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Choosing an adblocker that best fits your preferences

Choosing an adblocker that best fits your preferences

Reviewing adblockers for your browser

It may be a pop-up that blocks you from accessing a website. Or perhaps that video that starts playing on a volume your deaf neighbour can hear. At some point, online advertisements become too intrusive to deal with. This week I review some of the most popular adblockers to help you choose the one that fits your preferences for advertisements.

Don't want the background? Skip straight to adblocker review

Last week I discussed the upcoming Google Chrome native adblocker, which will block intrusive advertisements. That prompted questions on what adblocker you’d want to use. I chose not to investigate options like Firefox’ private browsing and the upcoming Chrome adblocker, as the focus lies on adblockers that add something on top of your regular browser experience.

Picking an adblocker has a lot to do with your view on advertisements. The more radical you are in your opinions, the more you will lean towards a heavy-duty adblocker. But even if you hate advertisements, you must recognise that they are what allows you to get almost everything for free on the internet. That’s why, before we dive into the adblockers proper, I want to briefly discuss their origin story.

How adblockers came to be

Hosting and publishing a website costs time, effort and money. To get a return on this investment, many websites have started offering space on their pages for advertisements. This may be to make a profit or simply to break even. In exchange for showing you advertisements they can bring you free information and services over the internet.

Alternative revenue models exist, but these only work in specific cases. Unless you’re a constant value-adding resource, you can’t expect people to donate or subscribe to your service. Not every website is a Wikipedia or New York Times (to name a few). We must recognise the fact that many people want things for free, especially from a website they may only visit once.

"The future of advertising is the Internet." Bill Gates, Microsoft chairman, 2005

Somewhere along the line, the advertisement model has become a bit unbalanced. We have developed a syndrome called banner blindness, which means that users consciously or subconsciously ignore banner-shaped items. Couple that with the essentially limitless real estate on the internet and it became hard to stand out with your ad.

In response, websites started coming up with new methods of advertising. While more expensive, these advertisements were something people couldn’t circumvent. You could get a pop-up window (yes, window), which you would have to manually close. A few years later, browsers all had the functionality built-in to block these windows and the war for your attention had truly begun.

Advertisers started using more ingenious and intrusive ways to get your attention. Some websites blocked the page you visited and made you wait to continue. Popups started working within the window you were visiting, rather than going to a new window. Animations, bright colours, videos with the sound turned on automatically, you can have it all.

Growth of adblocker users. Source: Wikipedia Commons

Growth of adblocker users. Source: Wikipedia Commons

A lot of people started to get annoyed enough to look for alternatives. Adblockers grew from a niche product to a very large and ever-increasing audience. Estimates vary from 10% in 2016, 20% in 2017 and an estimated growth to 30% of users in 2018. These differences are because the size of the adblocking population is unknown and varies widely based on the type of audience and country of origin.

Behind the scenes, adblocking may be really hurting the free availability of online content. In 2010, ARS Technica found that many people don’t realise this. By blocking advertisements, you knowingly take away from their main (and sometimes only) source of income. You can of course whitelist sites you want to support, but that should make you question why you block ads in the first place. Are those advertisements suddenly okay if you like the site or are you being unfair towards the rest of the internet? I won’t lecture you for what you choose to do, but it’s something that needs to be considered.

Reasons to block advertisements

That said, there are plenty of legitimate reasons to want to block advertisements. Whatever the reason, there is an adblocker that follows your principles. To review the adblockers on their functionality, I created some profiles of potential adblockers. In the review, I will couple these profiles to the adblockers I review. That way you can choose an option that fits best with your personal preferences.

1. Intrusivist: You don’t want intrusive ads, but don’t mind regular ones. In my last article I mentioned that a lot of advertisers understand that they have gone too far with their ads. Even big parties such as Google and Facebook have joined the Coalition for Better Ads, which wants to get rid of some of the worst forms of advertisements. You’re with the industry on this one: you shouldn’t have to suffer when you visit websites. It pisses you off. You don’t mind seeing some advertisements, because websites need to make their money somehow. Advertisements just shouldn’t distract you too much.

2. Adhater: You don’t want any advertisements If you believe that all ads should die a miserable death, you’re in the right place in this category. You may believe that the whole advertisement industry is bad or maybe you just really dislike ads. Whatever the reason, you want to see very few advertisements, and that’s only because sometimes one slips through the cracks.

Trackers are a valid reason to avoid ads.

Trackers are a valid reason to avoid ads.

3. Trackerblocker: You don’t want to be tracked everywhere You feel that the internet has become a place where you don’t need advertisements. Everyone gathers your data and uses that for targeted ads, which means they milk the cow twice. Advertisements by themselves aren’t necessarily bad, but when you get ads on topics that are totally unrelated to the site you’re visiting, you feel watched and violated in your privacy.

