Confessions of an ad blocker
Hello, my name is Jack and I’m an ad blocker. I’ve been blocking for the past four years now. I’ve been lying to my colleagues and professional acquaintances and the lies have become too much. I’m outing myself as the dirty little blocker that I am. While admittedly for selfish reasons, I’m outing myself because I think there is a lot to learn from the likes of me. Such as why do ad blockers do what we do? Who, beyond individual web users, are embracing the age of the ad block? How is it affecting the businesses whose ads we block? And, probably of greatest value to you, how can a business overcome the issue of ad blocking?
Why do ad blockers block?
This may seem a fairly simple answer. Ads can get annoying. Hindering the viewing of a YouTube video or popping up in the midst of a great article. This disruption in the consumption of content can be off-putting and irritating for the user. Especially in the wake of more and more intrusive advertising, such as pop-ups and non-skippable video. It is also often put forward that ad blockers do so for a faster more streamlined internet browsing experience. An ad acts like any other part of the page and requires a set amount of time to load. This can noticeably slow a page’s load speed. Something that ad blockers argue is yet another detrimental effect of advertising. The Internet Advertising Bureau has pushed for less intrusive ads that do not affect the content it sits within. 60% of people that use ad blocking software do so because they want to block all forms of advertising. But 48% said that if the ads were not as intrusive they would be less inclined to use ad blocking software. Indeed, this is something that Ad Block, the lead ad blocking software has factored into its software. In mid-2015 they sent out an update to all users, it was signing up to the Acceptable Ads Program. Below is a screenshot of exactly what the statement from the developer said: The Acceptable Ads Program is supported by a variety of different websites, but mainly community oriented ones, such as Reddit and Stack Exchange. Both of which are nothing without their community of contributors. So Acceptable Ads Manifesto seems to suggest some consensus that ads as a source of revenue for web brands are ok. But they need to be more user oriented. Ad Block now allows certain adverts through, such as a couple of PPC ads. Below are two examples of the same Google search, “flights to new york”. The software obviously sees the ads that sit down the right hand side to be of less value than those that sit at the top of the search results.
Who is embracing ad blocking?
Obviously the everyday web user is the main party that ad blocking appeals to. The 2015 Ad Blocking Report stated that there are 198 million active ad block users globally. You can see the full report at the bottom of this post. That is a 41% YoY increase from 2014 to 2015. But what does all this ad blocking actually mean? Well, $21.8bn of ad revenue was blocked in 2015. The majority of which, rather ironically, comes from Google’s own browser, Chrome. 64% of the ad blocking market have software installed on Chrome. 24% are Firefox users. This is quite surprising as often Firefox is the browser used by the discerning internet user, who is aware of privacy issues and actively attempts to counter them. Just 5% are Safari users, this may be due to the fact that Safari is the default browser on iPads and iPhones, devices that until just recently had no ad blocking software available. Apple have steamed into the battle of late, and not on the side you might expect. Since the launch of iOS9 in July ’15, Apple have very much come down on the side of the blockers. Ad blocking apps, such as Crystal, are now available in the App Store and Google Play, this allows users to block all adds that appear in Safari. The software doesn’t work on in-app advertising or even ads on web pages that are loaded in-app such as Facebook or Twitter. The reasons for Apple weighing into the debate are perhaps not as noble as it first may seem. Indeed, Apple have their own advertising business, iAd. This offers in-app advertising space, notice that all iOS ad blockers can do nothing to block these. The real reason they’re getting involved is to take a swipe at Google. As the two largest tech companies around, theirs is not a happy relationship. To snipe at the vast ad revenue created by Google ($59bn in 2014) is a legitimate target for Apple who are ostensibly a hardware company. It is also worth remembering a fair whack of Google’s ad revenue will come from Apple hardware.
How is it affecting business?
Needless to say business is being massively affected by the blocking of adverts. Exactly what type of businesses are affected tends to come down to demographics. Ad blocking tends to be the reserve of the digitally savvy, thus it leans towards a younger audience. As such it is websites and publishers that appeal strongly to a younger audience that are seeing their ad revenue hit the hardest. The below graph shows that gaming websites take the biggest hit. These sites tend to be heavily loaded with advertising, and before each game begins a pre-roll advert will play. Now there are of course two sides to this argument, the games cost a lot to develop and if users want them for free, which they invariably do, then the money has to come from somewhere. On the other hand, gaming sites tend to be some of the worst offenders when it comes to intrusive and over the top adverts. So the balance hasn’t nearly been struck and the gaming sties are paying the price of it. Tech companies and publishers, such as Wired are also reporting a massive hit to their income. They say that on any given day 20% of traffic will be using ad blocking software. If the advert isn’t served to the user then the advertiser doesn’t pay for the impression, and Wired (or whatever website) goes without their cut. Wired have fought back saying they will begin restricting access to their site for those using ad blocking software. And they’re not alone in this endeavour.
How can a business overcome ad blocking?
The obvious answer is return fire. Block ad blockers. If 2015 was the year of ad blocking adoption, 2016 looks to be the year of the fight back. The companies that have announced their plans to fight back are numerous. Wired is just one example. Forbes is another. They now offer the below message for anyone using ad blocking technology as they enter the site. But it’s a tricky line to walk. The backlash to Forbes has been less than positive.
Wow, @Forbes doesn’t like adblock. I didn’t need to read the article anyway. lol
— Albert Campa (@beto_atx) January 5, 2016
Other publishers getting in on the action are the Wall Street Journal, The Telegraph and Bild (Germany’s answer to The Sun). As these are all relatively new initiatives it remains to be seen how effective this will be as a means of recouping lost advertising income. Matthias Dopfner, CEO of the Axel Springer Group who own Bild, has said since implementing a block the site has seen more than two-thirds of users choose to switch off ad blocking software for the site. Channel 4 were an early innovator in the blocking the ad blockers game. For years they have insisted you exempt their site from your ad blocking software to access the content within. When the content is as strong as theirs people are willing to turn off ad blocking, seeing the ad as a fair price to pay for historic box sets of all Channel 4 material. The issue arises when the likes of Forbes try something similar. I have yet to meet anyone who religiously reads the Forbes site. It’s one of those sites that you use as a source and hop into the occasional article but I would certainly never bookmark it. So the argument is, is the content strong enough to warrant this attack? Will people be willing to endure advertising to get to your content? I think the answer on the whole has to be no. If you are certain, like Channel 4 were, that your content is so strong that people won’t mind allowing advertising then go for it. But if your content is not strong enough, then you should think twice about blocking the blockers. The coming year will be an interesting with the publishing industry seeming to have roused itself into some semblance of battle readiness. Expect big publishers to up their game in terms of blocking the blocker, and expect a concerted fight back form the average internet user. This could be a defining moment in internet history to rival the arrival of Napster. Below is the 2015 Ad Blocking Report.