Notes from the Technology Trenches - Efforts to go "Ad-free" on the Internet

Roger V. Skalbeck is the Technology Services Librarian and Webmaster at George Mason University School of Law in Arlington, Virginia, and he is a web committee member for the Law Librarian’s Society of Washington, D.C. Opinions included in this article do not necessarily reflect those of his current employer or any other organization. This column is, of course, 100% free of any legal advice.

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Internet Watcher 2000, AdSubtract, WebWasher

In this month's column, I'll take a look at three programs that can be used to filter advertisements and other elements of web sites from view. In doing so, I'll try to focus on some of their major elements, while comparing them on a similar core of example sites. This is not a full-blown review of each product, so forgive me if I miss some nuances of them. Mostly I want to provide concise assessment of the elements of each program to look at the overall possibilities for filtering advertising from web sites.

The products to be considered are Internet Watcher 2000, AdSubtract and WebWasher. The idea for this column came from a fairly recent segment on National Public Radio's show All Things Considered from May 17th. This broadcast included a piece on new forms of product placement in media as well as a discussion of ad blocking software for Internet users. More recently, the New York Times ran a story on June 13th titled If You Hate Web Ads, You Can 'Just Say No'. Both of these provide good discussions on the nature of Internet filtering options, as well as views from people regarding the likely success of such programs, especially in light of user behavior. Since these features did not go into any detail about the filtering programs themselves, I decided to provide more context in this month's column.

For the mini-reviews that follow, all testing was done on a moderately powerful PC running Windows 98. Browsers tested included Netscape 4.76 and Internet Explorer 5.0. For each of the programs noted below, I'll include similar summary details and information on how each of them dealt with the following specific sites and pages. Below is a list of eight Internet pages and/or sites, which were tested for specific elements of things that somebody might want to filter. Following this list is a table with comparative results for each of the three programs reviewed. Since the program versions selected for review will vary in coverage, it is somewhat of an "apples and oranges" chart, so keep that in mind.

Pages Tested for Advertising, Pop-up Ads, Content Filtering and Animations

Note: Click on the product title in the second table to jump to the summary review of that product. Click on the Page code letter to jump to the reviewed source or the review results, accordingly.

Page
Code

Site/Page

Element to be "Filtered"

A

If You Hate Web Ads, You Can 'Just Say No' (New York Times, June 13, 2001).

advertising at top and side of page; pop-up ad

B

Yahoo! Science index page

advertising at top and side of page

C

NationalEnquirer (site)

advertising, pop-up ad(s)

D

Blackouts–or blackmail? (Editorial from USNews.com, June 18, 2001)

advertising at top and within text of page

E

Internet Watcher Test Page *

in-line advertising and product comparison

F

www.espn.com / espn.go.com / www.go.com test for filtering of domains, subdomains
G

www.Salon.com

advertising at top of page; content filtering

H

www.animationlibrary.com animated gif(s), advertising, pop-up ad

*Note: the Internet Watcher test page was included in an effort to see how competing products would handle a test hosted by a specific vendor. The WebWasher test page wasn't discovered until after testing had been completed.

The Results for each product for the above pages

Page
Code

InternetWatcher2000

AdSubtract SE

WebWasher 3.0

A

top and side ads removed; pop-up ad doesn't appear

top and side ads removed; pop-up ad doesn't appear

top and side ads removed; pop-up ad can be removed after program configuration

B

banner ads at top and side are gone; initially text links appeared, but only traces of "advertisement" marking remain

side ad removed, but top ad link appears (though the ad itself is not visible); additional content can be removed by adding a custom site filter

top and side ads removed, top ad link for Visa card within URL: rd.yahoo appears; if set to filter, this also removes additional Yahoo! content

C

advertising within site is mostly gone, but pop-up ad for a National Enquirer feature sill appears

advertising within site is gone, but pop-up ad for a National Enquirer feature sill appears

advertising within site is gone, and pop-up for National Enquirer can be removed w/ proper configuration

D

banner ad removed; in-line ad appears as a blank box within the text of the article

banner ad removed from top; in-line ad disappears within Netscape, but is visible in IE (though it's an ad for USNews content)

top banner ad and in-line advertising completely gone in IE; top banner gone but in-line USNews ad still present in Netscape unless explicitly filtered in program

