19 Aug, 2015

Ad blockers... friend or foe?

Ad blockers... some people consider them the greatest thing invented, while others find their online advertising revenue eroded and the means to fund running their website swirling down the toilet pan. This blog looks at both sides of the story, with a large dose of experience added in for good measure.

Ad blockers are big news. Downloads of ad blocking software are growing exponentially and it's predicted they won't be slowing down any time soon. According to PageFair, global adblocking now has 198 million monthly active users—a 41% increase on the previous 12 months. As a result, an estimated $21.8bn in advertising revenues will be lost in 2015 due to ad blocking. In 2014 the US alone lost an estimated $5.8bn in lost revenue [1]. For sites relying on advertising revenue to run them, that hurts.

Why would you want to install an ad blocker? The multi-faceted answer is quicker loading web pages, no flashing adverts, no annoying sounds, less demands on your mobile data plan, less processing demands on your computer, and no remarketing ads infringing on your privacy.

Ad blockers and their effect on website advertising revenue cartoon
Why would you not want to install an ad blocker? The ads don't bother you, sometimes an interesting advert appears that may be of benefit to you, you feel for the website owners who need advertising revenue to provide you with a great online resource. Okay, that last one is a heartfelt plea from just such a website owner.

What went wrong with online advertising to spawn these ad blockers? Greed. Online ads have long been considered a trade-off on websites that provide you with information you need—you click on an ad, they get some revenue, everyone is happy. But online adverts gradually became more intrusive, bigger (resource hungry), animated, noisy, and even personal based on your browsing history. The quality of online adverts has become largely offensive to a lot of users, and so ad blockers were born.

Three of my personal website projects use advertising revenue to fund running them. One site specialises in food allergies, one is tourism based, and one is for healthier eating choices. Over the years Google has served advertising to these sites, and the revenue from people clicking on the ads has enabled me to spend a large proportion of my working week on developing the food allergy site; the tourism and healthy eating sites are more of a spare time hobby.

With decreased online advertising revenue I can no longer devote more than an hour or two in my week to increasing the food allergy sites content, or promoting it, and thereby helping people to live a normal food existence.

I don't have ad blockers running on my devices because I understand that some websites can't afford to run without advertising revenue. But when faced with a pop-up in the middle of my browser window my response is immediate—I usually exit the website.

Some websites have implemented ad blocker checking. In other words, if the site detects that a user is running an ad blocker then access to that site is restricted or refused. After all, creating desirable content costs time and money, so some sites take the stance that why should it always be given away for free.

Other sites have opted for a more emotional plea-style response. Where the blocked ad would normally be displayed they place a message asking for their site to be added to the ad blockers whitelist—a list of websites that the ad blocker filter will allow to serve adverts.

There are also ad blocker blockers; a simplistic description, but a technology that allows sites to detect if a user is using ad blocking software, then it bypasses the blocker and serves the ad regardless. PageFair sells just such a technology.

So advertisers only have themselves to blame for the huge movement towards using ad blockers. They have foisted unpleasant adverts with sound, flashing, obtrusive pop-ups, and all manner of other irritating tricks to gain people's attention and a click-through.

Advertisers need to concentrate on providing good quality, download frugal, acceptable ads which are not annoying to users, and do not interrupt the users flow. Ads like these will not be stopped by ad blocking software because they will legitimately pass under the radar—making advertisers and online publishers happy and, more importantly, able to afford to keep providing quality desirable content to users.

1. $21.8bn Ad Revenue Loss Estimated from Ad Blocking in 2015, Finds PageFair and Adobe Study - Aug. 10, 2015.