost every time I visit Pharyngula onFTB. Very annoying. Even though I know it isn’t FTB fault, still it inadvertently associates a feeling of coercion (from the ad not closing upon my attempt to avoid it and instead forcing me to take extra “nuclear option” step to kill it) with my favorite blog! Not good!

  • http://www.ranum.com Marcus Ranum

    I’d kick in a couple hundred bucks a year to make the site ad-free for everyone, but I’m not willing to pay to have it ad-free just for myself.

    How about a fund-raiser once a year, NPR-style, and if you raise enough, no ads.

  • http://www.ranum.com Marcus Ranum

    I don’t get advertising at all. I ignore it and don’t reward them with my money.

    The only ad placement that makes sense is when it’s in the search engine. If I search for “5tb hard drive” there is a better-than-usual chance I am lookin to buy one, so the ads are worthwhile to the seller and to me. But if I am reading a skeptic website and there are ads for how to get weirdly ripped abs then, wtf, my brain filters that noise.

  • Chiroptera

    hunter, #23:

    I was hoping that someone else would answer your question with a better solution than I’m going to offer; you might find my solution less than ideal.

    I use Firefox (my operating system is Linux). I’ve installed an add-on called “no script.” The problem is that it will prevent a lot of functionality of a lot of web sites. When I’m on FTB and I want to use the button on the left to look at recent comments, I have to tell it to allow two of the scripts to run. Otherwise, logging in and looking at individual posts and navigating to other blogs seems to run fine without the scripts.

    On a lot of websites, it can be tedious to figure out which scripts to allow to run if you want functionality. (HInt: any script with “cloud” somewhere in the name is almost always necessary, especially if it is image heavy.) For retail sites that I use often, I have particular scripts turned on permanently.

    If there are too many scripts to manually turn on or search through to find the correct ones to turn on, you can always temporarily turn “no script” off and then turn it on again when you are finished. Kind of defeats the purpose, so I only do this for websites that I visit once in a blue moon and have too many scripts to be worth searching through.

    At any rate, sorry if this sounds too cumbersome to use. It’s really not so bad, and it works well for me.

  • Chiroptera

    PS: I am now using a browser without the no script add on. FTB seems to be running much, much better today. Maybe the problems are being fixed as we speak?

  • ketemphor

    I generally don’t mind ads, but the flashplayer / high CPU usage thing was getting me as well on a pretty new i7 Windows 8 laptop.

    I wound up installing a Firefox plugin called FlashDisable that gives me a little icon on the toolbar to turn the flash plugin on and off. I browse almost everywhere with it off now. Even most youtube videos will go over to HTML5 if they don’t detect the flash plugin. It takes care of those intermittent flash audio ads as well…

    Personally I don’t consider this to be “ad-blocking” per se since there’s no guarantee that anyone has flash player installed.

  • http://lykex.livejournal.com LykeX

    I’ll second (or however many is it by now) the complaints about the flash videos. It causes serious slowdown, to the point where I’ve had my browser stall out completely if I open more than one or two tabs with FtB. I don’t much mind the various banners and ads normally, but this one is really annoying.

  • http://rawnaerisdream.blogspot.com Rawnaeris, Lulu Cthulhu

    I don’t mind the ads, in general, as I don’t mind that being how the site is funded.

    Thank you for managing to nix the pop overs that scrolled with the screen and was impossible to close as it crashed all my mobiles (for the record, that includes idevices and android).

    X-posted at PZ’s

  • abb3w

    I wonder if there could be a class action lawsuit certified against the offending advertisers, over their falsely representing these ads as compliant with the non-audio restrictions. There would probably be a lot of bloggers happy to get a few hundred bucks of Verizon’s money.

  • One Day Soon I Shall Invent A Funny Login

    To all having problems with Firefox and flash: just install the FlashBlock extension (https://addons.mozilla.org/en-US/firefox/addon/flashblock/). Suddenly a great stillness will descend on FTB! Every one of the ads that uses Flash, which is most of them, will still be there but instead of a moving (or blaring) image there is just a gray rectangle with a button you can click to run the movie if you want to. (Yeah, that’ll happen.)

    This is also the cure to performance degredation. I like to open several blog posts in tabs by clicking on the posts in an RSS reader (RSS Owl, recommended), then read them at leisure. Previously, my mac would bog down with up to 50% constant CPU utilization as a result of Firefox trying to run 10 or a dozen flash-ads concurrently. The fan would come on and the laptop would burn my knees. Then I’d open the Activity Monitor and kill the Firefox flash plugin to restore calm (same as killing it with the Windows task manager).

