Product and quality implications of iOS 9’s content blocking

The world of digital advertising is undoubtably broken. Ineffective advertising models and a lack of innovation have lead to more intrusive advertising and questionable data collection which provide negative value to the user and drastically degrade the reading experience. Of course, quality content costs money to produce and the primary driver of monetization on the web is advertising. Unfortunately for publishers, widespread abuses have led to user backlash which threatens the publishers ability not only to monetize, but also continue to improve their products.

The state of web monetization

The web content ecosystem has always been a delicate balance. As Marco Arment notes:

People often argue that running ad-blocking software is violating an implied contract between the reader and the publisher: the publisher offers the page content to the reader for free, in exchange for the reader seeing the publisher’s ads.

Unfortunately, this implied contract has been violated by publishers in a big way through hyper-intrusive ad units and collection of personal data without the user’s consent.

For publishers, the reckoning is coming. The status quo is broken and new models are needed. iOS 9’s content blocking will allow users to block ads that degrade the reading experience. While ad blockers have been around for a long time, they’ve been gaining steam recently and Apple’s move with iOS 9 may bring them more into the mainstream.

Product and Content Quality

A potentially big problem for product managers and content creators is that early versions of content blockers such as Crystal and Purify target analytics, customer service, and A/B testing tools in addition to advertising. Product managers heavily rely on these tools to understand how users interact with web sites and web apps in the interest of improving overall product quality. For content creators, analytics give them insight into which content is being consumed in the interest of delivering more value to their readers.

A Balanced Solution

While it’s easy to view these aggressive content blockers as an overcorrection to the problem of publisher abuses, there are a lot of shit-ass websites out there which make it hard to be sympathetic to publishers. In other words, the industry may need an overcorrection to force in new, more effective, monetization models.

On the other side of the coin, as content blocking becomes more widespread and monetization for publishers becomes more difficult, users may very well see a drop in the quality of the content being created. At some point, we’ll need to find a balance that allows publishers to monetize content effectively while still delivering a great reading experience.

I’d submit that the most balanced scenario would be for content blockers assign an abuse score to each site by inspecting what each site loads and blocking all non-editorial content for sites with a high enough score.

What’s Next?

There are not easy answers here. Content blockers are a necessary tool for improving the state of the web and at least initially, they’ll be quite aggressive. Over time, we’ll likely see balance but product managers and content creators need to keep a close watch on content blocking usage and look for alternatives (server side analytics, better opt-in and disclosure practices, etc) to get the data they desperately need to deliver value.