Countless websites on the web are littered with unwanted content. They could be flashy advertisements, annoying social media buttons, or clunky site elements, all of which make navigation a pain. Worse yet, they take ages to load. However, you don’t have to put up with them if you don’t want to. The solution — content blocking.
If you use Safari on your iPhone, iPad, or Mac, then you can easily use an array of third-party content blockers to remove unwanted clutter from loading onto the browser.
But while content blockers are synonymous with ad blocking extensions, they work quite differently and have certain advantages and disadvantages. Let’s dig into them below.
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How Do Safari Content Blockers Work
Content blockers are tiny apps that contain lots of rules, each with their specific triggers and actions. These rules notify Safari about the exact forms of content that need to be blocked. For example, a rule involving a certain type of advertisement would have a trigger that helps the browser identify it, with the resultant action being to stop the ad from loading.
While most content blockers are designed to block ads, web trackers, and third-party cookies, some block various site elements such as social media plugins. Available features vary between content blockers. Some apps let you determine what you want to block, while some even let you create custom rules.
Once you start using a content blocker, websites will generally load faster in Safari since the browser doesn’t have to load and render certain forms of content. Usually, sites with lots of advertisements, trackers, and hefty social media plugins will display a remarkable improvement in performance.
When it comes to Safari on the Mac, content blockers also allow websites to load even faster compared to ad blocking extensions. That happens due to two reasons. Firstly, Safari compiles the rules within content blockers so that it can read them easily. Secondly, Safari acquires these rules in advance so that it doesn’t have to communicate with the content blocker in real-time.
Safari Content Blockers Improve Privacy
Content blockers also play a part in preserving your privacy. For example, certain sites and advertising networks use tracking and fingerprinting scripts to track and profile user activity — content blockers that specifically target trackers and advertisements help put a stop to that.
On the Mac, opting for a content blocker over an ad blocking extension also brings privacy-related benefits on its own. Unlike with ad blockers, Safari doesn’t access the rules within a content blocker in real-time. That prevents content blockers from profiling users by activity.
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Safari Content Blockers Increase Security
In addition to improving your privacy, content blockers are very safe to use. They do not have access to your browsing activity since Safari loads all the rules in advance, hence preventing them from gaining access to sensitive information in any shape or form.
On macOS, content blockers once again take precedence over ad-blockers in terms of security. With ad-blockers, it's the extension and not the browser that blocks the content. But when you use a content blocker, it's the browser that does the hard part. Even if you use a reputed ad-blocker for Safari, there’s always the chance for an extension to be hijacked. But with content blockers, that won’t cause an issue since they can’t see your browsing activity in the first place.
With ad-blockers, it's the extension and not the browser that blocks the content. But when you use a content blocker, it's the browser that does the hard part.
If there’s a downside to using content blockers, it’s the fact that they aren't as versatile as ad-blocking extensions. That is especially apparent on macOS, where the ability to whitelist sites is only available in a limited form. You can only do that for entire domains, and not to specific URLs. For example, this could be problematic if you want to support specific YouTube channels.
Some content blockers don’t even have the means to whitelist in the first place. On iOS, however, you can override content blockers, and even whitelist sites via Safari's site customization menu.
Limits Enforceable Rules
Another major downside to using content blockers is that there’s a maximum limit on the number of rules that it can enforce, which stands at 50,000. While that sounds like a lot, the filter lists used by certain ad blocking extensions well exceed that. Hence, you may see the odd advertisement creep through when using content blockers.
However, this limitation does offer an advantage in terms of performance since developers often write rules in more effective ways to cover more ground. Certain content blockers may also counteract this by including multiple lists, though this could degrade any performance benefits.
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Should You Use Content Blockers?
Content blockers bring a range of advantages. You improve the overall speed when loading sites in Safari, and also enhance both privacy and security. Using them can really help improve your browsing experience, and are quite indispensable on the iPhone and iPad.
But on the Mac, you may not want to ditch your ad-blocker just yet since they have no limits on rules and offer better whitelisting capabilities, even though content blockers are superior in terms of performance and privacy. Furthermore, content blockers are also rather annoying since you need to open them separately outside Safari in case you want to make modifications to the content settings.
If you are already on Safari 13 (or if you upgraded to macOS Catalina), it's either content blockers or none at all. Some of the better content blockers out there include Ghostery Lite (macOS only), AdGuard, and 1Blocker. However, you need to try them out to figure out what suits you the best.
Note: On iOS, Safari isn't the only browser that can block ads. Here are five other browsers with their integrated content blockers.