‘Filter’ technology may cut websites’ lifeblood

First there was the remote control, then the VCR – now advertisers have something else to be afraid of: Internet software which filters out ads, warns Torin Douglas.

Have you noticed how often new TV technology seems to pose a threat to advertising, rather than an opportunity?

The remote control handset allowed viewers to zap away from the commercial break to see what was on the other channels, slashing the advertisers’ audience at the touch of a button. The video cassette recorder let viewers fast-forward through the ad break. And then came more sophisticated VCRs, which filtered out the commercials before they were even recorded.

Now the digital age brings two new devices that could almost have been designed to put advertisers, agencies and media owners out of business.

The first is the TiVo box and its competitors, which can record and store hours of programmes on a hard disc, allowing viewers to pause a programme as it’s being broadcast (if, say, the phone rings) and then fast-forward to catch up again. These devices can recognise and exclude commercials – a feature which some of the manufacturers may use as a selling point when they begin marketing the boxes this autumn.

The second devious device (as far as advertisers are concerned) removes ads not from the TV but the Internet. It’s a clever piece of software called Adfilter, which enables Web users to remove ad banners and graphics from their screens.

With the shine already taken off the dot-com financial bonanza, thanks to the crash of once-fancied companies such as Boo.com and Worldsport.com, this could be the last thing Internet entrepreneurs and advertisers want to hear. But why would Web users want to get rid of the ads? After all, people aren’t forced to read them and they often provide valuable links to other worthwhile sites.

The answer, according to Adfilter’s founders, is two-fold: time and money.

Co-founder Graham Morgan says: “The more ads there are on a page, the longer it takes to download. Given that the average ad uses about 10K of memory and takes perhaps three or four seconds to download, in no more than five minutes browsing we’ve saved two to three minutes of download time.”

That may not seem so significant, but he says it can make a difference when you think how many hours people spend online. For a company, where there are hundreds of people online, the time saved can have a significant impact on productivity.

Morgan says: “We’ve had 50,000 people download the Adfilter trial and quite a high proportion of those have purchased licences for the product.

“A survey by BMRB showed that 88 per cent of Web users saw little or no use in online advertising and that more than 80 per cent wanted to remove it to speed up download time.”

Adfilter reports a limited response from the advertising industry. The first reaction has been completely dismissive, with claims that no one’s ever going to want to use filtering software. The second has been that people want advertising because it enhances the Web experience, so it can’t pose a threat.

Despite the slogans on his website – “Death to advertising”, “More ads less speed”, “Speed is what you need” – Morgan denies he is anti-advertising. He says: “I’m pro-advertising but I’m also pro-choice. In the same way that you can watch the Euro 2000 football final on the BBC without advertising or on commercial television with ads, I want to offer consumers on the Internet the choice.”

But isn’t advertising money vital for websites? Morgan says that any Internet business model based solely on advertising revenue is flawed. He believes sites have to offer something more tangible to consumers.

Although Adfilter plans to promote itself with radio and press advertising and a PR campaign, its initial choice of ad medium may come as a surprise. It will be using ad banners on the Internet because, reasons Morgan, “anyone who is not using our product is going to see those ads, and those who are already using it will not be bothered by the advertising”.

What websites will be foolish enough to carry a banner advertisement saying “do away with banner advertising”? The answer, according to Morgan, is any website which is not advertisement-dependent. “We offer site operators the chance to be Adfilter affiliates. By placing a graphic link to our website, they can become resellers of our product. Within three months of launching, more than 400 website operators have signed up for that.”

One radio station refused to carry an ad for Adfilter because it said it could not approve of software which filtered advertising from its own website. But Adfilter claims that the reaction of most conventional media has been positive because they see it as a way of redressing the balance between ad spend on the Internet – which is attracting an increasingly larger slice of budgets – and the money spent in print media.

Will this new technology filter all ads? “It filters about 90 per cent – every ad that’s in a format we know about,” says Morgan. But there seems to be little reprieve for the remaining ten per cent, as Adfilter has an update facility which analyses in 48 hours why the ads have not been filtered, and adapts its filtering to remove them.

Torin Douglas is media correspondent for BBC News

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