Want to block ads online? Here’s what you need to know.
Block and Load
If you were paying attention to the recent release of iOS 9, you probably noted the inclusion of content blocker support for Safari. The feature allows users to prevent browsers from loading ads, popups, tracking scripts, auto-play videos, and more. A day after the launch of iOS 9, ad blocking apps were three of the top five paid apps in the AppStore.
The response was fast, loud, and occasionally hysterical. “Publishers are screwed. Google is really screwed,” the always rational Jason Calacanis wrote. Randall Rothenberg, CEO of the Interactive Advertising Bureau called it “a potentially existential threat to the industry.”
So does the seemingly innocent decision to block ads herald all four horsemen of the apocalypse in one handy web extension? Here’s everything you need to know about the wild world of popup ads, ad blockers, and the future of tech.
In the Beginning
Ad blocking is nothing new – The Awl dug up a 1997 clip of Soledad O’Brien talking about stripping banner ads from websites. Online advertising, and the accompanying blockers, were still in their infancy, however – it would be a few years before both began to bubble up into the public consciousness.
In the early 2000s, as automated ad networks began to assume the role of traditional ad sales, programmatic buys promised publishers that they could serve up display ads that catered to a specific user’s interests, location, search history, and more. The result, quite simply, was a lot more advertising online, with sites weighted down by a flurry of beacons, trackers, and scripts – all necessary to better “understand” the customer.
Publishers responded to the lost revenue from ad blocking software with a variety of techniques – the New York Times instituted a paywall in 2011, and native advertising is still buzzy – but for many publishers, the lost revenue is merely something they have to swallow.
Ad Blocking Blackmail?
Adblock Plus was released as a Firefox utility in 2006, and quickly became enormously popular, by doing just what the name promised. It didn’t take long for some individuals and small publishers to revolt – designer Danny Carlton launched the site “Why Firefox Is Blocked” (the extension was only available on the Mozilla browser at the time) the next year. “Mozilla is endorsing the forced stealing of my resources,” he said at the time.
As the service grew to include most browsers, Adblock Plus announced in 2011 that they would begin allowing “acceptable ads”, favoring static, text-only displays. While seen as a sell-out by some (some=Reddit), the move appeared to be in keeping with the utility’s mission to improve the web experience.
That was, until an anonymous publisher told Digital Trends that reps from Adblock Plus ” offered to push ads through the extension’s filters in exchange for a third of the profits generated by the advertising.” In short, extortion.
But those accusations haven’t slowed Adblock Plus or a multitude of other ad blockers – just last week, the company hosted #CampDavid in New York, a meeting with major publishers and agencies in an effort to make peace. Needless to say, no treaty was signed.
The Mobile Ad Revolution
The survival of online display advertising in the last four years has been buoyed by the concurrent rise in mobile browsing. In 2014 global mobile ad revenue hit $31.9 billion, an impressive 64.8% leap over 2013’s numbers, per IAB. A March report predicts that in 2016 mobile ad spends will finally top desktop web.
It’s easy to understand, then, what’s at stake with the introduction of ad blocking software into the mobile ecosystem. And while advertisers and publishers got a brief reprieve when Adblock Plus got kicked out of the Android PlayStore in 2013, with Apple’s move earlier this year, all bets are off.
To be fair, many publishers brought this upon themselves. Web pages have become so fattened with trackers, popups, and more extraneous crap, the mobile web experience often becomes reminiscent of surfing the web from your parents’ dial-up. According to Dean Murphy, the creator of popular iOS adblocker Crystal, pages in Safari load 3.9 times faster with the app enabled. Consider too that mobile users are paying for every megabyte they download – the New York Times estimated that it costs mobile users $0.40 to load a single page on Boston.com’s mobile website.
While the howling Cassandras who foretell the end of the web are always fun, it’s hard to see how publishers will not simply respond to the new realities with new technologies and strategies.
Some have taken to politely asking – Wired, Reddit, and Imgur all simply ask readers to turn off ad blocking. While there’s also the opposite approach – the U.K.’s ITV and Channel 4 won’t allow users to view content at all if they have ad blockers turned on.
New tech solutions like PageFair and Sourcepoint have also begun popping up, offering publishers alternative methods for serving up ads to their ad blocking users, or as they so charmingly put it, “creating compensation choice for publishers & consumers”.
The Facebook Instant Articles platform launched for publishers in October, promising quick load times and increased ad revenue, but some organizations are already pushing back against ad restrictions that have been placed on the network.
Simply, advertising isn’t going away, and neither is the web. They’re just changing.
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