(Disclaimer: I’m in no way affiliated with the creators of AdBlock, AdBlock Plus, or any other properties listed below.)
Do you like reading sidebar ads, waiting for YouTube ads to finish so you can watch a two minute video, or dodging floating ads with your mouse to navigate your way around your favorite websites?
If you answered no to any or all of those, the chances are good you’re one of the nearly 40 million people who use either AdBlock or its Chrome and Firefox equivalent, Adblock Plus, on just those two browsers every single day.
Adblock Plus, or ABP – which has made waves in the news recently both for its promise to keep Facebook from tracking your browsing behavior, and for being sued twice in Germany over its perpetually contentious whitelist – remains one of the most frequently used browser extensions of all time, and it sure doesn’t look like it’s going anywhere. At over 200 million downloads and counting, it’s far and away the most downloaded browser plugin for Firefox, and over 18 million people use it daily on that platform alone.
Its unaffiliated sister plugin, AdBlock, is the most popular plugin for Chrome, still available for download from browser’s online marketplace even though Google blocked the Android version from its Play Store. And all signs point to an increase in use over the past few years.
But for all the convenience they offer consumers, ad blockers continue to be one of the stickiest thorns in the sides of online advertisers, who – with the exception of a few of the biggest platforms out there, who can afford to pay off the plugins’ creators to stay visible – have to either apply to be on the plugin’s whitelist (in the case of Adblock Plus), or deal with the fact that their ads simply won’t show up for a pretty substantial chunk of web users. In fact, Adblock Plus adversaries PageFair (formerly BlockMetrics) estimate over 1/5th of the web is now using ad-blocking software, with that number growing at 43% per year and costing a “typical client” some $500,000 a year in ad revenue.
The primary defense from the creators of these plugins, of course, is that by giving consumers a way to fight back against some of the more intrusive advertising practices that have taken over the web, they’re helping pave the way for better ads in the future – and with better ads should come higher conversions and fewer frustrations on both ends.
But it doesn’t seem like we’re there yet, and as the use of ad blockers continues to rise, so too will the controversy.
So, for those of us for whom digital marketing and advertising is a passion, career, way of life, or all of the above… what exactly are we supposed to make of this incredibly popular inconvenience?
In this post, I’m going to argue that – like them or not – ad blockers are a crucial step in the pursuit of better advertising on the web. Before you comment (furiously, I’m sure)… let’s have a look at what I consider the three best arguments in opposition to that stance. I’ve answered each one with my own rebuttal below, based on my favorite arguments in defense of ad blockers.
The Case Against Ad Blocking Plugins
There are a few different arguments out there in opposition to these frustratingly easy-to-install plugins, and they’ve been around for quite some time now.
#1: AdBlock and Adblock Plus Hurt Websites, Especially Small Ones.
This is probably the most common criticism of adblocking software, and in my opinion, it’s the most important. Back in 2010, Ars Technica (now owned by Conde Nast) published a somewhat controversial piece to this effect. As the argument goes, even if some advertisers only make money (or have to pay) when an ad is clicked, some platforms still charge by impressions – and even if not, loading pages on a site without viewing ads still consumes resources and uses bandwidth. It’s the web’s equivalent of frequenting your local coffee shop without ever buying anything. (In Bellingham, by the way, they really hate that.)
The Rebuttal: Ads aren’t where small site owners should be hanging their hat.
- Small sites shouldn’t rely on ads alone for revenue. As John Leach wrote on his blog, one problem with this argument is that funding content solely through advertising doesn’t make a ton of sense. The profit margin is pretty small if you consider the percentage of users who are likely to click an ad (not many) and the amount that the advertiser (Google, for example) will take off the top.There is, of course, also the fairly common argument that the people using ad blocking software aren’t likely to click on ads in the first place. This is the idea that whatever impressions are generated by, say, banning ad-blockers, are by and large wasted on uninterested users. However, while there are certainly plenty of AdBlock and ABP users who don’t care to see any ad, it seems rather difficult to prove that anyone who installs an ad blocker would never click on an ad shown to them on the web. (ABP’s own user survey reveals around 75% of people who use the plugin still support some advertising.)Instead, it seems more likely people install ad blockers because the ads they’re seeing are annoying or intrusive. Those same people might well click on an ad if its relevant to them and doesn’t directly interrupt whatever content they’re reading, watching, or listening to. That, at least, is the case that AdBlock and ABP are making in defense of their product.
- Web users contribute in other ways, even if they’re not viewing ads. One of the strongest arguments, I think, in response to this criticism is that value, for a website, cannot be calculated solely based on advertising revenue. Visitors may come to a site, see no ads, and still leave valuable comments, link to content they find interesting, and share it via social channels.Especially for a small site, this value can be tremendous: linking, of course, increases a site’s organic search rankings, and a couple of well-targeted pieces of content that resonate with your Facebook or Twitter audience can do wonders for your site’s traffic and readership. So if you run a small website, and you see that ad revenue is rapidly disappearing, it might be worth allocating some of that money to better or more targeted content.
