24th October 2017

Micropayments – a controversial solution to ad-blockers

Joe Buckle
Joe Buckle

It’s no secret that ad-blockers are bad news for publishers, particularly when they depend on advertising as a main revenue generator. Ad-blockers seamlessly strip the very thing they’re trying to sell.

There are a number of very good reasons why a consumer would install an ad-blocker.

  1. Stripping ads out of web pages speeds up the browsing experience massively.
  2. Ad placements can greatly hinder user experience.
  3. Consumers see ads that are completely irrelevant to them.
  4. Ads have been known to contain malware.

It is possible for a website to detect an ad-blocker. This puts the publisher in a position where they can add gating to content. This is one solution that is fairly common and is deemed acceptable.
However, many impatient consumers are not prepared to go through the process of disabling ad-blocker on websites they visit.
In the case where content is only mildly interesting, they are likely to simply navigate elsewhere which obviously leads to less ad-exposure and reduced ad revenue.

Moreover, it is speculated that developers are talking about baking ad-blockers into the browser by default in an attempt to block some of the more intrusive ads. What the criteria would be for labelling an ad intrusive is unclear, but this speculation is certainly something to watch our for in the future.

Generally, trying to circumvent ad-blockers and prompting consumers with intrusive messages asking them to switch them off is not ideal user experience. They have valid reasons for them to be switched on, and publishers need to have valid reasons for them to be switched off.

What are micropayments?

Micropayments allow the consumer to make small contributions to websites they visit. As a proof-of-concept, the user has a dashboard inside their browser that includes a wallet where they can store funds. In this dashboard a consumer can add the websites they want to make micropayments to. The browser tracks the time spent on those websites and an algorithm decides how much of those contributions the publishers are to receive.

In theory this is a great idea for publishers as it could potentially help them break free of their advertising dependencies. It’s also a great idea for the consumer because they will feel safer and not be subjected to intrusive or irrelevant ads. It would also help drive better user experience as the more frequent visits and longer stays will increase publisher revenue.

This is not a new concept – it’s been around ever since the widespread adoption of online media in the 90’s and over this time, has been subject to heavy scrutiny. But could it work now?

Enter the reluctant consumer

Numerous studies show only a small percentage of consumers would ever bother paying to read an article which is unlike the comparison of music downloading services. The problem is in the hesitation. The more time they’re spend on deciding whether the content is worth reading for what they are about to pay, the less likely they actually will.

But perhaps this problem could be solved by offering the user a choice on whether they want to pay for the article of have ads displayed instead.

To pay or not to pay?

It may be viable option to offer the consumer the choice of paying for an ad-free article or simply to display ads. Business Insider have implemented a system that appears only if you happen to have an ad-blocker switched on.

But the issue is with the ugly prompt. If you decide you’re OK with displaying ads, it gives you instructions on how to disable ad-blocker for their particular website. If you wish to buy an “Ad Removal Pass” you would be redirected to Google Contributor which is a service to remove Google Ads from websites by making these contributions (currently in beta).

Google Contributor sounds like a good idea

In order for publishers to make use of Google Contributor they would need to serve all of their ads via Google.  Google’s ad server is DoubleClick for Publishers. If you use any other ad server then that would make Google Contributor useless. It’s not a complete solution and requires the consumer to do quite a bit of work so the content really has to be worthwhile.

What’s more – if it ends up being that there is one contributor portal per ad-server and consumers end up with pockets of money everywhere paying for various sites because they’re all using different ad-servers then this ultimately ends up being a real hassle for the consumer.

A possible solution

If browser developers partnered with a micropayments vendor (or created their own) and gave consumers the ability to add their favourite websites and set up automatic contributions whilst they browse, then I believe this would work. All the consumer would need to do is ensure they have funds; the browser would give them subtle reminders rather than the publisher having to handle this themselves.

There would probably need to be a cloud-based wallet that the consumer interacts with using a plugin on their favourite browser.
For participating publishers there would be a lot less need for prompts or ads. To me this sounds like the holy grail for both consumer and publisher.

At the current rate, adoption would be hideously slow

For mass adoption the top 5 browsers would need to have a system that enables this and a lot of big publishers would need to participate. With the negativity around micropayments and no sign of browser developers discussing it then the possibility of this taking off is looking rather grim.

But there is some hope

The best known (and perhaps only) implementation of this browser-based solution is the Brave Payments included in Brave Browser.

The current Brave Payments model uses a money holding service called Uphold and accepts token called BAT which you can purchase in the browser using Cryptocurrency (Bitcoin, Etherium, Litecoin etc..).
If you wish to purchase BAT using fiat currency then you would have to do so via Uphold. Publishers later get paid in BAT which they then convert into fiat currency if they want.

It’s bloody confusing for both consumers and publishers!

In Brave’s case the reason for this is to make transactions anonymous. Transferring cryptocurrency tokens from wallet to wallet is an anonymous process. Anonymity and online protection is one of the main driving features for the development of Brave, which is also why it has an ad-blocker built in by default.

But in order for a micropayment system to get widely adopted this process needs to be made very simple, regardless of maintaining certain measures of anonymity.  Consumers need to have the simplicity of transferring funds to their wallet via a saved credit card. Whatever crypto / token process happens behind the scenes should not be of any concern to them.

So overall I believe, if implemented correctly, a micropayments system would work if it’s simple enough for consumers to manage. Consumers are using ad-blockers because it improves their user experience. If publishers could find a way of retaining their revenue without the dependency on ad servers this could see them through for years to come.




Joe Buckle
Joe is one of the Directors and seasoned Full Stack Web Developer. He handles most of our front and back-end development and technical support.


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