The web can be very boring. Here’s how to fix it.
(To note: This story originally appeared in my newsletter Release Notes. Get the right things first register. The release notes are published every Tuesday morning.)
The web is a wonderful thing. It is also an infuriating thing. You can find almost anything you want on the web, and in many ways, it makes your life easier. But to get to what you want, you have to manage a glove of obstacles, as information and service providers try to make money from your presence and attention.
To be very clear: businesses and individuals deserve to be paid for the information and services they provide. But too often the way they do it hampers the product itself. Anyone reading this has had the experience of visiting a website that has so many ads, videos, pop-ups, and overlays that it’s almost impossible to consume what you’re looking for.
Maybe I can help. Over the years, I have amassed a toolkit of browser extensions and strategies that have made the web tolerable. I try to use them wisely in cases where it could rob a website of the necessary income. But at the same time, I don’t have much sympathy for these sites which are so filled with distractions that they are inaccessible. Desperate sites call for desperate action.
Here’s a list of tips, tricks, and tools for restoring sanity on the web.
About content blockers
The most common way to clean up the web experience is to block ads or content. They work by preventing advertisements and other revenue-generating components from appearing on web pages. Out of the box, they’re a blunt approach to cleaning up the web, and as such, they also deny income to sites that depend on advertising for their survival. “Free” sites aren’t exactly free, and many consider content blockers to be unethical.
The use of ad blockers is increasing, although the percentage of users who have them installed varies depending on who is accountable. Estimates for the American range between 27% and almost 43%.
Content blockers are available as extensions for desktop web browsers as well as for iOS and Android smartphones and tablets. They allow you to block everything, which leaves the sites you visit relatively ad-free. But most also have controls that let you customize what happens on specific sites. For example, if you regularly visit an ad-supported site and its advertisements aren’t bossy or intrusive, you can place its domain in what’s called a whitelist or allow list – and in fact, c is the best use of it. If you like content from a free site, this is the best way to support it.
Many content blockers will also help prevent tracking by third-party cookies, and you can usually turn this feature on or off. If privacy is important to you, content blockers can help.
But they can also have big drawbacks. Content blockers also block items you might want to see. If a site is not behaving as you expect and a blocker is installed, turn it off for that site.
i use AdBlock on Microsoft Edge and Google Chrome browsers. On my iPhone, I prefer 1Blocker. Both seem better than most for not interfering with the desirable functionality of a site. Tom’s Guide has an overview of best blockers for traditional computers; iMore has a list of iOS blockers; and Android Authority round them off for this platform. And The New York Times Wirecutter has a roundup of content blockers for those whose primary concern is privacy.
There are other ways to display content without ads or other distractions without installing a content blocker. Some of them are already built into your web browser.
A feature found in Apple’s Safari (both desktop and mobile), Microsoft’s and Mozilla’s Firefox browsers provide a “player view” which presents text without background images, advertisements, video players. , share buttons, etc. Typically, these features increase the font size and adjust the background color of the page to improve readability. In some cases, the feature can reveal full stories that only show a stub as part of a paywall.
Although Chrome didn’t integrate it, there are several extensions that provide it, although I have found that many of them don’t perform as well as the built-in extensions. This Chrome extension does a decent job of mimicking the viewer view in Firefox.
I mostly use Microsoft Edge on Macs and Windows PCs, and it places an icon that looks like an open book in the URL field when a page is working with reader view. Clicking on it gives you a very readable view that’s smart enough to deliver both valuable text and images.
It’s not perfect, however. On the Forbes site, for example, Edge’s Immersive Reader view removes the row of data, signature, and other useful information, as you can see at this Barry Collins story.
Microsoft Edge’s immersive reader feature lets you focus on the text, but can remove desirable items, like the author’s signature. FORBES screenshot
However, you can always turn off the player display to see what you are missing.
Overlays are one of the most annoying web obstacles. These first cousins of pop-up ads create an image overlay on top of a web page and are most often used to deliver newsletters, subscriptions, and other products from a particular site. They’re also used as rudimentary payment walls, blocking your view of content unless you pay a subscription fee. They are also used to complain about the installation of a content blocker and ask you to disable it for this site.
Most content blockers unfortunately don’t stop overlays and a separate extension is needed to block them. Most of the ones I have tried have unwanted side effects or just don’t work. For example PopUpOff for Chrome and Edge does a good job of blocking overlays, but it also prevents things you want to see, including navigation menus on some sites.
The one that works best for me and doesn’t seem to have any negative effects is Behind the overlay, which allows you to manually remove unwanted overlays. In Chrome and Edge, it places a button in your extension’s toolbar that you can click and ignore almost any overlays, including paywall overlays that don’t have an X button for closing. There is also a version for Firefox.
Few things are as annoying as finding something on the web you want to read, only to find it’s behind a paywall. You have to pay a subscription fee to read it, and unless you’re a regular reader of this site’s content, it’s hard to justify coughing up money to read a story.
But let me stress up front: if you find yourself consuming content from specific sites that have a paywall frequently, you should pay for that content.
As more and more journalism sources move away from ad-based funding models, they rely on their readers to show their support by paying directly. (This includes this newsletter. If you paid for a subscription after the three week free trial, I appreciate it very much! If you are still in the trial period and haven’t decided yet, did you know that is there a discount voucher? That is true!)
It would be nice if every site on the web had some form of micropayment, where you could, for example, pay a dollar or two to read a single story. Unfortunately, such experiences are rare.
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Below are some tips for viewing paywall protected content. I repeat: if you regularly consume content from specific sites, please pay. Otherwise, try these:
• I’ve already mentioned two of the tips above: The Behind the Overlay plugin will give you a paywall that only relies on an overlay, although most sites that use it block content in some other way. And the Reader View feature of Edge, Safari, and Firefox (along with available extensions) may also work occasionally.
• Most paywall sites give you a certain number of free story views before they block you. Will pass the private or incognito mode of a browser hides the site counter, as if you had never visited it before. Some sites have protections against this, so it doesn’t always work. And really, if you use this approach, you’re probably a regular enough visitor to the site that you’re paying to subscribe.
• You can also clear your cookies – text files that store the aforementioned counters, as well as other information about your activities on a site – to access them after using your free views. How do you do that depends on browser, but all web browsers allow you to delete cookies for specific sites. There are also extensions that make it easier, such as Modify this cookie. Again, if you do this regularly, you are at the point where you should subscribe.
• This trick works on some sites: In the web address of a blocked story, try putting a period after the domain in the URL and before the slash. So for www.apaywallsite.com/readthis.html, you put a period between “com” and “/”, for example, www.apaywallsite.com./readthis.html.
• Some sites load the entire content of an article submitted to a paywall but only show you a stub. Browsers allows you to view the source code used to display a web page, and sometimes you can read the content there. But expect to scour a lot of coding to find it, and even then the story can be so full of code it’s an effort to read. Consider this as your last resort.
Do you have your own tips for getting to grips with the web? Tell me about it.