The word on ad blocking

Mobile ad blocking

I run ad blocking software in the browser on my computer that prevents ads appearing on most web sites I visit. Chrome is my default browser; as I sign in to my Google account in Chrome, and have it sync across all my devices, I have the ad blocker available to me on all those devices including mobile. I have a white list of sites that I’m happy for ads to show, but they are few and far between.

There has been quite a bit of commentary over the past few weeks on the economic cost to business of ad blockers with one influential report saying that more consumers block ads, continuing the strong growth rates seen during 2013 and 2014.  There’s a trend there.

Consider these key points from the PageFair and Adobe 2015 Ad Blocking Report:

  1. Globally, the number of people using ad blocking software grew by 41% year over year.
  2. 16% of the US online population blocked ads during Q2 2015.
  3. Ad block usage in the United States grew 48% during the past year, increasing to 45 million monthly active users (MAUs) during Q2 2015.
  4. Ad block usage in Europe grew by 35% during the past year, increasing to 77 million monthly active users during Q2 2015.
  5. The estimated loss of global revenue due to blocked advertising during 2015 was $21.8 billion.
  6. With the ability to block ads becoming an option on the new iOS 9, mobile is starting to get into the ad blocking game. Currently Firefox and Chrome lead the mobile space with 93% share of mobile ad blocking

I have no compunction about using an ad blocker and I am utterly unimpressed by arguments that actions like this will put websites that have ads out of business, or that such blocking behaviour is unethical.

Marco Arment summarizes the situation very nicely:

Publishers don’t have an easy job trying to stay in business today, but that simply doesn’t justify the rampant abuse, privacy invasion, sleaziness, and creepiness that many of them are forcing upon their readers, regardless of whether the publishers feel they had much choice in the matter.

Modern web ads and trackers are far over the line for many people today, and they’ve finally crossed the line for me, too. Just as when pop-ups crossed the line fifteen years ago, technical countermeasures are warranted.

Web publishers and advertisers cannot be trusted with the amount of access that today’s browsers give them by default, and people are not obligated to permit their web browsers to load all resources or execute all code that they’re given.

Up your game, web advertisers and publishers! Make your ads such that people like me don’t mind them (at least); or can be influenced by them in a way that makes me want to engage with them (at best). You need to be thinking of your advertising as relationship-building content. Quartz has a good model.

See also:

(Image at top via TechAdvisor.)

Neville Hobson

Social Strategist, Communicator, Writer, and Podcaster with a curiosity for tech and how people use it. Believer in an Internet for everyone. Early adopter (and leaver) and experimenter with social media. Occasional test pilot of shiny new objects. Avid tea drinker.

  1. James Cridland

    “I have no compunction about using an ad blocker” … “Up your game, web advertisers and publishers! Make your ads such that people like me don’t mind them (at least); or can be influenced by them in a way that makes me want to engage with them (at best).”

    Perhaps I’m being a bit dim, but if you’re using an ad blocker, how will you notice when web advertisers and publishers make improvements to them?

    “I am utterly unimpressed by arguments that actions like this will put websites that have ads out of business”

    For most smaller publishers, there’s not much alternative. Quartz’s approach, which you praise, doesn’t scale. The only thing many publishers have to sell, like Quartz, is great content. It’s often quoted that “if you gave me an alternative to advertising, I’d pay”, but that’s not borne-out by the facts. – so what would your professional advice be to me to earn revenue from the content I produce?

    Ad blockers are directly responsible for 22% of revenue loss for my business. Are you “utterly unimpressed” by arguments that ad-blockers are putting websites out of business because you don’t think they’re real, or is your view that because I am concentrating on great content rather than ways to wheedle past the ad-blockers, you think I am an idiot?

    Genuinely interested. I’ve always had you as an intelligent and clever man, but this post makes you look rather as if you’ve not thought about this properly.

    • James Cridland

      As a small aside: you quote Marco selectively around privacy abuses from advertising. For the record:

      This page is served via http rather than https, allowing ISPs and wifi hotspot operators globally to track your visitors.

      This page contains:
      a) embedded code from Google Analytics, allowing Google to snoop on your visitors
      b) embedded code from Twitter, allowing Twitter to snoop on your visitors (and who they are if logged-in)
      c) a beacon from RebelMouse, letting them snoop on your visitors
      d) embedded code from Google+, allowing Google to snoop on logged-in visitors
      e) a beacon from CreativeCommons, letting them snoop on your visitors
      f) embedded code from, allowing them to snoop on your visitors (is Google Analytics not enough?!)
      g) embedded code from Pinterest, allowing them to snoop on your visitors
      h) a number of beacons from Gravatar
      i) embedded code from a ‘send to Kindle’ widget hosted by an anonymous operator at the end of a Cloudfront server address
      j) embedded code from WordPress’s own stats package (because statcounter and Google Analytics is not enough) which monitors every click made on the page and knows who I am when logged-in, as well as multiple other WordPress elements
      h) calls to CSS stylesheets on jsdelivr and google, which also allow limited snooping

      • Neville Hobson

        Hmm, I’m not sure what your point is, James. If it’s to focus only on negativity surrounding tracking, etc, well, I guess you’ve done a good job.

