Ad-mageddon! Ad blocking, its impact, and what comes next

Since the mid ’90s, the internet has been filled with examples of something tiny becoming something big — and changing everything. Ad blocking is another of those stories that will be told, in years to come, around smoldering tweet-fires by grumpy old digital marketers like me.

Ad blockers have already had a huge impact on the digital landscape. This impact could only grow larger if the popularity of blocking ads reaches a critical mass on mobile as well as desktop. For this article, I talked with numerous publishers, users, the Interactive Advertising Bureau, media agencies and Adblock Plus itself to get a complete view of the varying perspectives on ad blocking, and most importantly, to try to tackle where it will all wind up.

Ad-blocking background

Skip ahead to the next heading if you already know the ad-blocking basics. If not, ad blockers are desktop/mobile browser add-ons or standalone browsers that cause most paid advertising to completely vanish from your surfing experience.

Tired of ads intermingling with your search results? Install an ad blocker and enjoy ZERO sponsored ads. Weary of watching a 30-second Facebook video with a 15-second mid-stack ad shoved dead in the center? Simple fix: Download an ad blocker, and voila, video only — c’est la vie, Zuckerberg.

The same applies to most every site, from YouTube video ads to click-bait style (“see what happens next”) modules at the bottom or right rail of most popular content.

There are other reasons to download ad blockers as well — security reasons, like: stop the bad people from accessing my webcam. Did you know that even innocuous sites can open your mic or access your cam? Did you ever get a bizarre feeling that somehow all sorts of different places know you were looking at that “Nicolas Cage rainbow pillowcase?” HOW?

Well, a little plug-and-play add-on or mobile browser can help stop all of that dead in its tracks.

There are many instances (some intentional and some not so intentional) of ads creating malware issues. “Malvertising” has been found not just on seedy sites you would expect to have privacy or security issues with. Even The New York Times and the BBC last year had an issue when they inadvertently ran ads that attempted to hijack the computers of visitors.

Many well-recognized sites have had similar issues to varying degrees. Using ad blockers eliminates most of these issues from ever being a concern.

The user perspective

While there are many different reasons given for using an ad blocker, the bottom-line motivation is pretty simple. Either users are sick of being bombarded by ads and experiencing their effects on the user experience, or they have security or privacy concerns.

If I were writing a confession, I would tell a tale about how I nearly lost my sanity as my mobile phone choked on a 20-slide, “click-bait”-style gallery. It was ever resizing, lagging, and ads kept “enlarging” where the “next” button was located, causing me to click an ad instead of the next button. Yes, this was even on WiFi.

That was when I began using ad blockers on my desktop and phone. Maybe it was one of the first cases of PTAD (Post Traumatic Ad Disorder) ever recorded. I’m getting long in the tooth and don’t appreciate having my precious remaining moments sucked up by ads.

The publishers’ perspective

I’ve worked with some of the biggest names in media over the last 18 years and might be a little more empathetic to their plight than a typical consumer. Publishers seem to be getting it from all sides. The way people consume news has vastly changed and impacted many publications.

Then, you have instances of Google depriving the publications of more and more clicks over time from direct results (“answers”) to the “view original image” additions into Chrome. Now, many sites who actually do get a visit from a human fail to monetize the pageview because that person has ad blocking enabled.

I’ve reached out to numerous publications about the issue, and many of them either declined to comment or stopped responding when they heard about the topic of the article. Like saying “Candyman” three times in a mirror, it’s almost as if they don’t want to even utter the name, for fear it will have bad consequences.

Some publishers, such as Forbes and Business Insider, have taken fairly aggressive action by blocking those with ad blockers. Others, such as The Guardian, take a more subtle approach and attempt to appeal to a reader’s logic.

To be fair, many may have gone a bit too far with jamming ads into content or trying to inflate page views artificially using tactics like multi-page slideshows. Unfortunately, whether or not they were part of the inception or rise in popularity of ad blockers, all publishers are now dealing with the effects.

Something I’ve seen lately are publications that attempt to trick ad blockers using various techniques. One maddening method I ran into involved about 20 to 30 separate scripts running that would auto-load and insert ads if one happened to get blocked. This was set up on a news site. When I attempted to block the actual ad object, another script and ad would be loaded in its place. I’ve dubbed this the “whack-a-mole” strategy. To me, it appeared to be an indicator of desperation.

Another interesting method publishers have been using is to use their own server as an ad server. This tricks the blockers into thinking the ad is not really an ad. While this method may trick casual users, advanced users can easily block those ad sections with a right click setting in their ad blocker.

Publications such as Wired and City A.M. at one time reportedly blocked ad-blocking readers, but have since stopped doing so. Other publications like Forbes and Business Insider have stayed the course, apparently still blocking all users with blockers, asking them to whitelist them or disable the blocker. While I understand the thinking, this approach seems to anger quite a few users, and there are many message boards and social chatter with derogatory posts raging about this practice.