4. Speedometer: You have limited internet speed When loading a website, real concern can be given to those with limited bandwidth. If you want to load all 20 ads on a website, that means that you use even more of the limited internet throughput you have. You’re looking for a solution that helps you achieve the best speeds possible.

5. Controller: You want control over your online experience Maybe you’re sensitive to loud sounds or flashy imagery, or maybe you just want to have the internet your way. Having no control over the type of advertisements shown and background activities performed makes you want to kick someone in the gonads. For lack of a physical person to kick, blocking stuff is the best alternative. You want something to block specific ads and trackers, but don’t mind the rest.

Reviewing the adblockers

Finally, we arrive at the review part of this article. I have selected several popular options to review, as there are a lot of alternatives out there. If I’ve missed anything worth mentioning, let me know in the comments below the article and I’ll update the guide over time.

The adblockers have been selected based on their last update date, which I required to be at least December 2017 (writing in February 2018). I also considered the number of reviews and their content, albeit with a pinch of salt. Some adblockers suffer from a lot of fake reviews. Finally, I also considered the origin of the adblocker. If an adblocker had no website or a lacking one, I left it out of consideration.

I would like to add that it's possible to run multiple solutions together. An adblocker and a tracker blocker can compliment one another, although solutions like uBlock Origin and Ghostery offer both in one package.

Adblock Plus

Browsers: Chrome, Edge, Firefox, Opera, Safari and more.
Website: https://adblockplus.org/
Recommended for: Nobody

Adblock Plus (ABP) is the most downloaded adblocker around. It tried some new things in 2015, being ahead of their time. Where Google and Facebook have joined the Coalition for Better Ads (more on that here), ABP tried to start a similar initiative before that existed.

It didn’t gain much traction, but ever since ABP has been focused allowing nonintrusive ads. They do this by whitelisting ads they deem acceptable, marking everything else unacceptable by default and blocking it.

The ABP interface looks good, albeit with few options

The ABP interface looks good, albeit with few options

ABP has been a source of controversy because of its whitelisting practices. This originated when they allowed companies to pay a fee to be whitelisted. This money went directly to ABP and was nothing more than a bribe to bypass the world's most popular adblocker.

Functionality aside, I fundamentally disagree with their approach to adblocking. Instead of taking the approach of blocking intrusive advertisements, they whitelist some and try to exploit their popularity to earn money from whitelisting. This, in my eyes, is a contradictory business model and the reason why I cannot endorse the use of ABP to anyone.

Adblock

Browsers: Chrome, Edge, Firefox, Opera, Safari
Website: https://getadblock.com/
Recommended for: Intrusivist, Adhater

My first encounter with adblocking and one of the most popular adblockers on the market. Its functionality is fairly straightforward, as it’s a one-click install. It works like a charm, blocking everything from standard banners to in-video advertisements in YouTube.

If you click on the icon, you’re presented with options to pause adblocking, whitelist a domain or page, block specific advertisements and more. You have all the functionality you’d expect from an adblocker in a clean overview.

AdBlock's interface is functional and clear

AdBlock's interface is functional and clear

AdBlock is part of the Acceptable Ads Program, which Adblock Plus founded. They have a guide on how to opt out of this, being very open and upfront about it. It does not receive any money from this program and just subscribes to the whitelist, making it an acceptable way of adblocking if you agree with this philosophy. The difference with Adblock Plus is that there's no monetary incentive in it for them, only an ideological one.

For people who want to be more moderate about adblocking, this may not be the best option. It allows you to block additional ads on websites, but doesn’t provide an option to only block ads you specify. You can’t whitelist a website and then block only specific ads. Overall, Adblock is a tried and tested product and has been for a long time, so it’s a good option for anyone wanting to block ads and not minding some being whitelisted.

uBlock Origin

Browsers: Chrome, Edge, Firefox, Safari
Website: https://github.com/gorhill/uBlock
Recommended for: Adhater, Trackerblocker, Speedometer

uBlock Origing (uBO) is not an adblocker per se, it’s a general-purpose blocker. That means it blocks not only ads, but also trackers and the like. In fact, out of the box its performance is top of the line. The beauty of uBO is that it’s very light-weight on your computer’s resources, much more so than Adblock and Adblock Plus.

What the browser extension wins in speed, it lacks in usability. It’s quite easy to block an advertisement by clicking the right icon, but their purpose isn't that clear on the first use. It takes some time to figure out what everything does.

