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Monday, 6 April 2009

Minimalist Web Browsing

Dozens of pop-up ads covering a desktop.Sometimes reading on the web can be overwhelming, with sidebars packed with animated banner ads, popup offers that repeatedly popup, hidden pop-under boxes, and screaming Flash intros that take an age to complete, even on a broadband connection. Wouldn't it be nice when you're in a hurry to get to the flesh of an article to simply block all the ads, animations, Flash, and scripts? Well, for people who use the Firefox web browser, and a few others, there are ways and means...

First suggested addon to install is NoScript. This program automaticaly blocks scripts, malicious or otherwise and protects you from clickjacking and other nasties. In blocking scripts (other than those you deliberately add to the white list), it also prevents a site from running many of the standard scripts that display popup ads.

Protection aside, the second suggested Firefox addon is AdBlockPlus, which as it name would suggest block ads and more. It's an application that has the advertising industry and those who depend on it for income up in arms. However, I'd suggest that most people aware of its existence and inclined to use it are not generally the sort of people who would click ads in the first place. ABP is fairly customisable, allowing wildcard filtering of whole ad networks across all the sites you visit. it also several free subscription services of regularly updated networks that you can use to automate the filtering process. If you're using Google Chrome browser there's AdSweep and there are techniques for blocking ads in Internet Explorer 8.

If blocking ads brings on a guilty sweat, then there is often a legitimate way to get a clear view of a web article and that is through the "print version" link on a page. Not all websites offer such a link but those that do will usually present you with an ad-free view of the page you're hoping to read. If you cannot quickly see the "print version" link on the page, then you can try Print Hint, which is an add-on that creates a toolbar icon that changes colour if it detects a printer friendly page.

All self-respecting alpha browsers will already have Greasemonkey installed, but if you're still aspiring to that epithet, then you should grab this addon for Firefox. It is not in itself an application, but a framework for adding tweakable applets to Firefox that allow you to control how a web site will look in your browser. The scripts necessary to make Greasemonkey useful are available at

Among those Greasemonkey userscripts you will find tools to remove sponsored links and ads from Google and all its applications (mail, reader, calendar, talk), from Facebook, and to automatically redirect you to the print version of an article on several sites, including Scientific American, Business Week, Globe and Mail, and others.

Do I advocate you using any of these ad blocking applications? Not really, I'll leave that to your conscience, but as science writers, I don't think we're generally the target audience for ads for mass spectrometers or lab technician jobs and moreover are probably among the least likely groups (together with Linux hackers) to actually click through any ad on a site.

Indeed, I suspect that any science writer going ad free in this way will get more out of the article itself and be more likely to cite it in their own follow-up on a topic. Such a citation will not only provide Google link juice (page rank effect) from the writer's own outlet, but also put the other publication into a wider context and provide the kind of validation that advertisers can only dream about when creating their interminably flashy popunders and animated website intros.

Incidentally, you the browser should have full control over how a website looks, but you can switch these various tools on and off or set them to only block ads on specific sites. If you're feeling guilty about depriving the site owners their ad revenue, but still want to read the site "clean" you could have them switched off most of the time and just do an ad block when you need a clear view of a particular page or if you need an uncluttered printout.