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Practical Computer Advice
from Martin Kadansky
Volume 14 Issue 2
February 2020
Should You Use an Ad-Blocking Extension in Your Web Browser?

Online advertising

There are many types of ads that you'll see on websites, including:
  • Direct, unpaid: Links, notices, articles, and more listing other products or services that are directly related to the person or company who runs that site; common examples of sites that do this include Amazon, Staples, Lands End, Harry and David, LL Bean.
  • Direct, paid: Ads for the particular products or services that directly sponsor (help pay for) that website; these are sometime called "affiliate links" since they're affiliated, i.e., specifically chosen by the site owner; this is common among authors on blogging sites who want to earn extra income by "monetizing" their blogs.
  • Indirect, paid: Ads for a wide range of unrelated products or services that get placed on a website indirectly through agencies, not directly chosen by the company running that site; examples include CNN, Microsoft, AOL, NYTimes, Forbes, Reddit, Pinterest.
  • Targeted, paid: On some websites, the ads can be custom-targeted because the site usually knows a lot about each of its visitors, including their activity in the moment and in the past; examples include Google, Bing, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Gmail.
Why block online advertising

In my experience, these are the most common reasons you might want to block online ads:
  • Distracting: Online ads are designed to attract your attention, so they can be visually distracting, so blocking them can reduce the visual clutter on some of the web pages you visit and make those pages load a little faster.
  • Confusing: On some sites, there are so many ads it can be difficult to find the site's actual content. This can be particularly confusing and frustrating on software-download sites where both the regular content and the ads all have "Download" links.
  • Potential security threats: Years ago purveyors of malicious advertising ("Malvertising") started fake online ad agencies that easily placed online ads on legitimate websites. When clicked, these ads subject end-users to a variety of malicious attacks, ranging from stealing personal information, to trying to infect their computers with malicious software, to scams (including the pervasive "Your computer is infected!" scams that try to trick you into paying to remove a problem that wasn't there in the first place). This threat makes ad-blocking technology a very important security and scam-prevention tool.
How do you block website ads on your computer?

The process is fairly simple:
  • Select a reputable ad-blocking extension that's compatible with your web browser (Internet Explorer, Apple Safari, Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox, etc.). A browser extension is a special piece of software that installs directly into your web browser, and it will have access to everything that you do in that program, including every website you visit and everything you type, so it's important to make a careful choice. Don't just rely on a general Google search, since there are also many malicious extensions with very similar and misleading "ad block" names. Read reviews only from reputable sites, get recommendations from people who you know and trust.
  • Once you've chosen an ad-blocking extension, it should be clear how to install it into your web browser. You may also have to close and reopen your browser.
  • Review the extension's settings; some are more complicated than others.
  • Try visiting some websites where you've seen advertising before, do a Google search (which typically shows ads based on your search keywords), etc. Have the ads disappeared?
  • Make sure that you know also how to "whitelist" a given website, i.e., how to tell your ad-blocking extension to make an exception and not block ads on a particulate site. See below for the importance of doing this.
  • Also make sure that you know how to disable or remove an extension in your web browser, so that if you decide to stop using this extension entirely you'll know how to do it. It's typically in the browser's Settings or Options or Preferences.
Suggested ad-blocking extensions

Adblock Plus (http://adblockplus.org) is the only one that I have experience with. It works in many browsers on Windows and Macintosh computers, as well as on iOS and Android mobile devices.

"uBlock Origin" (http://ublock.org) and "Ghostery" (http://www.ghostery.com) also seem to be popular and well-respected ad blockers, but I have not used either of them.

The "price" of blocking online ads

While most ad-blocking browser extensions are completely free to use, you may encounter some issues after you install one.

In my experience, in this context there are four kinds of websites:
  • Those on which there are no ads, so your ad blocker won't have to do anything.
  • Those that have ads, which your ad blocker will block just fine.
  • Those that will put up a message to complain that you're using an ad blocker, but after you click to acknowledge it, the site will work just fine.
  • Those that will put up a message completely refusing to let you in or read their content until you either make an exception for their site (which is a reasonable workaround) or disable your ad blocker entirely (which I do not recommend).
When you encounter this fourth and most extreme type (and it's probably only a matter of time), you have a choice:
  • You can choose to add that site to your ad blocker's "whitelist," refresh the page, and the site will then let you in and work fine. When you're done, you can either leave it on your whitelist, or remove it as you see fit.
  • Or, you can simply close that site (which you most likely found doing an online search) and move on to any number of other sites with equivalent information. Unless a particular site is the only source of information for your needs, you never have to comply with such demands and be treated like a captive audience or unwelcome visitor.
Related issues

Here are some additional things that you should know:
  • Your ad blocker may not block every ad on every website.
  • Like an antivirus program, ad blockers use internal "filter lists" that tell them what and how to block. Your ad blocker will probably download regular updates to its list over your internet connection so that it can do the best job for you.
  • Installing an ad blocker in your web browser will have no effect on any advertising email messages that you receive, even if you use webmail (i.e., you get your email using your web browser on a website like Gmail.com or AOL.com, as opposed to using a regular email program like Microsoft Outlook Apple Mail, Mozilla Thunderbird, Windows Mail, etc.).
  • Installing an ad blocker in one web browser will have no effect on any others, so if you use more than one browser, or if you have more than one computer, I recommend that you install an ad blocker in each browser on each of your computers.
  • Installing an ad blocker will also have no effect on any advertising displayed by other programs that you use.
  • I don't recommend installing more than one ad blocking extension in any given browser, mostly because many ad blockers use the same (or similar) filter lists, so installing more than one will probably waste your computer's time and effort without giving you any extra protection.
  • Your web browser probably also has its own various "privacy" or "content blocking" settings which you should also review.
  • All technology inevitably changes and evolves, especially in an escalating online battlefield such as this one, so any particular browser extension (or web browser itself) may no longer be effective at some point in the future.
Blocking ads on mobile devices

I don't have any hands-on experience blocking ads on iPhones, iPads, or Android devices, but my research indicates that:
  • There are plenty of ad-blocking that apps you can download for iOS and Android. As with ad-blocking extensions for your computer, do your homework and choose carefully, there may be malicious app developers out there hoping to trick you into installing theirs.
  • On iPhones and iPads you may only be able to block ads on websites only.
  • On Android, it appears that you can block ads shown by websites, apps, and games.
Where to go from here
How to contact me:
email: martin@kadansky.com
phone: (617) 484-6657
web: http://www.kadansky.com

On a regular basis I write about real issues faced by typical computer users. To subscribe to this newsletter, please send an email to martin@kadansky.com and I'll add you to the list, or visit http://www.kadansky.com/newsletter

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I love helping people learn how to use their computers better! Like a "computer driving instructor," I work 1-on-1 with small business owners and individuals to help them find a more productive and successful relationship with their computers and other high-tech gadgets.

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