As an aside, I think companies that employ this technique should be advised that using Google’s “cached” version of the page gets around the ad-block wall. Tighten that loophole up, and cast a scowl at your consultants.

I do occasionally see other approaches, like an “article limit,” which allows you to read a couple of articles free a month or other set period of time.

I contacted Alon Zieve, COO of Seeking Alpha, who appears to be navigating the ad-blocking issue in a logical way. Zieve reports that blockers have definitely had an impact on SA revenue. They’ve taken efforts to block certain ad-block users and offer them an option to whitelist or subscribe to the ad-free version. “Fortunately, because our users love our content, we have a relatively good take-up rate on these options.”

Interestingly, he finds that users actually have a hard time trying to figure out how to whitelist the site when they decide to do so. Seeking Alpha also has their own version of Google’s Contributor Service, a great email strategy, and other marketing strategies in place.

When asked about what publishers need to do to survive, Zieve responded, “At Seeking Alpha, our approach to survival is simple. Produce great, valuable content that our users love, and there will always be a way to monetize it.” Their multi-pronged approach appears to have been successful for them in mitigating the ad-block issue.

Adblock Plus’s perspective

I conducted a Skype interview with Ben Williams, director of communications at Adblock Plus. He had some interesting things to say about the history of Adblock Plus, the challenges, and where he thinks it will be going.

I happen to agree with Williams’s view that Adblock Plus was just answering the call for what was desperately wanted out there. The big bad wolves tried first to sue small companies into submission (some are still at it) and then, when that failed, some decided they would work with them.

Adblock Plus doesn’t appear to have any axes to grind. Williams was surprisingly zen about the lawsuits and negative press. In fact, the media outcry was met with Adblock Plus lightening up a bit and not blocking all ads, but setting the sensitivity setting (if you will) a little lower.

It’s also important to note that Adblock Plus can be paid to default whitelist your ads as long as they adhere to their quality guidelines, and many large players have done so.

Adblock Plus supports the new models of how publishers will get funded, and they don’t think the ad-blocking genie will ever get put back into the bottle. When asked for his thoughts on the “tug-of-war” that has happened in the past with publishers trying to get around ad blockers, Williams replied, “It doesn’t really serve the consumer very well.”

He added that instead of “jumping into a tech arms race, (publishers) should consider the fact that so many people are blocking ads and should make better ads.” He believes, for the most part, that’s what has been happening. There are some publishers out there that believe fighting the tide of ad blockers is their best option, but Williams thinks that might be a pretty bad way to treat their users.

When asked about the problem with apps and how they prevent ad blocking, he stated that there really isn’t anything that can be done about that yet. Adblock Plus used to have an app that allowed users to block those ads, but it was kicked out of the Play Store in 2011.

Williams does believe that many people are still using browsers to access sites and that the future of ad blocking on mobile is with the blocking browsers. When Twitter announced it will be using Safari for anyone following a link from iOS versions of its app, it was a huge lift to any one of Twitter’s 328 million users that may have ad blockers installed.

I asked Williams what he thought about Google announcing its own “ad-blocking” features on Chrome and what that would look like. He replied, “What Google has announced so far sounds more to me to be a pop-up blocker.” He believes the ad-blocking community is going to still want to block things like YouTube video ads.

Williams guesses but doesn’t know if those features will be included in the Chrome update. “It all depends on the implementation,” he said. My personal guess is that YouTube video ads won’t be defaulting to the off position — does anyone think they would?

Williams’s view on the future of ad blocking is that it isn’t going anywhere anytime time soon. He believes that recent moves from Apple and Twitter using Safari will only make blocking ads easier. Interestingly, when wondering where things will go on mobile devices, Williams tells us to “look to the East,” saying that people in China, Indonesia and India are blocking ads on their mobile devices at higher rates than we’ve ever seen on desktop.

A survey Adblock Plus recently conducted discovered why US users aren’t using mobile ad blockers the way they are in the East. Williams said the overwhelming response was that they “just didn’t know it exists.” If that survey is correct, I think a safe bet is that we’ll see a surge of mobile ad blocking in the US sometime in the near future.

Looking down the road, Williams feels the best way for publishers to approach their ad-blocking audience is to “reach them with a specialized experience that can also be profitable.” He feels that a “frictionless payment system” for publishers might work out well for those who understand they need to support content that they consume.

Media and agency perspectives

It’s no secret just how much companies like Google, Facebook and other big media players depend on ad revenues. In 2015, advertising generated close to to 90 percent of Google’s total revenue. Facebook makes 84 percent of its ad revenue from mobile. When you’re talking billions, even a small dent can make giants sit up and take notice.

One doesn’t need to be Sherlock Holmes to see a definitive pattern in all the recent moves from the big players. We’ve seen the IAB putting out its acronym-rich strategy in an attempt to slow an outbreak of mobile ad blocking by decreasing the demand for it. Google has been pushing the “contributor” service along with other moves that seem to telegraph a reaction to ad blocking such as:

I could talk about each one of these, but this article is already starting to get longer than “Les Misérables.” Each one of these moves appears to have some component that’s meant to deal with ad blocking in some fashion.