Do small websites lose out on revenue because of ad blocking software? Almost certainly. Is it fair? Probably not. But few things are. And since neither plugin is exactly going to disappear in the next couple years, the small sites – like the rest of the web – are going to have to adapt, even if that means completely rethinking their business model.
#2: Ad blockers hurt advertisers in a way that doesn’t exist in print or other formats.
Unlike web advertising, you can’t exactly hide the ads in a newspaper or magazine. And unless you pay a subscription fee or use a special service to stream from the web, you’re probably not going to get around radio ads, either. Sure, TiVo lets you skip through television ads if you want, but the process is a little more involved than downloading a tiny plugin that installs in seconds. Ad blocking plugins make it incredibly easy to skip out on all or nearly all advertising content, even though the 2.0 version of ABP allows “acceptable ads” by default.
The Rebuttal: Other platforms still give consumers a choice.
Regardless, Adblock Plus supporters tend to respond that, well, plenty of other media formats do still eliminate ads or at least make it possible, and their service providers still manage to make ends meet. Consider the popularity of a streaming service like Netflix, whose owners have come out and said they’re not even considering running ads in the future, despite pressure from their investors to do so. And even if the number of people who use TiVo or something like it to deliberately bypass ads is not terribly high, it’s still out there for the determined consumer.
Yet this response doesn’t seem completely satisfying. As Ars Technica points out, comparing these formats to the web is not so easy. The models for those types of media, which have no way of directly measuring impressions or future conversions (thank you, the internet!) are radically different. Where digital ad platforms count each step and bill accordingly, offline advertisers have to pay for potential results, so comparing the two doesn’t make sense – the analogy, argues the author, is equivalent to “apples and asparagus” (a comparison I for some reason find hysterical).
Most importantly, ad-free formats out there rely on a subscription model – just as print media has done for decades. So if there’s to be a solution to this problem for website owners, it again seems their approach to generating revenue in the first place may need to be re-thought.
#3: Adblock Plus’ “Acceptable Ads” whitelist amounts to extortion, and it unfairly privileges the bigger platforms.
Even in 2014, it seems the fastest way to the Adblock Plus whitelist for big advertisers is by mailing the owners a sizeable check (who, of course, are quick to clarify that you can’t just buy a spot on the whitelist – your ads still have to meet the criteria). And if you’re a giant advertising platform with the means to do so, though, it’s a smart choice: according to Business Insider (again, via PageFair), Google reportedly saved around $880 million by paying off Adblock Plus.
This seems rather unfair to small websites, whose marketing budget probably doesn’t include a special cut for a company that has done little more than inconvenience them.
The Rebuttal: Getting on the whitelist involves more than a paycheck, and only a few platforms actually pay.
- According to Adblock Plus creators Eyeo, only Google-sized advertisers need to pay to be whitelisted. The argument the owners make in their own defense is that managing the whitelist is a difficult and time-consuming task, and while they say it is free for all small and medium-sized websites and blogs, some compensation from bigger platforms that can afford it (i.e., Google) is needed to undergo the process of reviewing all of their ads.Technically, any site owner can apply for the whitelist (and it’s worth noting that even Google’s ads have to comply), and if all goes as planned, the process should take about 10 business days. But even though ABP enables “acceptable ads” by default, users still have the option to disable all advertisements, which could pose a risk to those sites that rely almost exclusively on ad revenue.
- Not all big platforms get away so easily. Facebook is one example of a major ad platform ad blockers continue to stymie. More than a few others are out there, including both Bing and Yahoo ads. While Google is by far the best-known paid member of the whitelist, possible other properties include Amazon, eHow, and Livestrong. (Reddit is included on the whitelist as well, but says it was added without being contacted by Adblock Plus.)
- ABP’s Acceptable ads list is crowdsourced. One of Eyeo’s main defenses of their acceptable ads criteria is that it’s determined by the rest of the web. This may not be a huge comfort to site owners seeing their ad revenue in decline, but at the very least it means there’s some hope for the future.Because the creators of ABP supposedly accept input from anyone on current and future guidelines for what constitutes an acceptable ad, advertisers have (in theory) just as much opportunity as consumers to define what should be fair game. And as compromise is achieved, there’s hope that the desires and needs of both consumers and advertisers will be met.
It’s quite possible that having to apply to be on the acceptable ads list, just for ads (which are already paid for) presents an undue or unfair burden to small websites. After all, over 50% of applicants have been rejected for not meeting the criteria since 2011, indicating that even if those ads may have been – by ABP’s standards – unacceptable for consumers, it’s not just as easy as applying for the whitelist and going from there.