    No more! With the flashblock extension this never happens. There are as many ad windows as before, but they just lie there using no CPU.

  • screechymonkey

    The slider ad that kills the scroll bar. This one may actually take some changes in the way our html renders to fix. We’re setting up a call with our site tech and their tech people to figure out how to fix this. It only seems to be happening on certain browsers (particular IE).

    That appears to be the case for me at least: I stopped having this problem a while ago on my computer that uses Firefox, but the one using IE has it.

  • Onamission5

    I have the same issue as #1, #14, and #15– delayed and/or nonexistent text recognition when typing out a comment, so that words become jumbled or are omitted altogether. Used to only have that problem when attempting to leave a comment on patheos blogs, but it’s happening here now too. Usually a page refresh (or two, or three) will allow me to type out my comment without having to go back and edit in spaces or fix jumbled text. When the page isn’t closing itself due to long running scripts, that is.

    Having one window open to patheos and another to FtB is a recipe for system crash. I don’t do that any more.

    Still using IE Windows 8, FWIW.

  • Onamission5

    Oh, too, on my mobile browser I now get a warning that the page has a corrupt security certificate before anything from FtB will load. That didn’t happen before the switch. Windows for android, IIRC.

  • Karen Locke

    I’m generally happy with my subscription, but I’ve sent a whine to tech support about how much ad crap is necessary to navigate on the way to logging in; it seems like you’re dealing with some of that now, which is good. Thanks for trying to keep the site maximally friendly while still getting ad revenue.

    Is there any way to extend the login time? I read FtB every day, and it seems like I have to re-login every other day at least. It’s a bit of a PITA.

  • Kevin Kehres

    The “slider” thing happens with Chrome running off of Windows 8.1 as well.

  • Holyboy

    Ed, I gladly pay the 30 bucks a year and have zero ads on the FtB site using an iPad running Safari. The only unsolicited info is the Events Calendar which isn’t necessary since most Blogs & Podcasts cover events.

  • John Horstman

    Companies have gone off the rails with Flash-based ads. The Flash player commonly now eats up 2.5 to 4GB of RAM rendering ads for only one or two tabs and constantly runs a CPU core at maximum (thank Seth they didn’t set it to use multiple cores or it would probably monopolize those too). The issue is that they’ve made the ads so problematic that even people who want to run them to support sites often simply can’t use the sites at all, even on desktop computers that are only a couple years old (let alone RAM-limited, CPU-limited mobile devices), so their options are either to block/disable the ads (bad for advertisers) or not use the sites (also bad for advertisers). It’s like shooting yourself in the foot to spite your face – nobody even comes close to winning. It’s also rather confusing that ad companies can somehow not understand basic market economics, since it underlies everything they do.

  • Pierce R. Butler

    Years ago, I added the NoScript add-on to Firefox (currently 32.02) on Mac (OSX 10.6.8), mostly in a (probably futile) attempt to interfere with Google accumulating data on me.

    After reading about how this interfered with FtB’s revenue, I set NoScript to “allow all” JavaScript from FtB. The banner ads and those on the left sidebar reappeared; when having some problem (details now forgotten), I used the same NoScript command again and the ads between post and comments came back too.

    Then one of Firefox’s numerous updates came along, or maybe one of FtB’s much rarer updates, and all the ads went away even though NoScript still has FtB under “allow all”. I would – much as I hate advertising in general – allow them back to send a trickle of small change to our mighty overlords, if I could, but don’t want (esp. after reading the above) go to “allow everything” mode (NoScript presently reports blockage of 6 scripts and allowance of 8).

    What to do?

  • congenital cynic

    I also have problems with slow response on this site, and sometimes I get a message that it’s a slow running script, and sometimes I know it’s a Flash based ad. There’s a reason Steve Jobs hated flash. It’s a piece of shit. Worst video codec ever. Resource hungry, shitty quality, and there are so many other better formats available.

  • http://motherwell.livejournal.com/ Raging Bee

    But some of it is not just us, it’s all over the internet…

    No, it’s not “all over the Internet,” it’s only this disgracefully bad here. The second-worst place for ad(mal)ware is Salon.com.

    And I notice you didn’t mention that trojan virus my anti-virus software keeps on having to quarantine every fucking time I come here. Are you EVER going to get around to that? I notice you’re mentioning all the other interest-groups you have to “work with” to even begin to get anything done.

    Short answer: your business model does not inspire confidence.