Ethical Advertising Works

It has been two years since we first launched ads on Read the Docs. We figured it was time to report on the results that we’ve seen, and say thanks to those who have helped us along the way.

The Results

To put it simply:

Ethical Advertising works.

In Q1 2018, our estimated revenue from advertising is $75,000. This is enough to fund our small team of 4 people to work on Read the Docs full-time.

When we started building our ethical advertising model, we didn’t know how it would work out. We didn’t know much about the ad industry, and we were doing things different than everyone else.

We are happy to report that you can build advertising that is a win/win/win for all parties:

  • Read the Docs wins because we generate revenue, allowing us to sustain our operations

  • Advertisers win because they are able to reach our audience of developers, helping to grow their business.

  • Users win because their privacy is maintained, and they continue to have access to our service.

Ethical advertising on Read the Docs has not been without its challenges, which we will cover in future posts.

Tracking users isn’t required

Along the way we’ve been trying to prove a simple thesis:

We can have successful advertising without tracking our users. So much of the trouble facing the ad industry these days is because of this massive databases of user data.

We have been able to show that we can show ads without knowing exactly who our users are. The content they are reading is enough to show them targeted ads, without knowing anything about them. Specifically:

  • We do not let advertisers run 3rd party code on Read the Docs. Ad images and javascript is all hosted by us.

  • We do not provide advertisers with data dumps, except aggregated reports on the clicks and views their ads got.

  • We target our ads based only on geography and the details of the page being visited, not on a profile of the user.

We’re now taking a look at what we’ve learned, and how we might help more infrastructure projects reach sustainability with an ethical advertising approach.

Towards an Ethical Ad Network

We have shown that an advertising business model that respects users can also sustain critical open source infrastructure. We hope that we can act as an example for other projects that depend on ads. You can make money without giving away your users data.

Developers have the power to shift the ad industry to respect user privacy. We must start with our own projects, leading by example. We need to have all the ads in the open source ecosystem respect user privacy, and then we can start to apply pressure to other parts of the tech industry.

We realize that not every open source project can do all the work that we’ve done. We want to explore how we can build an Ethical Ad Network, where user data isn’t sent to us, but each project doesn’t need to do ad sales.

Our ethical ad network is still in the planning phases, but if you know a project that might be interested in being a beta tester, please get in touch.


I’d like to thank all of companies who have believed in our ethical ads initiative. You can only sell something if people buy it, and I’d like to give credit to the folks who have believed in our concept:

  • Twilio

  • Sentry

  • Rollbar

  • Stream

  • Intel

  • Data Dog

  • Mongo

  • Hosted Graphite

  • Level 12

  • Pyup

  • Triplebyte

  • Linode

  • Digital Impact Alliance

  • Digital Ocean

  • Exoscale

  • Nginx

  • Odoo

  • CircleCI

  • Cherry Servers

  • Uniregistry


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