How to instantly get rid of all that clutter on websites

It must be getting on for 20 years since they invented a set-top box that would record TV programmes without the adverts. Whenever a commercial break began, the machine would pause, and then resume when the show did.

Distilling a web page can cut right through the clutter

You won’t have seen the box on sale at Argos, or anywhere else, because it was never manufactured. It contained a fatal flaw, which was depending upon broadcasters to trigger a signal every time the adverts began and ended. Since commercials are their lifeblood, it was hardly a surprise when they declined to have anything to do with it.

The idea’s legacy does live on, however. The BBC and other broadcasters do indeed now transmit invisible and inaudible signals when a programme begins and ends, with the result that compatible digital recorders will start and stop on time, even when a previous programme has overrun.

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A generation on, a similar debate is being played out on the internet – but this time, there is a workaround.

There is nothing implicitly wrong with adverts on websites, but the sheer number of them – and the dubious provenance of some – often completely obliterates the content.

The use of ad blockers – browser add-ons which filter out most of the commercial content before it reaches you – is well established, but the publishers of websites have got wise to it, and often insist that you disable them before they let you in. However, the more subtle practice of “distilling” web pages is something they can’t prevent.

Modern websites are built on a principle known as the Document Object Model, which defines the structure of each page and the way in which bits of it are accessed and manipulated. Distilling the essence of a page is not dissimilar in principle to making gin – the impurities are vaporized and the important parts collected.

The result is a “reader mode” which will, on a properly programmed page, show you the headline, main text and pictures, and nothing else. Apple’s Safari browser has had this functionality for years, but Google Chrome, which most of us now use, does not. The fact that Google itself is the most prolific publisher of adverts may have something to do with this.

But you can build a do-it-yourself distillery in less than two minutes.

You can choose to do this by installing the experimental version of Chrome, known as Chrome Canary, which Google uses to test features that may eventually make it into the final product. Canary does have a distilling mode, which works very well, although the option to invoke it is buried deep within the menus and must be called up on every new page you visit.

DOM Distiller Reading Mode, an extension for your existing version of Chrome, is an even better solution. It’s almost as effective as the Google equivalent, and you can access it from a keyboard shortcut of your choosing, or an icon on the toolbar. Once installed, you can choose the background colour and font for your ad-free reading, though not the text size.

Other similar extensions are available, some with more control over font size and image display, but none seem to handle the distillation process quite so well.

Not every page can be viewed successfully – it depends on how well it was built in the first place – but there is no doubt that if you want to get rid of the clutter that makes many of them so hard to digest, distillation is a godsend.

If only there was a way of doing the same on TV.