The Brewing Battle Over Ad Blockers

by Zack Sinclair

Photo credit: WilliamMarlow / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

Here’s a crazy idea: the people who create content on the web deserve to get paid.

Ad blockers, the greatest improvement to the web since incognito mode, have a seriously unfortunate side effect: sites simply don’t get paid when ads are blocked.

The thing is, ad blockers are fantastic, excellent products. Seriously. No video ads? You mean, I don’t have to watch Matthew McConaughey drive down a highway before watching a quick clip on Youtube? Sign me up.

I’m not the only one; multiple reports indicate ad block rates are rising rapidly. If you’re a tech or gaming site, it is common to see a full 50% of your users blocking ads. There are even browsers that are shipping with ad block pre-installed. This totals to around 150 million users with an ad blocker.

Advertising has been called the original sin of the web, but for better or worse is the primary business model of content sites. The growth of ad blocking is eroding the foundation of the web’s business model and doing it in a way that is a tremendously better experience for users.

So, now what?

The Good News

Before ad blocking: a websites about shoes

150 million users can’t be wrong. That’s the bottom line. They’re speaking with their numbers and saying that they want an ad-free web.

After ad blocking: a website about sports

I’ve personally run an ad blocker for years, which is rather hypocritical considering I was once a product manager for an ad server. Talk about playing both sides of an industry. The browsing experience is dramatically better with an ad blocker. If you run one, try shutting it off for an hour. It is like going back to the dark ages. And if you don’t use an ad blocker already… well, I feel for you.

So we’ve got this great user experience that is totally screwing the people who create the content users actually want. Does that sound at all familiar?

Napster? Torrents?

Remember what Napster did to music distribution? The ease of access was industry-rattling. At first, it didn’t exactly work out for musicians; people were pirating their work by the millions. Users loved it — I remember my music collection burgeoning from a handful of CDs and tapes to a massive collection of mp3s in a matter of months.

Now, some 15 painfully litigated years later, the music industry has totally shifted from physical record sales to on-demand access over the web, satisfying the consumer desire in a way that makes commercial sense for musicians. Spotify and iTunes have largely replaced the Morpheuses (Morphei?) and Limewires of the world.

If the free, piracy-oriented services remained the only means of on-demand access, musicians would be starving even more than they are already. It costs money to create content and the people that do it well deserve to be rewarded.

Nearly the same has happened with video content. Streaming sites and torrents convinced the world that on-demand access was the wave of the future. Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu are creating what is hopefully a viable long term model.

The solution for music and for video was not to step backwards and force users into a worse experience.

A War is Brewing

Most ad blockers (Adblock, uBlock, AdGuard) have made literally zero effort to find a middle ground between publishers and users. They make a business out of blocking all ads and seem to stick their fingers in their ears and yell “la la la” when it comes to discussion of the problems they’re creating for publishers.

In response, companies like Secret Media are propping up tools that attempt to force ads down the throat of an ad block user, starting a long game of cat-and-mouse. It is going to be ugly. I tend to think the ad blockers will win this game, as ultimately the browser is in control of what is displayed.

Speaking of the browser — some have suggested that browser manufacturers flat out ban ad block extensions. Imagine the PR nightmare if Google pulled the plug. The first thing that would happen is that everyone running a blocker would switch to Firefox. Or, Mozilla, who’s bills are circuitously paid by advertisers, could plausibly be forced into it some time down the road. I’ve even heard people float the idea of all browser vendors pulling the plug at the same time, to which I say: do it. I’d love to see how many independent browsers release with ad block built in that very same week and capture the 140 million ad block users. Lest we forget the open source nature of the various rendering engines.

On the bright side, the largest single ad block vendor, Adblock Plus, is making a huge effort to address this problem via their acceptable ads program, which un-blocks ads that meet particular guidelines. It is a good attempt at a middle ground — filter out the really annoying ads, but still let publishers serve ones that the people of the web deem acceptable. It has been extremely contentious, but is having a noticeable impact on cleaning up the mess that is online advertising. Users are actually able to dictate what acceptable ads are, as opposed to the advertiser slowly buying more and more real estate.

It is a good thing ABP is making the effort: use has risen so high that it is actually effecting the bottom line of publishers across the industry. Publishers are suing. The Interactive Advertising Bureau says ad block is a growing problem. Some sites go so far as to block ad block users entirely. Clearly, we as an industry need to move towards a balance.

No Clear Answer

The only certainty is that ad block is increasingly an issue. Don’t forget that there are numerous blocking techniques on mobile, too, so the shift from desktop to mobile does not implicitly solve anything.

Publishers will address it with a variety of approaches; I expect to see a rise of ad-block-blocking and of circumvention techniques a la Secret Media. These are both antagonistic methods, but will at least add exposure to the issue. I do think that deliberately circumventing the user’s desire is a poor long term choice — it is rare that content is truly unique in the vast expanse that is the internet.

I tend to think the best answer is to just give everyone what they want. Users want an ad free experience across the entire web and publishers want to get paid.

That line of thinking led to the product that we are building. We’ve released the beta version. It is called FairBlocker — an ad blocker that allows a user to contribute to the sites they love. Users choose a small monthly contribution (as low as $5), which we then divvy up and pay out to publishers where ads are blocked. Interestingly, $5 per month is just about enough to completely replace the revenue from ads.

The goal is to replicate what happened with the transition from Napster to iTunes. The innovators provided a dramatically better user experience, but did so without creating a sustainable alternative to the model they displaced. Eventually, the industry matured to provide the same UX along with the necessary paychecks.

Similarly, other ad blockers created an expectation of ad-free internet for many millions of users. That expectation needs to be combined with a business model for content creators.

I hope that FairBlocker can become an acceptable middle ground between users and publishers. I, for one, do not want to shut off my ad blocker. And I want the sites that I visit to stay in business. Gigaom’s recent collapse is indication that it is hard enough as it is, without ad blockers sweeping the rug out from under the web’s business model.

The question is: if users won’t accept ads, will they pay?

Originally published at by @zacksinclair

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