So where does all of this leave us?
The Future of Advertising… for Advertisers
As we’ve covered, it’s abundantly clear that ad blockers are an inevitable part of the current and future web. It’s simply a question of how we are to deal with them. And if you ask me, that’s actually a good thing. Here’s why:
- Accountability is always key. There are not a lot of circumstances, especially in business, where a lack of accountability produces better outcomes. In my opinion, even if their solution may not yet be the right one, the folks behind Adblock Plus at least have the right idea. Consumers need a way to push back against crappy ads – otherwise, we’d be stuck in the mid-2000s era of Myspace full-page takeovers, floating ads, terrible flash-everything… you get the idea. (And if you don’t, here’s some “vintage” internet nightmare fuel.)
- Higher standards means better ad performance. At least, it should. The less annoying and more targeted your ads are, the much higher your clickthrough rate is going to be. This is one reason we’re such a big fan of PPC advertising – as an inbound channel, it’s automatically geared towards users already looking for the products or services being advertised. That puts your potential customer an extra step further down the buying funnel, and it might actually make them interested in what your site actually offers – rather than doing everything they can to make your ads disappear.And, let’s face it – the web is headed this direction anyway. With the recent upsurge in content and social media marketing in the past couple years – by and large replacing over outdated SEO tactics – the most successful websites are focusing on ways to attract rather than directly sell to potential visitors. It’s a win-win for business and consumer.
- We should be building the kind of web we would want to use ourselves. Terrible ads create an equally terrible kind of antagonism between advertisers and consumers. If none of us ever used the web ourselves for anything other than marketing, that might not seem like a problem. But in this day and age, we’re consumers just like anyone else – the difference, for us, is that we also have to power to change the web for better.
So what are the alternatives?
In the short term, website owners still need to pay the bills. If ads aren’t going to do it, it’s time to start rethinking how to generate income. Here are what I consider to be the best and most realistic alternatives:
- Subscription-based service. This is the way that both music services (Pandora, Spotify, even Amazon) and television providers (Netflix, HBO) have gone, and it seems to be working famously. There are certainly drawbacks for the rest of the industry – see the talent drain from ABC as longform, paid television continues to replace broadcast, not to mention the decline of even digital music downloads – but it’s hard to say the consumer doesn’t benefit from more choice. At the end of the day, they can pay for the service that best suits their needs, and content providers can earn their fair share.A number of sites hit hard by ad blockers have been doing this for a while – even Ars Technica, who deliberately asked their users to subscribe if they detected ad blocking software (after first blocking content instead). Online dating site OkCupid had their own pretty clever take on it, and it seems like these alternatives are working.Of course, not every site is going to be able to convince their readers to pay for a subscription just to read their content. But it’s something to consider – especially if you, like many tech websites, have a high percentage of readers likely to be using an ad blocker. And as seems to be happening with television, one of the benefits of offering a paid service is that the end product tends to just be better.
- Greater focus on content creation and marketing. As I mentioned before, I think one of the best alternatives for websites – especially small ones – is to focus on getting more out of the content you have. One great piece of content can make the difference between 100 visitors to your blog a month and 100,000. And if you get the attention of some powerful influencers in your industry, you can multiply your audience overnight. Those benefits will more than offset the cost of a few ad clicks from your regular users.
Of course, content marketing is not a perfect solution. Since Google announced content was the one true king of sustainable SEO practices, the amount of low-quality blog posts and articles thrown together by agencies and their (underpaid) writers has skyrocketed. And more and more, we’re starting to see spammy-looking, clickbait-headlined “Around The Web” content pieces (you know, the kind “You Just Won’t Believe”) filling the spots on sites where ads used to be. As Jonathan Bailey over at Plagiarism Today points out, too much of this kind of marketing begins to blur the lines between content and advertisement – rendering ad blockers effectively useless.
So, just as with anything, it seems that a balanced approach may be the only way to both help site owners recoup costs, and continue to build a web we can actually stand to use.
Unsurprisingly, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to the AdBlock for advertisers. The one thing we know is that ad blockers aren’t going away, and even though I think their presence is needed – and you may disagree! – I’m inclined to think we’ve got some work to do to make that okay for everyone.
In the meantime, even if it seems unfair that Google’s PPC text ads are unblocked by default, as advertisers we can be thankful that this platform has stayed immune. AdWords continues to offer a lot of flexibility and reach for businesses large and small, and in my opinion continues to demonstrate what both search marketers and the folks at Adblock Plus can agree on: ads are not inherently evil. It’s just a question of how they go about earning those clicks.
So there you go – my take on the Adblock Plus debate. I’ve made my case as best I can, but I’m quite certain I haven’t covered all of it. Got something to add? Weigh in below!