Ad blockers, they’re seen as the natural enemy of publishers, creators, and website owners who rely on ad revenue to make a living. They’re seen as a way of allowing users to consume the hard work of video creators, website owners, and article writers for free, and that’s no good. Unfortunately for these creators, ad blocking software isn’t going to go away any time soon, and with the recent adoption of ad blockers on mobile, things could be going from bad to worse for these creators. But are ad blockers all that bad? According to AdBlock Plus’ Comms/Ops Manageer Ben Williams, they’re not at all, it’s the advertisers which are the bad guys.
AdBlock Plus or ABP launched in 2006 as a way for users to block intrusive ads, but has since grown into something much more than just a bread and butter ad blocker, Williams tells me. ABP does so much more than just blocking ads and is considered more of a “web customiser” than just an ad blocker.
We want to allow people to block ads, but we also want people to block things like tracking, malware domains, Facebook ‘Like’ buttons, and really anything they want,” Williams explained. “If you can write filters, then you can basically control your experience through AdBlock Plus, AdBlock, or even UBlocker, to your liking. And one feature that we have that’s really cool is probably something people don’t know too much about is that you can just block an element on a page.
“our mission is to make ad blocking a little bit more responsible”
“All of these things make the name AdBlock Plus really not apt to what you can do with it because at the end of the day it’s more of a web customiser. Now, we’re not going to change our name, we’re known as AdBlock Plus, we can’t really change that at this point, but truth to be told, that’s what our mission is.”
But it’s not just about ad blocking any more, Williams explained to n3rdabl3. Over the past couple of years, ABP have been working to create something they call the ‘Acceptable Ads Programme’, which offer a set of guidelines to publishers, marketers, and advertisers to offer what ABP users have considered acceptable ads through a series of surveys and questionnaires. These acceptable ads are just one of many efforts ABP is making to make the Internet a much more user-friendly place to explore.
“On the more ads-side, our mission is to make ad blocking a little bit more responsible. To make it less of a sort of blunt instrument and more a controlled instrument like a scalpel, and that’s what we’re trying to do with the Acceptable Ads, program which is an effort to find ads that even AdBlockers will accept, so that publishers can have alternate ways to monetise,” Williams explained.
Acceptable ads is also a way for publishers, marketers, and website owners to work with ABP to have some of their ads placed onto a whitelist. This allows a certain number of ads to be automatically shown to the user, unless they otherwise opt out. Williams told n3rdabl3 that no website has their entire ad inventory whitelisted, just a certain few which have been put through ABP’s criteria. Being added to the whitelist isn’t a simple process however as ABP and the website owner will work closely together to ensure everything meets the Acceptable Ads standards.
“Sometimes it’s a weeks-long process discussing whether things fit the criteria or not, because there are borderline cases most definitely, so it is a long process. Also [website owners] are able to test whether acceptable ads fit on their site and whether it makes sense for them,” Williams added.
This has naturally caused controversy amongst its users, as these whitelisted ads are shown by default and it’s up to the user to then decide whether or not to block ads entirely, or to allow these ads to remain visible. Fortunately ABP have done their best to ensure that users who install AdBlock Plus know that this is a setting, by default.
“Ad blocking itself is a statement of dissatisfaction”
“We try to make it very clear to the users what we’re trying to accomplish with acceptable ads, so we have a big portion of the first-run page devoted to showing users what we’re trying to do with that, and also telling them they can turn it off if they think it’s a stupid idea and they just want to block everything.
“So that’s where you start, also on the first run page you’re given the option of using other lists that can block tracking, and can block malware domains and stuff like that, so really you start on the first-run page with a base product, like an automobile, and after that it’s up to you how you customise it.”
With the launch of iOS 9, Apple enabled users to block ads within mobile Safari, it was a pretty bold move for Apple, but it was one many users have been requesting. This has since spurred on a number of companies to release ad blockers on mobile as well as companies such as AdBlock Plus to bring their own ad blocking browser to the App Store, but why? According to Williams, things are already limited enough with the smaller screens on offer.
“A lot of the reason people download adblocker on their mobile is because they have less real estate, but if they’re on their browser the same amount of ads are being pumped into that smaller space. So I think that one of the reasons people download an ad blocker for mobile. Other reasons that are very pertinent to mobile and not necessarily desktop are page load speeds and data. You’re downloading the ad and that’s costing you time with page load speed and of course it’s costing you money with your data plan.
“I think that there will be a period with an uptake of mobile ad blockers, like the recent news of AdBlock Plus being enabled on Samsung’s browser, so I think right now we’re just getting started and it’s going to shake itself out a little bit. Ad blocking itself is a statement of dissatisfaction that consumers have delivered on the doorsteps of advertisers and so I think and I hope that advertisers will have gotten that letter, gotten that statement, and that they will respond on mobile with a more user centric experience that people will accept.”
