Adding it all up: how has the ad blocking debate affected the online ecosystem?

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The ad blocking debate has reached fever pitch over the last year. It’s a discussion that has been intensifying for some time: consumers are increasingly challenging the necessity of ads – or at least how far they should be expected to tolerate them – and the rise of ad blockers seems to be inexorable.

But online advertising has by no mean shrunk correspondingly. The market has continued to expand its already vast reaches, and for the eighth year in a row, ad spend in the UK was up in 2017, hitting a high of £22.1 billion.

The ads themselves present an interesting challenge: some users find them intrusive, but many adverts are carefully developed, creatively finessed, entertaining and informative. Some formats delay access to the content you originally searched for though, and for some it’s where and when the ads appear, rather than their presence per se.

The head-shakingly high incidence of YouTube’s pre-roll ads, for example, are often blamed for popularising ad blockers. And popular they are. The practice seems to have grown by 82% in the UK and had reached 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). eMarketer predicted that one in every three internet users will have ad blockers by 2017, which is double the 15% they estimated in 2014.

For some users, it’s security concerns that compel them to use ad blockers. Third party advertisements distributed by publishers are difficult to quality-check, and 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 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 anyway, publishers argue back that their revenue comes from the number of views, which is incontrovertibly compromised by ad blocking. Adobe estimates that ad blockers have globally cost advertisers in the region of $22 billion in revenue during 2015 alone.

So great is the magnitude and severity of the problem that nowadays many publishers refuse to comment at all. ‘Ad blocking’ has become a kind of publishing curse word, and few dare utter it. And publishers responses to the rise of ad blocking has been varied. Forbes and Business Insider, for example, have taken a fairly aggressive approach by blocking those using blocking software (tit for tat, you could say), whereas publications like the Guardian have attempted to appeal to their readers’ logic.

‘Acceptable Ads’ provide a diplomatic solution – they’re a kind of advertisement 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. The controversial Adblock Plus, for example, features controls that allow whitelist ads through the net, and gives users the chance to adjust ‘sensitivity’ settings. Personalisation through data can also make a big difference: Adobe’s study found that when done they’re done well, personalised ads appealed to 78% of conusmers.

What does this mean for the media players? It’s no secret that companies like Google and Facebook are massively dependent on advertising revenue, which in 2015 generated close to 90% of Google’s. It’s hardly surprising, then, that Google is visibly endeavouring to react productively, by changing its ‘first click free’ rules, integrating an ‘ad blocker’ feature in Chrome and making sponsored ads less distinguishable from organic results. Chrome recently introduced browser-based software which removes ads from websites that don’t meet standards laid out by the Coalition for Better Ads (of which Google is a founding member)

It’s ultimately impossible to argue with the fact that the push and pull of the ad blocking debate is driven by user experience. But although industries are doing their best to respond, and despite the fact that in many ways the online ecosystem is slowly changing shape, it remains a fact that publishers need revenue to produce the kind of content that users want to access. And while that’s the case, somebody, somewhere, is going to have to cough up. Or at the very least, tolerate an ad.

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