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Adblocking 202: In Defense of Adblockers

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Adblockers have empowered Internet users to take control of their data and experience a cleaner, faster Internet. With the rise of adblocking adoption, however, adblockers have gotten a bad rap from advertisers and content creators, who are testing several methods of recuperating lost ad revenue. But in this debate, are adblockers solely to blame?

In this multi-post series, we dive into the adtech industry, adblocking software and our role in transforming how users interact with ads online. If you’re just now joining the adblocking space, be sure to check out my previous post on how adblockers work.

Why are publishers worried about adblockers?

Most online advertising models are based on a cost per impression basis (i.e. publishers make money when users see ads on their site). To target ads to you and keep track of all of the ad impressions, advertising technology began to include heavy tracking code in its ads. This led to a slowdown in page loads, as well as concerns that ad companies knew too much about you, such as your favorite sites, where you do your online shopping, your age and a rough estimate of how much money you make.

To combat this intrusion, users began downloading adblocking software, since adblockers actually protect users from tracking scripts and cookies. In 2009, roughly 21 million Internet users had an adblocker installed; as of June 2015, that number has grown to 198 million.

So while adblocking users now experience a cleaner and faster Internet, publishers are worried about their primary source of revenue. According to the cost of adblocking, a study published by Adobe and anti-adblocking tool PageFair, adblockers cost publishers an estimated $22 billion in ad revenue last year.

How does this affect online users?

In retaliation of the loss of ad revenue, online publishers are incorporating several tactics, including asking users to whitelist their site and banning adblocking users from their content.

Asking for Whitelisting
A nifty feature adblockers have is the ability to whitelist certain websites so that ads appear on the site.

Several publishers, like Slate, will prompt users with a “Please Whitelist Us” message and allow them to continue to the desired content. In Slate’s case, they also ask users to join their premium membership.

Forcing Whitelisting
On the other hand, some publishers ban adblocking users altogether, forcing them to turn off their adblocker in order to access their content.

Back in November, Yahoo Mail ran an A/B test that prevented adblocking users from accessing their email. The test received major backlash online with many users declaring they planned on ceasing to use the company’s mail service.

In December, tested this tactic, but offered an “ad-light experience” if users turned off their adblocker. Their request resulted in 42.3 percent of adblocking users turning off their adblocker.

Messages like this pose the question, “Is this content or service really worth it?” and, should users agree to turn off their adblockers, expose them to third-party trackers and annoying ads, and the risk of malware.

Are adblockers bad for the Internet?

Depends on who you ask. While publishers are quick to blame adblocking software, they are not the root of the problem. Rather, adblockers have stemmed from the real problem: a broken adtech system – a system in which publishers and marketers declined to respect Do Not Track messages from users, deciding to prioritize profits over privacy.

The Interactive Advertising Bureau admitted they “messed up” by “building advertising technology to optimize publishers’ yield of marketing budgets.” The outcome? A slower Internet caused by tracking-heavy advertising that follows users online to produce a cluster of ads.

Adblockers are not the problem, but a catalyst that is shifting the conversation to how we can better the user ad experience. If it weren’t for adblockers, marketers and publishers would continue prioritizing monetization over the user ad experience. If it weren’t for adblockers, the IAB wouldn’t propose new principles to encourage better, more responsible advertising.

At Google’s annual meeting of stockholders, Alphabet CEO Larry Page said the best response to the rise of adblockers would be to create better ads. The adtech “industry needs to do better at producing ads that are less annoying and that are quicker to load, and all those things,” he said. “And I think we need to do a better job of that as an industry.”

The current state of online advertising is an implicit value exchange – one that assumes users are OK with giving up a ton of data in exchange for free content. But the proliferation of adblockers is shaking up adtech by providing users the tools to plant a stake in the ground and demand a better online ad experience – one that respects users’ privacy, is transparent and does not including obtrusive ads.

Our Vision – Keep Content Free

At Gladly, we believe free content is a cornerstone of an accessible Internet, and we think good advertising is a great way to keep content free. You can read more about it in the Gladly manifesto.

With this mission in mind we launched Goodblock, the adblocker with a purpose. During initial tests, many of our users expressed interest in supporting the content they love. In response, we designed an easy way for users to whitelist specific sites. As we continue to transform how we interact with ads, we hope to involve content providers to keep the Internet free and enjoyable.

Interested in shaping how Internet users interact with ads? Download Goodblock for Chrome now!

-Giovanni Berber

  • GonzoI

    Yahoo didn’t exactly sell their action well, leaving most users with the impression that it was just broken again (since it’s not been that reliable even beforehand, and it was hit-or-miss whether it actually detected adblock). I’m part of the 57.7% of users that stopped going to Forbes, and from what I’ve read, I was right to do so as their “ad-lite” experience had malware ads.

    It’s not really a hard challenge for the industry. The online ad business built up without tracking, without the capability of loading malware, and without animation, video and audio. Google took over a large part of the market going “backwards” to text based advertisement that was targeted towards what the page was about, not what your last 300 clicks implied you might want. And this worked. It’s not hard to go back to, it’s not significantly less effective, and by REDUCING the mass of ads and making them page-relevant instead of tracking-relevant, the clickthrough rates will go back up instead of plummeting as they have been. Less is more. Advertisers knew this in the 1950’s. Internet advertisers just need to remember the fundamentals.

    That’s not to say tracking doesn’t have a place, but it has to be tracking with consent, not mass, coerced or concealed tracking. I shouldn’t suddenly be seeing ads for a random hardware component my boss linked me to after hours while I’m reading an article on the economy, but having Amazon ads on news sites show things from my wishlist at some trivial discount to entice me to buy it now would be a lot more reasonable.

    For scripted ads to have a future, though, they’re going to have to be pre-vetted and not subject to change without re-vetting. This is already done in app stores for random, trivial apps. It would be much more reasonable to do the same for what should be light ad scripts served by an ad service. The existence of malware ads is the biggest black mark on internet advertisers. Until it goes away, the growing number of adblock options will continue to proliferate from security recommendations alone.

    As a side note, adblock software also allows for managing bad page design on sites one wants to participate. Several social media sites, for example, have opened up the floodgates of user-posted images. Twitter requires adblock to prevent auto-preview of not work safe images that someone chose not to flag. Tumblr requires adblock to prevent mass loads of huge GIF animations. The software isn’t going away even if advertisers get their act together, but it may finally be able to coexist with advertisers.