The moment of truth for online advertising

11 September 2014
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One of the biggest threats to companies dependent on online advertising -  although one rarely discussed -  is ad filters or ad blockers. The latest data shows that 144 million people worldwide now use these applications installed on their toolbars to prevent advertisements from appearing on the websites they use. Between June 2013 and the same month this year, there has been a 70 percent increase in their use. I wrote about this a few months ago, but the availability of new information prompts me to do so again.

A survey by PageFair and Adobe about the use of ad-blocking (see pdf), referred by an article in British daily The Guardian, proves what many of us have been saying for some time: this is the moment of truth for online advertising, however, the industry has dug its heels in and is refusing to embrace change, instead choosing to lie to itself.

It’s not easy to find hard facts about the extent of ad-blocking: most online publications don’t talk about it, hoping that by keeping quiet, fewer of us will learn about it. But what the figures show is that in some countries, up to a quarter of the online population, reaching 40 percent among the 18 to 29 segment. In Spain, the figure is 14 percent, but growing fast. For a company like Google, ad-blocking presents it with a paradox: the vast majority of its revenue comes from advertising, but it has been the growing take up of its navigator, Chrome, which seems to have the clearest correlation with the widespread use of ad-blockers.

Here’s the simple truth: a large amount of online advertising is a drag, either because of its format or the amount of it. Face with such a drag, most users opt for the technology that allows them to avoid it. Discussion about the fairness of installing an ad-blocker or the sustainability of publications that depend on advertising must take into account that people feel like they are being hassled and see ad-blocking as a way to fight against an abuse and to promote a self-regulation of the market: if you want to live off advertising, use formats that are not a hassle, and don’t fill your pages with the stuff. But the problem runs deeper: given that the option on ad-blockers at installation is all or nothing, most users go for the former. Your page may well have the minimum amount of advertisements, all tastefully placed, but it will be lumped in with all the rest by anybody who installs an ad-blocker.

PageFair and Adobe’s report finally provides some figures for a phenomenon that is being kept quiet to stop it spreading further, and the figures are anything but good. At the same time, there are few options, the two most popular platforms, AdBlock Plus and AdBlock are based on open code software, which means that even if they were forbidden or blocked from toolbars, they could still easily be installed. This is a tide that is not going to be stopped by legislation. For the moment, only Adblock Plus is working on the basis of “good” advertisers and “bad” ones. It talks to companies and if they agree to use non-intrusive formats, it puts them on a white list, although the user still retains the right to block them.

Denying content to users who have installed an ad-blocker doesn’t seem to be working too well either, making such sites hugely impopular, as well as sparking an arms race with the companies that create ad-blockers. The only real answer in the long term is self-regulation and the development of culture that respects the user.

Adblockers are still relatively rare on smartphones, because it requires installing Firefox or a non-authorized app. But their use is surely only a matter of time. There are companies working on them, and there is the additional incentive for users of freeing up bandwidth, access time, and battery and screen life.

After ignoring the problem for years, ad-blocking has become a very large elephant in the room, a phenomenon no longer the preserve of the technologically advanced. We have reached the point where the only publications with a future will be those that remove intrusive advertising, ignoring the dictates of brands and agencies, and reaching a deal with users to put them on a white list. Let’s not repeat the Napster experience and set off on a race that nobody is going to win.