Ad blocking remains a serious threat to the online ad industry, yet it is still shrouded in misunderstanding. At the root of this is a strange acceptance of its methodology, which seems unusual given its impact on the online industry.
We all know ad-blocker usage is a headline grabber, and rightly so. The IAB’s latest statistics show that 21.2% of online adults regularly use an ad-blocking solution to prevent certain types of inventory from appearing in their browsers.
Many of you will have also seen how initiatives like L.E.A.N aim to help make the digital advertising industry more accountable to produce better ads. That’s a sound and worthwhile goal for sure; I don’t think anybody would argue against the fact that low-quality, intrusive advertising has in-part contributed to the rise of ad blockers.
Yet, despite well-intentioned insight and initiatives, I can’t help but feel the online industry’s response to ad blocking runs along the lines of ‘take it on the chin, and crack on’. It overlooks a key issue in whether ad blockers have gone too far in what they are trying to achieve and how they are trying to achieve it.
I rarely see the technology behind ad blocking questioned, even though it has felt for a long time like a noble initiative for internet advertising that’s now causing more harm than good. It’s inescapably obvious that ad blockers weed out far more internet content and functionality than just intrusive advertising.
Ad blockers primarily block ads by either communication blocking, when the connection to the ad-serving domain is blocked - thus preventing an ad from being served - and element hiding, when an element on a webpage is identified as an ad and prevented from loading.
To do this, the ad blocker needs to recognise domains that might be potential ad servers. This is done by referencing one of many lists that contain ‘guilty’ ad servers. The most well-known is Adblock Plus’s EasyList, which contains ad-serving domains belonging to many of the world’s largest ad networks, DSPs and web analytics solutions.
There are other lists, too. Peter Lowe’s Adserver list is used as a default by uBlock Origin, which in-turn blocks a huge amount of internet content; far more than could reasonably be considered ‘intrusive’. In fact, when using this ad blocker, I can’t even visit my company’s own website via a direct type-in.
Don’t get me wrong, bad ads and invasive tracking solutions are out there. But the online ad industry is also populated by responsible and legitimate companies, and to treat all of them in the same way is a mistake. If ad blockers are blocking communication with reputable ad servers, commonly used analytics providers and even basic text ads, we know something’s not right.
This HubSpot research, conducted in conjunction with the world’s biggest ad blocker, Adblock Plus, provides insight into how users feel about ads and ad blockers. Of the respondents in this survey, 83% agreed that not all online ads were bad, and 77% thought an option to filter really intrusive ads was needed as opposed to blanket blocking. A significant 78% said ad blocking had a positive impact on their internet experience, which underlines that ad blocking is rooted in a genuine consumer need that cannot be ignored.
Ad blockers clearly have user demand on their side, and why not? The explosion in popularity of programmatic display advertising has dramatically increased the number of ads being served to users. Low regulatory standards have led to a corresponding increase in intrusive ads, which spoil user experience, increase page load times and eat data plans.
Ad-blocking technology often stresses the righteous aim of existing to ‘protect the user’, but maybe that protection is overstated. After all, the internet community is made up not only of users who consume content, but also people and organisations that produce the content. Don’t both sides need protecting?
Ad-blocking vendors need to take responsibility for allowing the technology to become too pervasive, allowing sledgehammer blocking that shuts off access to entire ad-serving domains for potentially the sake of only a few bad ads. Site analytics and reporting could be disabled at the same time.
I’m sure these same vendors would say that filters on their ad-blocking solutions can be configured manually, but in reality this will be beyond the knowledge of the average internet user. Some tools offer to block genuine website functionality like Adobe Typekit, a subscription service providing custom fonts that are often embedded in CSS.
If the technology is broken, where does ad blocking go from here? Given the popularity of ad blockers, I don’t see any incentives for them to change their approach any time soon.
Ad blocking at a network provider level has been discussed, even trialled by Three, but shortly after this trial it was declared unlawful, much to the relief of many in the ad industry.
The Ghostery model of giving users high levels of transparency over how and what content is blocked, and also not appearing to make financial gain from running ‘opt-out’ programmes, seems to be the most palatable solution on the market today. However, it still relies to on the lopsided efficiency of communication and element-level blocking.
Until the technology does evolve to suit the demands of all parties involved in the value-exchange that is online advertising, workarounds will focus on publishers circumventing the ad blockers. Server-side ad insertion is one example; continuously changing domains and disguising HTML elements connected to ads are a few more.
Living with the impact of ad blocking has created an unbelievably strange industry: the era of the ad-blocker blocker. It includes several solutions like Anti Ad-Block Killer and several dedicated Wordpress plugins.
Ad-blocking solutions have gone well beyond the desire to prevent intrusive and disruptive ads. Ad blocking isn’t a bad initiative, but it has gone too far. The technology needs to remember what it set out to do, which was improve the online experience for us all.