The rapid growth of people using ad blockers is costly to publishers and advertisers (according to publishers and advertisers). The trend has got the advertising industry rattled and looks set to grow worse as ad blocking comes to mobile devices.
According to a report from Adobe and PageFair, a company that helps website owners counter ad blockers, ad blocking was responsible for $21.8 billion in lost advertising revenue in 2015 alone.
The report doesn’t say how that figure is calculated but it seems highly dubious. A great deal of online advertising is run on a pay-per-click model so an extra $22 billion in revenue would have to come from billions of extra clicks.
The lost clicks would have come from a group of people who find online advertising so unappealing that they’ve chosen to actively shut it out.
The idea that those users would click on adverts if only they could see them seems far fetched to me; those users have seen online advertising, and their reaction was to install an ad blocker!
What isn’t in doubt is that increasing numbers of people are fed up with adverts.
The report claims that the number of monthly active users (MAU) of ad blocking software reached 198 million in June 2015, a growth of 41% since the same period last year.
The growth was highest in the United States (48%) – up to 45 million MAUs – and in Europe the number of ad block users grew 35% to 77 million MAUs.
People who use ad blockers (such as the popular Adblock and Adblock Plus browser extensions offered by the Polish company Eyeo) have some very legitimate reasons for doing so.
PageFair found in a survey that “misuse of personal data” is the top reason people who don’t use an ad blocker would consider using one.
There’s also a security risk – content delivery networks that serve ads can be compromised, allowing hackers to inject malicious code on vast numbers of websites (what the internet security industry refers to as malvertising).
And scammers buy thousands of ads on popular sites such as Google and Facebook to offer spammy, illegitimate services like fake technical support.
On the other side of the coin, the content on websites that people want to access without seeing distracting or risky ads costs money and advertising often pays for the content so that users don’t have to.
Ad blocking software isn’t used on mobile devices as much as it is on desktops or laptops but that’s set to change too.
Currently only about 2% of ad blocking takes place on mobile devices, but the release of Apple’s iOS 9 in September 2015 could be a “game changer,” according to PageFair’s ad blocker report, as it will allow users to easily install ad blockers from the App Store.
Android users can already install apps to block ads within the Chrome and Firefox mobile browsers, with 40% of mobile ad blocking coming from Firefox users.
As mobile ad blocking becomes more popular, this trend could threaten the viability of the web as a “free”platform full of content that’s free to consumers, PageFair CEO and co-founder Sean Blanchfield says.
It is tragic that ad block users are inadvertently inflicting multi-billion dollar losses on the very websites they most enjoy. With ad blocking going mobile, there's an eminent threat that the business model that has supported the open web for two decades is going to collapse.
Rather than blaming users for depriving them of imagined revenue, content providers and advertisers might be better off focusing on the reasons why ad blockers are becoming so popular, not least that “misuse of personal data”.
Thankfully some are.
Other publishers are going after ad blockers in a less enlightened way though.
Two German newspapers, Zeit Online and Handelsblatt, sued ad blocking company Eyeo, contending that the practice was illegal (a German court rejected that claim).
There are services apart from PageFair to counter ad blockers as well.
Sourcepoint is just one of the companies developing technology to “punch through” ad blocking software (as opposed to websites tailoring their ads to meet the ad blockers’ standards, or paying the ad blocking company outright).
And with the use of ad blocking on the rise and an arms race developing between website owners and ad blockers, some websites will look for other ways to make money out of us, a situation that could leave us paying more money for content or greasing the wheels of the “free” web with more of our personal privacy.