Some thoughts on where we are at and where we might be going.
Ad Blockers and the Nuisance at the Heart of the Modern Web
The great philosopher Homer Simpson once memorably described alcohol as “the cause of and solution to all of life’s problems.” Internet advertising is a bit like that — the funder of and terrible nuisance baked into everything you do online.
Advertising sustains pretty much all the content you enjoy on the web, not least this very newspaper and its handsome, charming technology columnist; as I’ve argued before, many of the world’s most useful technologies may never have come about without online advertising. But at the same time, ads and the vast, hidden, data-sucking machinery that they depend on to track and profile you are routinely the most terrible thing about the Internet.
Now, more and more web users are escaping the daily bombardment of online advertising by installing an ad blocker. This simple, free software lets you roam the web without encountering any ads that shunt themselves between you and the content you want to read or watch. With an ad blocker, your web browser will generally run faster, you’ll waste less bandwidth downloading ads, and you’ll suffer fewer annoyances when navigating the Internet. You’ll wonder why everyone else in the world doesn’t turn to the dark side.
Well, everyone may be catching on. Ad blocking has been around for years, but adoption is now rising steeply, at a pace that some in the ad industry say could prove catastrophic for the economic structure underlying the web. That has spurred a debate about the ethic of ad blocking. Some publishers and advertisers say ad blocking violates the implicit contract that girds the Internet — the idea that in return for free content, we all tolerate a constant barrage of ads.
But in the long run, there could be a hidden benefit to blocking ads for advertisers and publishers: Ad blockers could end up saving the ad industry from its worst excesses. If blocking becomes widespread, the ad industry will be pushed to produce ads that are simpler, less invasive and far more transparent about the way they’re handling our data — or risk getting blocked forever if they fail.
“It’s clear to us that the ads ecosystem is broken,” said Ben Williams, a spokesman for Eyeo, the German company that makes Adblock Plus, the most popular ad-blocking software. “What we need is a sea change in the industry to get to a place where we have a good amount of better ads out there, ads that users accept.”
The industry may not have much time to wait. In a report last week, Adobe and PageFair, an Irish start-up that tracks ad-blocking, estimated that blockers will cost publishers nearly $22 billion in revenue this year. Nearly 200 million people worldwide regularly block ads, the report said, and the number is growing fast, increasing 41 percent globally in the last year.
Today ad-blocking is mostly restricted to desktop web browsers. But iOS 9, Apple’s latest mobile operating system, will include support for ad blockers when it becomes available in the fall. Several ad-blocking firms are already creating apps for the new OS; when it’s out, you’ll simply download an ad blocker and no longer have to see ads on the iPhone’s version of Safari and possibly in other apps that open web links.
“What’s likely to happen is that of the 200 million people who use ad blocking now, let’s say half of them have iPhones — they’re all going to install one of these things,” said Sean Blanchfield, the chief executive of PageFair. “Then they’ll start telling all their friends about this amazing app that saves your battery, saves your data and speeds up the web, and it’s likely to go viral. A lot of people are going to get accustomed to having an ad-free mobile experience.”
It’s important to note that PageFair has skin in this game, and some have accused the company of self-interested alarmism.
PageFair also sells technology that allows web publishers to determine if users are running blocking software — and then serves them ads anyway, going around the blockers. PageFair’s software, which Mr. Blanchfield said is currently being tested with a number of large websites, circumvents ad blocking by using “low-level networking” technology that he declined to detail in order to stay ahead of ad companies.
Showing ads to people who have downloaded ad blockers sounds a little spammy. But in a twist, it may also lead to better ads. Here’s how: PageFair’s canny strategy to mitigate users’ outrage is that it will only show ads that aren’t “intrusive,” Mr. Blanchfield said. That means the ads won’t feature animations, they won’t block content, and they won’t load “trackers” that monitor and report back to some unknown server what you do on a web page.
By requiring companies to run ads that are simple and transparent, Mr. Blanchfield said, PageFair would return sanity to the ad business. “We as an industry have lost the trust of our users, who are right — there are a lot of very bad ads out there,” he said. “We have one shot as an industry to get this right.”
PageFair is just one of the firms trying to create an ecosystem that produces better ads. After wrestling with the implications of their software, the founders of AdBlock Plus created an initiative called “Acceptable Ads,” which sets out a standard for ads that the software will let users see despite having ad-blocking turned on. These ads are also low-fi — they can’t be animated or cover up a page’s content. (Eyeo charges some large companies a fee to show these ads; Google, for instance, pays Eyeo to have its search ads show up for Adblock Plus users.)
Then there’s Ghostery, which makes a plug-in that lets users find and block online tracking tools — the code in a page that sends data about your surfing habits to marketers. According to the company, the number of such trackers has exploded in recent years because marketing software used to analyze consumer behavior has become much easier to use. Ghostery reported 22 trackers on a page for Slate, 18 on one for Business Insider, 22 at The Wall Street Journal, and 26 for The New York Times.
Not only do these trackers represent efforts to profile you, but they also waste time — when you see a web page stuck loading, you can usually blame one of these trackers. Ghostery aims to fix that. For a fee, the company reports to site owners which trackers are slowing down pages — which in turn may improve how ads are served. It will also soon unveil a “Ghostery score” that will show users which sites to trust based on the trackers that sites are loading up.
The pattern here is ironic: PageFair, AdBlock Plus and Ghostery, which all depend to some extent on consumers’ interest in blocking ads, are also all pushing innovative efforts to create better ads.
Even some in the ad industry acknowledge this dynamic. Scott Cunningham, the general manager of the technology lab for the Interactive Advertising Bureau, the trade group that comes up with online advertising standards, said his group had already begun to respond to users who are downloading the software; most recently, he said, the bureau has been working to create clearer guidelines for the trackers’ coded web pages.
“As we’ve watched the incidence rate of ad blocking, we’ve said, ‘O.K., it’s time for us to put the clamps onto some of the areas we haven’t addressed yet,’ ” Mr. Cunningham said.
That suggests another practical utility of ad blocking — it appears to be an effective form of protest. For better ads tomorrow, block ads today.
An earlier version of this column misstated part of the name of an online advertising trade group. It is the Interactive Advertising Bureau, not Internet Advertising Bureau.