E

vendor test page works to remove ads; outlines remain for most examples and text appears for one ad with certain settings

ads are removed from this competitor's test page in both browsers, but when viewed with IE, it allows pop-up ads to appear for Netscape and Yahoo!

ads are removed from competitor's page when viewed with IE; with Netscape, multiple pop-up ads appear for Netscape and Yahoo! and treatment is not uniform

F

domain "espn.com" can be filtered, even though it's redirected to "espn.go.com"; with proper settings in software, "www.go.com" can be allowed while keeping subdomain "espn.go.com" filtered -- user needs to test out variations on domains/subdomains to make things work properly

domain-based filtering is not available in this version; ad images were still removed from most of these sites, but many links remained active

advertising is gone from noted sample site URLs; domain-based filtering is not available in WebWasher 3.0 (to block content entirely)

G

banner ad appears with default configuration, but can be removed by adding a filter for the Salon.com ad URL; Sex section can be made inaccessible based on directory "sex" within URL

Salon banner ads were already configured for removal by AdSubtract; content filtering is not available in this edition

Salon banner ads were already configured for removal by WebWasher; direct content filtering is not available in this edition, but it is possible to remove any text links with specific words (such as "sex")

H

animated ads are removed, but pop-up windows are controlled in a limited basis; program inserts "Internet Watcher 2000 Message" in place of heading ad; Netscape 4.76 would not display this site properly

animation control is not available in this version; ads were removed, but a pop-up window still appeared for a chance to "win a $500 shopping spree"

animated ads are removed, and animation control works well to rotate X times; Netscape seems to have intermittent problems blocking ads consistently; when site is viewed extensively in both browsers, more ads seem to be included


Internet Watcher 2000 (jump back to results comparison above)

You can obtain a 30-day trial version of Internet Watcher 2000 from their website, and a single-user copy of the program currently costs $49.95 in the United States. This was developed by Bernard D&G, which appears to be based out of Germany. They offer pricing and purchase options for several non-US countries, in addition to volume licensing for larger organizations.

The core of the program is designed to eliminate advertising, but they also offer options for content filtering as well as some control of page redirection, pop-up windows and filtering based on image size and/or animation. The image size filtering is interesting, which is apparently based on size dimensions suggested by the Internet Advertising Bureau.

Program Installation, Configuration and Removal

Internet Watcher 2000 was fairly simple to install, and it took little time to get it up and running to remove most ads from a majority of major sites tested. The product doesn't include significant documentation relating to settings, behaviors or syntax for filtering domains/words, but it was fairly easy to test things out and see how they worked. For instances where somebody wants to see a page without the filter applied, it takes a simple mouse-click to turn off IW2000, and then a user only needs to reload the page to see the graphics, ads or other content that was removed.

There are also options for cookie management, but most of these are available with a registered version of the product, so they were not tested for this mini-review.

Quirks, Other Features

In testing out this program, I noticed that some very legitimate pages were strangely blocked by the program until I entered the URLs as allowable sites. In particular, a Publications page on our law school's site was blocked, but I could find no immediate reason as to why this was the case. After entering in the base URL as allowable, Internet Watcher 2000 allowed the page to be displayed. As the page is available under a virtual domain (www.law.gmu.edu) as well as a literal directory path (www.gmu.edu/departments/law), I had to enter the URL in twice for it to appear in both formats.

AdSubtract SE v.1.86 (jump back to results comparison above)

AdSubtract SE (or standard edition) was tested in version 1.86 for this review. This is free for personal use at home. Business users (which includes educational and non-profit customers) can try out AdSubtract SE on a 30-day basis. The company also offers AdSubtract CE (cookie edition) and a more feature-rich AdSubtract Pro. Though the free version of AdSubtract SE lacks some of the advanced customization options available in other products, it looks like the Pro edition provides much more extensive support for filtering other content.

Program Installation, Configuration and Removal

The program was easy to install, and the features of the SE version were easy to figure out, even though they are a bit limited. The configuration tabs are labeled with logical, easy-to-understand names, and it is fairly easy to navigate. The advertisement blocked by the program exist in a custom database, which can be updated through a feature within the product's main interface. A simple test of this worked well to update the advertising database, but since it is hidden, it's hard to tell how much changed, let alone how to determine what meets their criteria for ads.

