Blockapocalypse – How Ad Blockers Are Beginning to Change the Web

- January 13, 2016

According to a recent study published by Digiday, the number of Internet users employing ad blockers rose by 41 percent over the last 12 months. In Q2 2015 alone, 16 million Americans blocked ads online. The amount of people beginning to use ad blockers has begun to unsettle the industry. How will this affect publishers, advertisers, and the user experience?

Most users block ads online via browser plugins such as Adblock Plus. They work by identifying page elements downloaded by the browser as being associated with ads. Ad blockers reference massive filter lists and when an ad-serving exchange is identified on a site, the associated page element (i.e. display ad, video ad or sponsored content widget) is blocked.

Ad blocking isn’t new. The first ad blocking browser extensions appeared circa 2000, when display ads were typically a lot more annoying than today. However, with the popularity of retargeting ads that follow users around the web and high-impact auto-play ads, consumers are turning to ad blockers with increasing frequency.

Until recently, there had been surprisingly little concern expressed about ad blockers among advertisers and publishers. That changed last summer when Apple announced it would be adding content blocking to its mobile browser in the iOS 9 update. Once ad blocking users reach a significant portion of internet traffic, it could wipe out many smaller publications that rely on programmatic ad serving. For publishers, a purely display advertising-based revenue model is dangerous.

Is this bad news for advertisers? Not necessarily. Some have argued that ad blocking is actually a savior for digital marketing. If certain users are opting out of being exposed to ads, it stands to reason that they were unlikely to click an ad in the first place. This could potentially save advertisers from wasting media money on useless impressions. Ad blocking could further motivate advertisers to be more relevant and create better ads that people will actually want to see.

Is this all good news for users? Again, not necessarily. For example, The Washington Post decided to block content from readers who use ad blockers. Users can expect more in-content audio ads and native advertising since these are harder to block. Ad blocking could also lead to a resurrection of membership programs and paywalls.

Ad blocking companies purport to enhance user experience, but there’s a questionable side to the business model. The most popular ad blocking application, Adblocker Plus, maintains a “whitelist” of websites that it will allow to serve ads if they meet certain criteria and pay enough money. Even Apple, who embraced ad blocking for the sake of making the mobile browsing experience more enjoyable, could be seen as making a play to push marketers into apps – where they gross about $20 billion per year.

Ultimately the prognosis is still unclear. In the short term there may not be apocalyptic effects, some will go to war against ad blocking but most will accept it and let others do the fighting. It is safe to say that ad blockers are here to stay in the long term.

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