Ad blockers: the forgivable or the damned?
Over the last few years, online advertising has continued to expand its already vast reaches. 2014 saw the UK digital ad spend climb as high as an estimated £7.2 billion, which was a £6.3 billion jump from 2013.
As websites became increasingly dependent on ad revenue to fund their pages, and as the kind of pages and programs that screen online advertising became more and more popular, the rise of the ad blocker wasn’t hard to predict.
If you’re not familiar with the technique, it works like this: you can use a number of browser plug-ins that remove advertising from the web. The system looks for advertising content (like the kind that interrupts a streamed TV show, or pops up the top; bottom and side of a news site, say) and shuts it down, excluding it from the page and making it disappear.
How many people are involved with using ad blockers? Lots. Publishers, industry bodies and networks seem to think the number is snowballing, and fast. The practice seems to have grown by 82% in the UK to reach 12 million active users in June 2015, according to study from PageFair (one of a number of platforms that works on providing ways for publishers to push back).
These figures are hardly shocking in light of the general consensus that ads are frustrating, intrusive and disruptive. They interrupt users as they’re enjoying content they’ve sought, they distract the eye from text and pictures in the centre of the page and they delay your access to content you’ve selected, as in the case of autoplay adverts that come before video content. The irritatingly high incidence of YouTube’s pre-roll ads, for example, are often blamed for popularising ad blockers. Pop-up ads in particular are especially loathed – it’s no wonder Google banned them (although you’re still liable to run into rogue pop-ups that have slipped through the net. A heavy ad presence can also affect a page’s load time, meaning many of us will abandon a site if the wait is too long.
Third party advertisements distributed by ad publishers also present security concerns, because they’re difficult to quality-check. The disconnect between quality and security encourages lots of those in the know to resort to ad blockers in an understandable bid to protect their systems from malware and other security breaches.
And ad blocking is, of course, a real problem for publishers. Although ad block users would argue that they won’t be changing the natural course of click through rates because they wouldn’t have normally clicked on those adverts as it is, publishers argue back that their revenue comes from the number of views, which is definitely compromised by ad blocking.
Mobiles prevented a momentary source of hope, but with September 2015’s introduction of an Apple operating system which facilitated Safari content blocking apps, things were looking bad for publishers all over again. This summer, Google declared that it would establish an ad blocker – or “filter” – for the Chrome web browser, which now holds status as the most popular web browser of all.
There is a way round ad blockers in the form of ‘Acceptable Ads’, which certain ad blockers allow through based on criteria they set themselves (normally to do with the advert being less intrusive), and the publishers responsible become part of a ‘whitelist’ of passable adverts.
But once we’ve rounded up the facts and considered the gathering popularity of ad blocking, the real question remains: should we be resisting the urge to use them, or is it a forgivable practice?
It’s a sin
- Adverts are annoying and intrusive, but it’s not the advertisers who end up taking the hit when you use ad blockers.
- Using ad blockers is equivalent to dining and dashing in a restaurant without paying the bill – it’s stealing content.
- You might find that you’re putting an unsustainable squeeze on the websites that you love. Increasingly those sites will have to turn to paywalls, which is a whole new world of pain.
- Although some suggest that sites should be able to find their requisite revenue elsewhere, you’d most likely find that without online advertising we’d be surrounded almost exclusively by brochure websites, online shopping carts, review sites, and online services funded by investors. And that doesn’t sound like an enticing range.
Go ahead and ad block
- Consumers deserve more control over what they see when they deliberately access specific content. If advertising wants to feed off an audience to encourage consuming, they’ll need to step up their game and adapt their models.
- Online advertising styles are too intrusive. Ad blocking is an effective way for consumers to signal their displeasure, which is itself useful feedback for the advertisers.
- ‘Acceptable Ad’ allowances and the consequent whitelists make a workable compromise.
The formats that are pushed the hardest by advertisers (and which consequently inspire the most frequent use of ad blockers) are already leading to formal standard improvements. Movements like the Coalition for Better Ads, which formed at the height of the ad blocking debate last year, will demand that their global peers implement better ad standards in online campaigns in order to reduce the number of users who turn to ad blocking.
Whether morally dubious or not, ad blocking is bound to grow as a practice – advertisers and publishers will be unable to stop it. The continuation of ad blocking will not, however, mitigate many online publishers’ dependency on ad revenues. If those publishers are to survive (along with the advertising culture on which they are reliant), ad blockers will have to cooperate, and serious change will be afoot.