AdReplacer switches ‘obnoxious ads’ with human-curated links

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Although most ad blocking tools primarily focus on hiding advertisements from websites you navigate to, that’s not all they’re capable of.

Earlier this week serial entrepreneur Jason Calacanis released a Google Chrome extension that targets the sponsored content recommendations from Taboola and Outbrain, which are often displayed at the bottom of many websites. But instead of blocking those “content ads,” the extension replaces them with links to presumably superior content curated by Calacanis’ Inside.com editorial team. The extension, called AdReplacer, is currently available as a free download.

AdReplacer debuts shortly after fears about an online-mediapocalypse were stoked when Apple built support for content blockers into iOS 9 earlier this year. Pundits wondered how mobile ad-blocking might affect small publishers while developers exploited, and sometimes questioned the ethics of, the opportunity.

The difference here is that AdReplacer doesn’t affect most advertisements, only those provided by Taboola, Outbrain, and Zergnet. The extension also isn’t monetized, or in other words, making money by eliminating ads that would otherwise generate revenue for web publishers. You could theoretically argue that replacing ads with something more appealing could strengthen readership on those sites. But publishers are still technically losing potential revenue, so many may not see this as much of a distinction between other ad blockers.

Sponsored recommendation companies are predictably not happy, with Outbrain’s chief exec calling Calacanis an “anti-founder” because of AdReplacer, according to a blog post from Calacanis.

“Our little ‘ad replacer’ is just a reaction to the level of aggression that publishers and ad platforms have shown to consumers,” Calacanis wrote in response to the criticism. “If you guys tone down the ads, no one will install AdReplacer.” He added:

Finally, on the moral issue, let’s be candid for a moment. Startups are a competition of ideas, with consumers as the judges. Helping consumers avoid pain (what we do) is as (or more?) valid as inflicting pain on consumers because they have no choice (what you do).

Here’s the statement offered by Outbrain in response to my request for comment:

Behind his pretty language about the best content on the web, Jason is offering up exactly what we do – personalized content recommendations based on what people are consuming. The big difference is that Outbrain’s approach has become a revenue lifeline for struggling publishers, while his approach steals the audience from some of the most loved publishers in the world, and deprives them of their revenue. We’d be highly suspicious of a service that takes users from publishers.

A spokeswoman for Taboola said in an email that the company would “like to politely decline on commenting here.” Calacanis said he would respond to emailed questions, but as of this morning none have been answered.

I did, however, speak with Contextly co-founder Ryan Singel on the matter: “To me, until [AdReplacer] becomes something that’s really widely used, it’s another symptom of a larger problem, which is that we’ve gotten to an age where publishers need to monetize and they’ve over-crowded their pages and have terrible experiences,” he says.

Contextly helps publishers by recommending stories on their own sites at the bottom of news articles. This means that, instead of sending readers to other sites — the quality of which is far from guaranteed — people are encouraged to explore content in which they might be interested from a site they’re already on.

Taboola, Outbrain, and even AdReplacer all work on a fundamentally different principle: That once people are done with an article from one publisher, they’re probably ready to abandon that website and head on to the next. The tools only differ in where those erstwhile readers are sent once they decide to click a link.

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An example of the content people see when AdReplacer is enabled.

Some people might find those tools useful. In my limited experience with AdReplacer, though, it didn’t seem like most of the linked stories were all that interesting. One was about a french bulldog playing with a vacuum cleaner; another discussed what I assume was a disastrous round of “Wheel of Fortune.”

Those links didn’t seem much better than the ones displayed by Taboola on the same article. There I was told to order wine online; shown a story about a father and son who took the same picture for 28 years; another was about how young millionaires invest; and the last one was about new stuff appearing on Netflix.

Yet, AdReplacer has a slight edge — besides the stories I mentioned above, it also showed something about Hillary Clinton and another story about Howard University — but not enough for me to use the extension on a daily basis. I’d rather keep my ad-blockers enabled and find some #content in other ways.

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