The uBO interface feels functional, but can be unclear

The uBO interface feels functional, but can be unclear

uBO is a fully open source project, which means its source code is available for anyone to review. It’s also fully open source in the sense that nobody is making money of the product. This means that it’s very hard to hide things that shouldn’t be in there, although it also means that a lot of dubious copies have appeared on the internet. Make sure you get it from the right place.

Overall, my experience with uBO is very positive once you figure out the user interface. It feels archaic sometimes, especially after lavishing my eyes on some of the alternatives, but it’s very lightweight and works great. That’s all you really need.

AdGuard browser extension

Browsers: Chrome, Edge, Firefox, Opera, Safari and more.
Website: https://adguard.com/
Recommended for:
Adhater, Controller, Trackerblocker

AdGuard is an adblocker that looks and feels very modern. Where uBlock feels decent but dated, this feels like a slick and well-made product to use.

AdGuard is different from the other adblockers in this list as its backing company also offers paid products. They have a free browser extension (which I used for this review), but require payment for desktop versions of their products. It all looks legitimate and transparent, giving no cause for concern.

AdGuard ships with a very modern interface

AdGuard ships with a very modern interface

Upon installing the adblocker, you're welcomed with some options. You can block social media widgets, analytics and more right out of the box, giving an immediate sense of control over your online experience. Based on my previous experiences, AdGuard offers more options than I expected from an adblocker. It gets technical at times, but if you want to dive deep, you can do so with this adblocker. Consider me impressed.

Privacy Badger

Browsers: Chrome, Firefox, Opera
Website: https://www.eff.org/privacybadger
Recommended for: Controller, Trackerblocker

Privacy Badger isn’t an adblocker. It works different from most in that it automatically recognises and blocks domains that are tracking you. This will include a lot of advertisements, but that’s not its primary goal. The reason I included Privacy Badger in this list instead of one of its alternatives (some are in this list) is because of its unique approach. It's a good option for those who don’t want to be tracked, but also don’t mind advertisements. If you prefer to take a blacklisting approach instead of a whitelisting one, this may be right for you.

In the start, all options are set to be allowed. When the badger suspects a domain is tracking you, it does one of two things: it blocks the cookies from that domain or it blocks the domain entirely. It only blocks the domain entirely if it’s convinced that doing so will not break the website you’re visiting.

The sliders go to red or yellow automatically and can be adjusted manually

The sliders go to red or yellow automatically and can be adjusted manually

The best thing about Privacy Badger is the level of control it gives the user. If you’re willing to spend the time and effort, you can block or unblock any third-party domain you want with a simple slider. It’s not as straightforward in its use as other blockers when you want to do more with it, but it’s a great tool if you want to expend the effort.

Backed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Privacy Badger is a true open-source product. The EFF is a well-known organisation when it comes to fighting for digital rights, which makes Privacy Badger a good option if that is what you’re looking for. While it’s technically more complex than most, it’s worth checking out and even worth considering using next to your adblocker.

Ghostery

Browsers: Chrome, Edge, Firefox, Opera, Safari and more.
Website: https://www.ghostery.com/
Recommended for: Adhater, Controller, Trackerblocker

Ghostery is another of the shinier adblockers. Acquired by Cliqz in 2017, Ghostery is now owned by a company that’s building a privacy-friendly browser. How Cliqz will generate revenue is unclear as of yet, but with Mozilla as an investor it seems to be a trustworthy endeavour. It is a point to consider if you want to pick an option that you can stick with for a long time, as previous examples show that monetisation can go the wrong way.

Ghostery feels very polished and comes with lots of controls

Ghostery feels very polished and comes with lots of controls

Ghostery allows for a lot of user customisation, giving you options on what you’d want to do with the application. You can tell it to block ads and block or anonymise trackers. Each of those features you can (de-)activate separately, giving you a very customisable tool. On top of that, you can dive into customisation options similar to Privacy Badger, but with better controls.

My experience with Ghostery was very positive. I have used the browser extension before, but was disappointed with its usability. You had to manually select which trackers you wanted to block, which is a monstrous task (as I’ve encountered over 3500 tracking domains in the past 5 months). Now, a few years later, I feel that it has matured and it’s one of the better advertisement and tracking blockers out there with its new functionality. One tip: make sure you do the custom set-up, which is very easy and allows you to block a lot from the get-go.

Closing thoughts

There are a lot of adblockers out there. I tried to review the most popular browser addons, even one which I wouldn’t recommend to anyone. While they often have similar functions, their performance in certain areas may differ. Personal preference usually ends up determining your solution of choice, so that's what I tried to highlight. In choosing a solution based on its business model, you know what you're getting into.

I’m curious about your advertising philosophy and what adblocker you prefer, if any. Let me know down below in the comments.