Ad blocking has been a hot topic in the publishing industry following the launch of some popular online blocking tools on mobiles, and Apple’s decision to allow blockers on Safari.
A recent study by Reuters has found that 2 in 5 people currently use ad-blocking tools, and this is set to rise as more people become wise to the personal benefits.
But many people I’ve spoken to in publishing don’t understand why someone would ad block, or even how it works. But they have realised that it’s a growing issue that seriously threatens their revenues.
After some heated debate at our 2025: Visions for the Future of Publishing event, I decided it was time for a kiss-and-tell with a real-life ad blocker.
I’m a 24-year-old digital editor and designer with Page Lizard, and I do a great deal of blogging and speaking about digital publishing and developments in the industry. I’m moderately technical (CSS rather than bank-hacking) and like many people my age, I spend a great deal of time browsing social media for news and interesting things to learn about.
What made you install an ad blocker?
I do a lot of online reading, mainly of blogs and articles I find through Twitter and Facebook. The problem with many of the links is that you have little idea where you’re being taken, and there were a couple of (reputable) publishing sites that kept freezing and crashing my browser due to the sheer quantity of adverts, overlays and trackers they were churning out.
I’d read about ad blockers on a tech site, and decided to give one a try for a week or two on my home laptop. I picked Adblock Plus as it had the best ratings in the Chrome extension store, and was free to install. Most are just a plugin to your existing browser and require no technical know-how at all.
Once I’d installed it and got used to the suddenly-smooth browsing experience, I didn’t see any reason to go back, and I’m not the only one.
— Alexander Hanff (@alexanderhanff) February 8, 2016
One point to bear in mind at this stage is that I don’t have an ad blocker on my work computer, just my personal one. This means I’m well-versed in both the blocked and unblocked web experience.
What difference does it actually make?
The difference is almost unbelievable. Web pages load faster, are much easier to read, and I can buy cake tins on Amazon without them following me all over the web for weeks afterwards. Honestly it was quite a shock – we see so many adverts every minute of the day that we’ve almost become immune to them.
Adverts have responded in kind by becoming more ‘in-your-face’, forcing interaction with them whether that be through autoplay, overlays, pop-ups or unwanted sound – we’ve all had that awkward moment where an unsolicited advert has blared out on the train or in the office, despite frantic clicks/taps to try and quiet it. Like a decent pair of headphones, ad blockers screen all this noise out, and it’s difficult to willingly go back once you know just how quiet the internet is without ads.
Would you whitelist sites or pay for content?
A couple of weeks ago, I clicked on an article from Twitter on the DesignTaxi website (a design and ideas blog). They redirected me to a page that asked me to either whitelist them, or subscribe to the ad-free version.
Now whitelisting a site is as simple as going to the Adblock Pro icon on my browser, and clicking it. This adds the site to my ‘don’t block’ list, and I see the normal, ad-supported version.
I actually don’t mind that. It’s a choice I’ve made that I trust this publisher, and am happy to support them. The adverts can’t track me further than that site, but I’m still giving the website the eyeballs it needs to make the money.
However there is a health warning that comes with blocking the blockers. For sites like DesignTaxi or Wired, I’ll make that simple click that will allow me access in return for ads. This is my personal decision, and I know there are others who would simply move on. Similarly, there are sites I simply wouldn’t bother whitelisting unless I was desperate to read the article, and I’d look elsewhere.
What about the ethics?
The part of me that feels a little bit bad for stifling publisher’s revenue streams quickly disappears when the ethics of the ad industry is brought into play. Information about me and my browsing habits is ferried all around the world to be fed into invasive and aggressive adverts more often concerned with (accidental) click-through rates rather than genuine engagement.
The online ad world is nothing like print, where careful relationships are developed so that the pages of your precious magazines are filled with glossy, high-quality adverts which meet exacting standards. Oh no. The majority of sites are full of layers and layers of trackers, cookies, the lot – a point nicely highlighted by how slowly these pages perform over a mobile 3G connection. I can’t emphasise this point enough until you’ve seen the difference an ad blocker makes for yourself.
It may be tempting for some publishers to cling to the moral high ground, but the reality is that ethical or not, ad blocking is on the rise and there needs to be a strategy to work with it (note: work with, not combat).
What can we do?
Many industry news sites have run stories about publishing’s battle with ad-blocking software. But for every tool brought out to combat the blockers, the blockers respond in kind by…well…blocking!
Part of the solution to this dilemma is in asking the right questions. So many publishers are asking ‘How can we combat ad blockers?’ and many others are developing sophisticated technology to ‘get around’ the problem. But for each advance made, the ad blockers get smarter, and so the cycle continues with some companies now refusing to serve content to people who are using blockers, others pleading with readers, and so on.
Rather than using aggressive tactics to get around unblockers, perhaps we should all take a step back and ask why over 20% of the population are using them in the first place?
‘Whitelist us or pay’ strategies are beginning to filter into mainstream usage now, and it will be interesting to see how this affects traffic. It’s a gamble – betting on your content being worth the effort of whitelisting – and it’s too early to say how this will play out. It’s particularly risky for smaller players, and I wish there was an easy answer.
The last word
On a personal note, I really, honestly didn’t mind seeing adverts for conferences, events or tools on industry websites were of genuine interest to me. What’s spoilt the party for publishers serving useful adverts is the proportion of sites showing me tripe. The reason I installed an ad blocker was because I was sick of getting adverts for things I bought weeks back, and how slow sites had become trying to track all these habits of mine and missing the point in the process.
The debate has gone way past the personal morality of people using ad blockers. Like schools, where one naughty kid can cause the whole class to be held back over lunch, the industry has to bear the weight of responsibility for the rise in ad blocking – after all, is the consumer ever wrong?
Try it for a week. If nothing else, it’ll inform your perspective on the Ad Block Debate
Do you ad block? Or do you think I’m an awful person for doing so? Tweet me @EstherKeziaH to continue the debate.