Ads have been annoying people since well before the Internet, but the fact that much online content is free has driven website owners to find new, increasingly obtrusive ways to serve them to you. If pop-ups are the scented perfume magazine inserts of the digital world, then skin ads, interstitials, video commercials, and content-blocking survey questions are a special kind of advertising torture.
In most cases the presence of ads is a necessary evil, the price of admission for viewing a video or reading a story. But no person has ever been thrilled to sit through a video, answer a survey question, or wait while an interstitial clock clicks down in order to view content.
Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) (NASDAQ:GOOGL) is betting that ads have become annoying enough that some people will pay a small monthly fee in order to visit their favorite sites without them. It's a bold idea that would change how at least high-end websites monetize content, but it remains to be seen whether people are willing to open their wallets for ad-free access to a handful of websites.
How it works
Called "Contributor by Google," the program offers subscribers the ability to pay between $1 and $3 per month for access to a handful of partner sites, including The Onion, Urban Dictionary, and Mashable, without ads. Paying more or less does not bring increased access. Google takes an unspecified cut of the revenue, with the rest going to the sites. "The more you contribute, the more you support the websites you visit," says Google. The program essentially works like one of those "free" museums with a suggested donation, only Google has set a floor to keep out the real deadbeats.
The ads won't precisely go away -- they will be replaced with a thank you message or pixelization -- and ad-free is a bit of an overstatement as Google can only block the ads it actually serves. Essentially, Contributor is an ad-blocker that supports publishers rather than essentially stealing from them.
The company is using the name Contributor with the idea that subscribers will be directly contributing to the financial success of the sites they like. At launch, the program is very limited with only a few sites on board.
Contributor continues Google's practice of experimenting with new ways to help content-based websites make money without using ads. These including the company's "Survey," which pays publishers for having people answer a survey, and "Fan Funding," a way for YouTube users to essentially tip their favorite video makers.
Will people pay to see fewer ads?
Supporting content without ads has been a difficult proposition, but it's not impossible if your content is valuable enough to your audience. TheLadders.com, a high-end jobs website, for example, has very limited free products, with most of its content -- including sought after job listings -- requiring a membership. In that case, the site is supported by membership fees, which start at $25 a month, not ad revenue.
There are other examples, but subscription sites in general, even ones that charge relatively small amounts a month or year, tend to offer very specialized content. A reader might pay for ad-free or limited-ad access to a trade magazine site that covers the industry he or she works in, but it has yet to be shown that people will pay for a lower-ad experience on casual entertainment sites like The Onion or Mashable.
The "Contributor" idea is interesting and Google has formalized the process, but it's really just a subscription-based variation of the donation request buttons many nonprofit and smaller content sites use.
What might Google do?
As it stands now, Contributor is more a kernel of an idea than a fully formed one. The service does not really remove the ads so much as make them less obtrusive and it only really works on sites that have relatively unobtrusive ads in the first place.
There is some reason to believe that there may be an audience for this as newspapers, including The Boston Globe, where I once worked, have had success using a paid subscription model with limited ads. BostonGlobe.com subscribers still get ads, but they are relatively discreet compared to the deluge on the company's completely free, ad-supported Boston.com.
Contributor needs a lot more content sites on board before it has any chance of reaching a mass audience of subscribers. The idea alone is not likely to change how websites make money that much, but it is another potential tool for publishers.
Offering access to your site with limited or no ads through Contributor actually gives a site owner more leeway to pack the ad-supported version with ads. It's perhaps an odd logic, but if visitors have an alternative and know they are getting something for nothing, they will either pay up or be more content with a lesser, ad-clogged experience.
Right now this is a small idea, but it's one that has potential and could become part of the mix as sites continue to struggle to find ways to to pay for stories, videos, and other content.
Daniel Kline has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Google (A shares) and Google (C shares). The Motley Fool owns shares of Google (A shares) and Google (C shares). Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.