Think Evil

February 13, 2009
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Every now and then, I think about ways to subvert the ad-supported model, particularly for web search. It’s my token resistance to the tyranny of free. Some of my thoughts undoubtedly qualify as evil. And today, Friday the 13th,  feels like an appropriate day to let my evil side take over the blog.

A few years ago, when it became clear that Microsoft was losing the search wars to Google–but when they hadn’t lost much browser market share to Firefox–I thought they should have used a scorched earth strategy of including an ad-blocker in Internet Explorer. The ad blocker would be on by default and would block all ads, including sponsored links from search engines. Actually, I can’t bring myself to consider this particular approach evil–from my perspective, the means would justify the end. I can only speculate about how the antitrust courts would have reacted to this browser enhancement.

But, even after Microsoft missed its chance to make ad-blocking an above-board feature, there was still an opportunity to let others do the job. I imagined a virus whose sole function, beyond propagating itself, would be to install ad blockers on the machines of its

Every now and then, I think about ways to subvert the ad-supported model, particularly for web search. It’s my token resistance to the tyranny of free. Some of my thoughts undoubtedly qualify as evil. And today, Friday the 13th,  feels like an appropriate day to let my evil side take over the blog.

A few years ago, when it became clear that Microsoft was losing the search wars to Google–but when they hadn’t lost much browser market share to Firefox–I thought they should have used a scorched earth strategy of including an ad-blocker in Internet Explorer. The ad blocker would be on by default and would block all ads, including sponsored links from search engines. Actually, I can’t bring myself to consider this particular approach evil–from my perspective, the means would justify the end. I can only speculate about how the antitrust courts would have reacted to this browser enhancement.

But, even after Microsoft missed its chance to make ad-blocking an above-board feature, there was still an opportunity to let others do the job. I imagined a virus whose sole function, beyond propagating itself, would be to install ad blockers on the machines of its “victims”. Somehow I doubt there would be much of an outcry from users, and even the eradication of this virus might take long enough that many users would be introduced to ad blocking and find it attractive.  I imagined that, before Google negotiated with them, the Chinese government might have considered this strategy themselves as a preemptive strike. In any case, there is no lack of virus writers around the world who could implement such a scheme, and some of them live in countries with even worse economies than the United States.

Finally, it occurred to me that a more subtle variation of this strategy would be to leave the ads intact, but route clicks directly to the advertised links, bypassing the search engines. In the immediate terms, users would not notice a difference, but search engines would get no clickthrough data, and thus could not charge the advertisers. Unchecked, such an approach could destroy the pay-per-click (PPC) model.

I truly doubt that any of the above will come to pass. But I can still dream my evil dreams. Happy Friday the 13th!

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