Quirks, Other Features

The version of AdSubtract reviewed here only allows for up to five sites to be blocked with custom filtering, so this can be very limiting if you want to have extended control of content within multiple URL paths. As an example, ads on Yahoo! appear from one of several providers, so it's difficult to completely remove the links to ads with the SE version of the product.

This program includes some amusing sound effects for "Ad Attack" and "Cookie Cannon", which sound off as the program blocks content. It would probably get annoying after a while, but it's a nice feature to run to see if and when AdSubtract is filtering content. The program allows you the option to have your advertisement blocking information submitted anonymously to the AdSubtract site, where they will apparently soon begin to post live statistics on their CounterClub, which is intended to detail the number of ads blocked by their products.

WebWasher 3.0 (jump back to results comparison above)

For the purpose of this review, I tested WebWasher 3.0, which can be reviewed on a 30-day trial for commercial and business users. Educational (schools and universities) and home users can presently use this version free of charge. Version 3.0 is currently priced at $29/copy, with volume licensing options available. The company also offers WebWasher EE (enterprise edition), which is geared towards implementation within corporations and other organizations. The main additional features in this appear to be the content-based filtering and blocking options that could be used to control access by individual users. This could be done based on media type (streaming audio/video) and/or control of content in as many as 59 categories, ranging from sex to sports to software. These additional features were not reviewed for this column.

Quirks, Other Features

In addition to the advertising filter options, WebWasher provides for some additional privacy filters. The program has options to control the presence of "Web bugs", cookies and prefix URLs which might be used to track/record user behavior. As indicated in their documentation, URLs might appear in the form: "http://search.com/track?url=http://realurl.com", which would be converted to "http://realurl.com" before being resolved.

The program doesn't appear to be as effective with certain settings in Netscape 4.76, but it was unclear as to whether this was a problem with running two browser types concurrently. With regards to the pop-up window controls, it worked well in certain circumstances, but some sites still seemed able to cause windows to pop up. In addition to this, when the pop-up window controls are working properly, it also limits "good pop-up windows", such as slideshows or help screens that might be programmed to open up in a separate window.

With the URL filtering, if you don't pay attention, it can remove text links within your documents. In one instance, I had selected to block content within the URL www.espn.com, and since I had also selected "text links" as a filtered object, the link in the above table to www.espn.com also disappeared from the screen. It took me a minute or two to confirm that there were no problems with my document.

Program Installation, Configuration and Removal

The program was easy to install, and the basic configuration steps went fairly smoothly. Of the three programs reviewed in this column, WebWasher has the best user documentation and help system. It includes a familiar help system with an index, search capabilities and inter-section linking. Most topics are explained in the help interface.

Similar to InternetWatcher 2000, WebWasher allows you to filter images based on standard image sizes, which appear to be for the same dimensions as selected by IW2000. With the standard installation configuration, none of the image filtering options were checked, but they can be selected and customized as deemed necessary.

In Closing...

As noted in the introductory section, there doesn't appear to be any kind of silver bullet for eliminating advertising on web sites. The three products noted above turned out to work much better than expected, and I assume that the elimination of advertising would be a great advance for users (like myself) who still rely on dial-up connections to the Internet from home. I expect that the process of filtering advertising and coming up with new ways to position advertising will work in something of a leapfrog fashion. As companies continue to refine ways to eliminate advertising, pervasive companies will develop new ways to place advertisements online. It does take some degree of effort to try to avoid advertising and to filter "unwanted" content on the Internet. Ultimately, the question is whether it is worth the effort. Based on the review of the three products noted above, I think that it might indeed be worth the effort for individual users who are distracted or perhaps even offended by online advertising.

Well, as this column closes, so too does my tenure as column editor. This will be my last regular Notes From the Technology Trenches column, as I am taking a leave from regular writing responsibilities. The column will stay alive and well, and will continue with a new author. I'll continue work to contribute features and other content, and I already have a few things planned over the next six months or so. It's been a real pleasure to write this column, and I hope that I've covered things of interest to the readers of LLRX.com. Be sure to continue to check back each month for other exciting coverage from the Technology Trenches.

As always, if you have comments, questions or concerns about materials covered in this column, please let me know.

Copyright © 2001, Roger V. Skalbeck. All Rights Reserved.