        I’d argue for the glass half full, though.

        For instance, Google Analytics enables me to glean valuable insight from an analysis of what visitors do on my site. RebelMouse lets me showcase content I post across social networks in a visually-attractive and engaging manner that stimulates reader engagement. Etc.

    • Neville Hobson

      I think you are being a bit dim, James (I say this in a kindly way). How will I notice improvements? Indeed, with an ad blocker in place, I won’t on sites where ads are blocked. But I’m sure I’ll hear about improvements elsewhere. Perhaps a site concerned might mention something in content that isn’t an ad, ie, it won’t be blocked. That might work.

      On your point that there’s not much alternative for smaller publishers, well, that’s too bad if that’s true. I guess there’s a probability that they’ll go out of business as more people use more ad blocking methods.

      You say “Ad blockers are directly responsible for 22% of revenue loss for my business.” No, it’s ads that visitors to your site wish to avoid – along with the tracking, profiling and other hidden activity – and how they are delivered in the browser, that’s directly responsible for your revenue loss, not the behaviour of readers of your content blocking those ads.

      Adobe sees the issue quite clearly as noted by a comment in the PageFair and Adobe 2015 Ad Blocking Report on page 13:

      Consumers, for the most part, accept the tradeoff that comes with “free” – I’ll give you information about me in exchange for your TV show, film, news article, or service – but draw the line at advertising that’s intrusive, annoying, irrelevant or downright creepy.

      And from PageFaire also on page 13:

      A deeper problem is that ad blocking is endemic only because online advertising has become so invasive that hundreds of millions of people are willing to take matters into their own hands. To sustainably solve ad blocking, we must treat these users with respect, not force feed them the popovers, interstitials and video ads that they are trying to get rid of.

      That’s the issue. Extraordinary that you don’t appear to get this.

      • James Cridland

        I only “don’t get it” because I don’t understand your point. You let other companies snoop, track and profile your users, for the benefit of your own stats (with three separate companies) let don’t like people snooping on you. That’s hypocritical. You don’t even publish a privacy policy, and your cookie policy doesn’t mention all the companies you use who can drop cookies via your embeds. So if you actively encourage companies to snoop on your visitors, what’s the beef with others?

        You exhort publishers to do better ads, but block the ads anyway. You hope to vaguely find out somehow when the ads do get better but you’re not quite sure how when it’s worth unblocking them. And why should you? Where’s the incentive for any publisher to do better?

        And your professional advice to me as a small publisher is “yeah, you’ll go out of business”, which is a tad disappointing. You have no better advice? I thought earlier you rejected that argument?

        Finally, you appear to blame me for the 22% of lost revenue that ad blockers are delivering me. That’s strange; because you are then accusing me of doing a lot of underhand things, which I don’t do. But you run an ad blocker so you’d never know.

        I’m really confused at your stance, because – as you rightly say – I don’t get it.

        • Neville Hobson

          Look it’s quite simple James – if you want me to view your ads on your website, do a better job. Make the ads more appealing or somehow make your site such that I want to visit you online.

          My advice to you is precisely that – do a better job.

          • James Cridland

            But you won’t see the better job I’ve done. You indiscriminately block all ads, whether they are good or bad. So what am I to do?

            The ethical thing to do, given you’ve tagged this blog post as ‘ethics’, would be to blacklist certain websites for having rubbish and unobtrusive ads. The Independent has dreadful advertising, for example. Block them, ideally giving them clear feedback why you’re doing so. THAT gives publishers the clear, corrective action they should take to “do a better job”. Surely that is the right thing to do?

            I note you deftly sidestepped the issue of the amount of snooping that you have added to this site; unsurprising, since you can’t defend it while also criticising advertisers for doing similar tracking that is designed to make advertising more relevant and less random.

            Still. I can’t convince you that what you’re doing is selfish and hypocritical, even though I believe it plainly is. I’d just comment that I find it really odd that adblockers aren’t seen as negative, destructive things by otherwise intelligent internet professionals.

            • Neville Hobson

              Indeed, I won’t see a better job you’ve done if you do that (and if it is a better job in my opinion) unless you communicate it explicitly somehow. A blog post would do I’m sure.

              Your opinions are great, James, and I admire you for them. But how little you know, and how large you make clueless suppositions. For instance, I don’t “indiscriminately block all ads.” It’s quiet selective. And, you say, The Independent has “dreadful advertising.” Well, in your subjective opinion at least.

              Good luck with your own website and questioning the thousands (millions?) who may well be blocking your ads.

                • Neville Hobson

                  Reviewing your comments in this post, James, and where you’ve repeated your comments on Google+, I find it hard to see what you have done to advance any discussion. I thought perhaps you’d bring some new thoughts, perspectives or a reasoned argument on the topic I wrote about: ad blocking and why people do it.

                  But none of that. Instead you attempt to hijack the conversation by making it about you and then flipping it over to claim it’s actually about my site that you say snoops on visitors.