Speaking in more detail of that dissatisfaction, Williams explained why ad blocker adoption has seen a rise in the past few years, blaming advertisers who push ad formats like full page takeovers, auto playing video ads, and even native ads, advertisements which sit within the feed of some websites masquerading as original content from the website itself, these type of ads Williams actually described as “very dangerous if they’re labelled incorrectly,” but as a whole, advertisers are starting to turn things around.
“I do see a lot of encouraging things actually from the advertising industry”
“I think that it was really bad there for a while and I think that even the advertising industry will admit to that, you will see even the top brass at the US IAB saying, and I believe this is the right quote: ‘we messed up over the years’. So I think that it developed into a system where we saw this vicious cycle of more intrusive ad formats like wraparounds and autoplay video which leading to an increased adoption in ad blocking and then therefore with more adblockers and less scarcity, the advertisers decided that they would have to increase the amount of ads and tracking scripts out there which lead to even more ad blocking, etcetera etcetera. Now we’re in a place where the advertisers are taking note of the adblocking and most would acknowledge that: A, things developed in a way that wasn’t opportune; and B, that adblocking is not a phenomenon that’s going to go away.
“So now they’re looking to break that vicious cycle, and I do see a lot of encouraging things actually from the advertising industry. Of course, those ads are still out there and I think that’s just a testament to the fact that adblocking will continue at least in the forseeable future to be something that’s necessary for certain users to get away from the wraparound ad, the autoplaying video, the autoplaying sound ads, things like that.
“But the important strides forward I think we’ve seen from advertisers is the IAB’s Lean Initiative, that’s a great statement, a good goal to aspire to, it remains to be seen exactly what that’ll entail, but we’re all anxious and hopeful that it’ll be something positive.”
Speaking of the Internet Advertising Bureau, ABP have had a bit of a rocky relationship with the IAB with the latest news being that the IAB uninvited and refunded ABP’s tickets to their US conference, which was met with some confusion from ABP. Williams explained to n3rdabl3 that this came as a surprise to him and the rest of ABP, explaining that things have since gotten a little “overboard”, but would prefer not to comment on the direction it has taken recently because “it’s not positive conversation”. He did however comment that:
“It’s time we bury the hatchet and start focusing on the important path forward of making better ads, this is something we want to co-operate on.
“We may seem like unnatural bedfellows, but we’re after the same thing. There’s no reason why an advertiser, an ad company, a marketing agency, or even an ad blocker would be opposed to a better consumer experience, I think that’s what we all want.”
“From our point of view there could always be more done, but I do think [the IAB] have made some fairly positive steps. We’re in close consultation with members of the IAB from several companies especially the UK, but other countries such as Spain, the Netherlands, the IAB in Brussels, the EU IAB, as well as the US IAB, and they have expressed to us a willingness to make ads better and they’ve shown that to the public with their Lean Initiative. And so I think that while the ad blockers are always going to say more needs to be done, I do think we’ve seen some positive steps recently.”
“Acceptable Ads is our one way to monetisation of a free product”
According to Williams, ABP have been putting a lot of work into their Acceptable Ads Programme and revealed to n3rdabl3 that they’re actually putting together a committee made up of various members of the advertising circle to take on the responsibility of the Acceptable Ads guidelines, finding new ads which could be considered acceptable, as well as taking the responsibility of the Acceptable Ads Guidelines away from ABP so they can focus on other things.
“The idea of giving this over to the committee was, first of all, Acceptable Ads is our one way to monetisation of a free product, so we want to create a firewall between our monetisation and what’s considered acceptable.
“We also want to make the process a lot more transparent and have a lot more stakeholders in it, because that’s going to provide for more innovation that we can ever come up with, with as many user surveys as we’d like to put out there. Still a lot of the responsibility is going to fall on us, so we wanted to distance ourselves from that process.
“I think this committee has a chance to really standardise for ad blockers what is perceived as acceptable for an ad blocker. It’s important to keep in mind that ad blocking is probably never going to reach huge percentage levels, and in some places it’s probably already capped-out already, and that there’s always some people who choose to block ads and some that don’t so what we’re trying to do with the committee is understand the people who choose to block ads and explore what they’re willing to accept.”
The use of ad blockers really isn’t going to go away any time soon especially while these intrusive ads are still thriving as the most lucrative forms of online advertising, but with ABP’s committee as well as IAB’s Lean Initiative, the evolution of online advertising could certainly reach a more acceptable middle-ground where both users and publishers being happy with what they’re giving out and what is being received in return. However, it looks like there’s a long way to go before this is achieved.
I’ll be honest, I went in seeing AdBlock Plus and ad blocking as a whole as the enemy, I’ve seen that, at least in ABP’s court, it’s not all about blocking ads, and they’ve made some pretty impressive strides working with advertisers and publishers to ensure that ads being served. We’ve since started working with ABP to introduce some of their Acceptable Ads guidelines on n3rdabl3, and will continue to work with ABP to have some of our ads placed on their whitelist.
Is ad blocking still a problem for online content creators? Indeed it is, but as the Internet evolves, so does the advertising industry. Here’s hoping we can find that acceptable middle-ground.