I corresponded with Dennis Buchheim, SVP and general manager of the IAB Tech Lab, about the Coalition for Better Ads (CBA). Buchheim reports that their global effort is focused on providing education and guidance on the user experience, along with guidelines for “better ads” — the goal of which is to slow the motivation to block ads.

Buchheim believes the “installation of ad-blocking technology is often motivated by consumers dealing with ad experiences from other parties who aren’t interested in adopting these guidelines.”

But what is a publisher to do? “IAB created the IAB Ad Blocking Primer to help guide their efforts. The primer describes the risks and benefits of a wide range of tactics, including subscription models and micropayment models, that can be employed,” he said.

The impact on other marketing channels is unclear. Does the more difficult ad landscape increase the spend for SEO, email, social and so on? While he is unclear if there has been a real impact to date, “presumably other channels that can demonstrate their effectiveness would secure increased spend, if digital ad inventory decreased dramatically because of blocking.”

“Before that happened, it’s likely that the price of digital ads would increase as volume decreased,” he added.

What about agencies?

If blocking ads reaches the same fever pitch here in North America and Europe as it has in the East, I can see many paid media reps stating, “Brother, can you spare a dime?” It’s quite difficult to know how successful all of the moves by Google and the IAB will be in slowing the adoption of mobile ad blocking. I, for one, believe it will eventually be on the majority of mobile devices.

I reached out to Andrew Goodman, founder of Page Zero Media, for an agency take on what comes next. His thoughts: “As device-specific computing gives way to futuristic home and mobile concepts, the Internet of Things, voice search, facial recognition, AI and machine learning, etc., the whole concept of interrupting people with advertising may be undermined.”

In the future, Goodman sees companies like Apple and Microsoft potentially in an advantageous position since they “can lean heavily on business models that provide function to consumers, rather than relying heavily on advertising to supplement whatever consumers might pay for function.”

Goodman sees “many current ad models and agencies as doomed within five years, unless they find new stuff to do.”

Closing thoughts

I don’t think ad blocking is going anywhere anytime soon. In fact, I’m predicting that in spite of all the measures the IAB and its members have taken to slow down the demand for ad blockers, mobile blocking will eventually be as common in the United States as it is in the East.

Efforts to slow the outbreak will delay the rate at which it’s adopted. However, as more and more US sites attempt to monetize their mobile content, mobile blocking will inevitably lose the war. For many users, this is a win-win scenario. They’ll see better and less annoying ads overall thanks to the CBA efforts — with or without a blocker in play.

Not to sound too unsympathetic, but I’m not breaking out a violin to play “My heart bleeds for Google and Facebook.” Even though it might put a dent in their pocketbooks, I’m predicting they’ll still come out of it just fine. I’ll play that violin for the many publishers who are deserving and in need of those ad dollars.

As for the Google “ad blocker,” I don’t think even Vegas would carry odds on whether or not that will block video ads from YouTube. Once upon a time, pop-ups were a big problem, and you could download a pop-up blocker plugin to prevent them — until most of the browsers included it by default. In this example, you solved the problem and eliminated a step for the end user.

I get the feeling that the announcement to incorporate the blocker into Chrome is a play to keep the unenlightened in the dark a bit longer. This way they can say, “Hey, yeah, I block ads” when in actuality, they don’t even know what a real blocker does. I don’t think this will have the prescribed effect they believe it will for very long.

I would love it if people began to embrace ad blockers as an effective protest tool. Hate fake news? Completely block the ads on that publication! You don’t have to cause a stink and hope advertisers pull their ads; you have the power with the click of a button to create the same effect.

Just remember to make sure you whitelist those publications you believe are deserving; many desperately need it.

As for the pubs that put up walls for ad blockers, I only see that as a Band-Aid that is easily peeled off. I can see an interesting future if, in fact, many large news sources go subscription only. I can almost see a Napster or BitTorrent for news emerging so that people can consume news without paying for it. Walls generally keep people out, though, not encourage them to walk a few miles to find another entrance.

I believe that the decrease of paid ads puts an increased importance on areas such as social, search, email and so on. Getting your content in front of a user will take more skills than bid, tools or resources to keep auctioning. I don’t know of many that consider an organic Google result for a term to be an ad — and that, in my opinion, is how the future of paid media, on the whole, should look: as innocuous as an answer that Alexa would give to the asker. Having a true, number one position for an important phrase really can’t be more valuable in a future without easily acquired sponsored ads, can it?

I would love to hear your thoughts on where you think this will all end up. Be sure to check out my video breakdown of the article as well:

About The Author

Anthony Muller
Anthony Muller is one of the best-kept secrets in the SEO industry at the enterprise level. He is the founder of ZenSEM and, for over 17 years, the Zen Search Engine Marketer has gained clients through C-level referrals for the most part. He has worked with and coordinated the search strategies for many of the largest names in media, retail, and politics.