22 May, 2015

Blocking ad-blockers with better ads

Two stories about ad blocking almost make a trend. European telecoms want to build ad-blocking into their networks via proxies1 that would halt most banner-type ads by default. And Adblock Plus has built a standalone Firefox-based browser for Android that would perform roughly the same function as its eponymous and quite popular browser plugin. These are both small but meaningful steps to move ad-blocking from desktop to mobile.

The black-and-white rationale against ad blocking is simple enough: ads are how publishers pay the bills, blocking them is effectively stealing. This, of course, is roughly equivalent to the piracy argument the music and movie industries have made, without much traction, for a decade and a half.

The pro-ad-blockers have their own moral, and compelling, argument that online advertising degrades the user experience, destroys privacy, and is generally reader-hostile2.

As in all things, there is no absolute truth but a muddled middle. It’s unclear how big a problem ad-blockers actually are — 5% of global internet users doesn’t sound very high, but the kind of reader who installs an ad-blocker is likely exactly the kind of reader an advertiser wants to reach. And if mobile users get automatically opted-in at the network level, it certainly becomes a much bigger deal3.

The problem may be murky, but the solution is a bit more clear, if not exactly novel: build a better product. Not a fancier iPad app, a better ad product. For all the haranguing about native ads, they have the advantage of being immune to filters and, when done right, a genuinely better experience, certainly better than green double-underlines or the “content marketing platform” ads at the bottom of far too many web pages.

I suspect we’ll look back on non-native ads as an aberration, one that only made sense during the brief period when all publishers were local monopolies, hardly an ideal situation either. Now it’s time to make an ad your readers won’t want to block.

  1. Nerds of a certain vintage will recall a time when a proxy, or mucking around with one’s hosts file, was one of the only ways to transform web pages. Then extensions like Greasemonkey were meant to usher in an enlightened time of client-side data mashups that never quite materialized but did lead to Adblock Plus. 

  2. Those arguing on the side of ad-blockers will need to contend with the fact that Adblock Plus is a for-profit corporation that has cut deals to whitelist ads from networks willing to pay. 

  3. Telecoms refuse to think of themselves as just dumb pipes (an inverted version of telecoms blocking ads is Verizon buying AOL) so they are seeking to add value for their existing and potential customers (or, more likely, extract a payoff from ad networks). Regardless of what you think about the morality of ad-blocking, it’s hard to see how filtering packets for content is a good thing, even for ostensibly benign reasons.