                  Hardly worthwhile discourse, really.

                  Meanwhile, ad blocking of websites that display ads in ways that visitors find intrusive, offensive, annoying, etc, will continue and will grow, at least according to credible research such as that published by PageFair and Adobe that I referenced in my post.

                  While their outlook paints a bleak picture for web publishers and advertisers who do not recognise that intrusive, offensive, annoying ads do nothing to endear them to consumers, you could take some comfort from one of the metrics in the PageFair and Adobe research that “1 in 4 respondents aged 35-49 do not have any desire to ever use ad blocking software.” That’s in the USA at least.

                  And then there’s Apple and what might be coming as part of iOS9 in September. Plenty of different opinion out there on what this might mean for ad blocking if suddenly the means to block ads is built-in to a major mobile operating system.

                  Looks to me as though some web publishers and advertisers will see a playing field that will be even less level for them from September onwards.

                • Dennis Howlett (@dahowlett)

                  @james – I get your point in the context that you describe but it doesn’t hold up in the context of Neville’s personal wishes.

                  The fundamental point that Neville makes is sound. Most sites I view, including nearly all the commercial endeavors use Google Ad units. They are annoying because regardless of what Google might say, its algorithms are crude. Facebook’s algos are no better. I have argued they are a fraud for small businesses. Twitter? I’ve no idea what’s going on there.

                  Banner ads have largely been relegated to the boneyard of advertisers armory although many persist in using them. That still leaves a few options, the most annoying of which are the latest crop of popovers that are becoming ubiquitous.

                  Content creators are on a hiding to nothing in most cases because unless they have huge distribution they cannot chase the downward spiral of ad unit value back to the publisher. That’s why adnetworks and adtech have become so popular among publishers. They remove the friction associated with trying to make ad units work while allegedly serving what people ‘need’ in the moment they ‘need’ it. But it is no better than what went before.

                  So what is a content creator to do if they want to generate revenue from the website? There are a couple of models that work. Techmeme’s feed units work well because they play direct to the focus of Silicon Valley. Stratechery’s subs model yields $200K pa for one fellow but it is not scalable. The Information’s subs model is working for them though goodness knows how given the depth of reporting.

                  We found a different model altogether that does not involve advertising, nor does it involve readers paying a subscription. We have managed to thread a needle through the publisher/editor problem. Some call it content marketing, I prefer to see it as enhanced content marketing where we work directly with our partners to ensure that what goes on our site as their content is: 1.readily identifiable 2. gets prominent placement for the crucial 24 hour period immediately following publication, 3. is both curated and edited by our team to strip out the obvious marketing BS, 4. contains non intrusive calls to action and 5. meets our editorial standards. We also allow partners to show an RSS feed in our sidebar. This is wholly democratic and entirely dependent upon content freshness. It is arguable whether those feeds are quasi advertising but then their impact is relatively low. That model has allowed us to build a body of content that clearly demonstrates domain knowledge and attracts further partners. We are generating close to $1 million in annual recurring revenue after 27 months of operating. We are now a destination that is growing at up to 5% per month CAG. We work with partners to give them the widest distribution, both direct to ourselves and indirectly through the networks we actively manage. We encourage partners to use their networks. Collectively, our networks can reach well over a million people.

                  Now to the point you make about the crawlers Neville uses. Any content producer who is endeavoring to build an audience *for whatever reason* needs stats. GA provides a convenient way to achieve that. There is no trade off from Neville’s perspective because he is not showing using Google Ad units. (I think.) Google still benefits because it gets data it can analyze. We both accept that as a fact of digital life. The same goes for any other crawler we/Neville/anyone allows. It is a positive choice for a specific reason in a specific context. We have built our own analysis tools that allow us to provide partners with some information about how their content is working (or not.) The open internet allows us that opportunity without invading anyone’s privacy because the information we collect is that which a user has already decided to allow into the wild. In our case, when we want extra information we ask permission. You can’t for example subscribe to our weekly digest without double opt-in.

                  Does our model scale? We think it does but it requires constant refining. We think we can easily grow this into a $3-5 million recurring (that’s the trick – not campaign led advs) in the next 2-3 years. It won’t be easy but it will be worthwhile from everyone’s perspective.

                  The key comes in our having a genuine partnership with our partners/customer/clients/advertisers (choose your preferred descriptor) that is NOT transaction oriented but outcome driven.

                  That’s why are we successful when perfectly good tech media sites are struggling or on a downward spiral.

                  Oh yes – the other key ingredient: we don’t nickel and dime our contributors. We pay them on time, every time and we pay them the best rates we can. We bonus them on occasion. We tell them when they are doing well. We improve their content through light editing. In short, our partnerships with contributors are as important to us as are our relationships with paying partners.

                  Is any of this easy? No. That’s why we’re able to build a moat that we believe is hard to replicate in practice.

                  So – rather than berate Neville about what he is doing, consider the motivations, consider alternatives, deliver value people want. That’s the basis of a model that DOES work, is sustainable and can scale. Trust me, it is far more satisfying than chasing Ad Cents and is profitable.

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