Shitty ads cost iPhone users $8 billion a year

(just in the US)… why aren’t you blocking ads already?

Anyone who’s read my Medium posts has seen me rail against the problems that riddle online and mobile advertising. I’ve been unable to tear myself away from this industry for 11 years now, and I desperately want to fix it. When I cover deceptive ad practices/fraud, some people find it interesting, sure, but when I have explained how mobile websites are making far less money from ads than you’re paying in mobile data… People. Got. Pissed.

Source: TechRax (YouTube.com)

(tldr; version -> US iPhone adblocking (if you used one of the top 10 blockers we have identified) could save users as much as $7.19 per month in excess data charges, or around $8.3 billion. We built a calculator so you can play with the numbers yourself, including aggregate iOS blocker savings figures. Below is an image of the default values, go and visit and play with it here.)

Source: http://optimal.com/savings

After Apple started allowing companies to create “content blocking” applications in iOS 9 last fall, and (since these are fairly simple apps) we went and looked at these tools that block ads and tracking pixels, and took a systematic approach to see how good they were at doing that. Going into it, I had a few assumptions (all of which turned out to be wrong):

  • I figured, adblocking has been around for years, so all the apps would probably be pretty good at blocking stuff. Wrong. Performance varies widely, and there are a LOT of blocking apps from all kinds of developers most of whom you’ve never heard of.
  • There are some big players who dominate adblocking (mainly via browser plugins), so their tools would probably be the best for iOS too, right? Wrong. Almost zero relationship.
  • Adblocking on the desktop is used by around 25–30% of people, so on mobile people would jump at this chance to get rid of ads while they’re actually paying for the far-more-limited data allocations they have, right? Wrong. We see only about 3% of users blocking ads on iPhones so far.
  • Everyone will know how to find and download these things, surely? Nope. And only recently did I also discover that (not so much in the App Store, but certainly in the Chrome and Firefox app marketplaces) there are plenty of fake and potentially malicious adblocking apps (oooh the irony!! sounds like Napster/KaZaA getting seeded with fake songs doesn’t it?), so a directory of blocking apps could actually prove broadly useful to users.

We ran across 7 websites for 3 minutes, and loaded 1712 URLs on average, whereas the top 10 blockers on average needed just 493 calls to render all the content and images on these sites -> this means that advertising technology accounts for 71% (1,228 hidden items loaded) what loads on your mobile phone in an average web session! I think that’s just crazy, and hard to justify for the small amount of advertising revenue most sites are making off of us.

I have always been conflicted about adblocking

My brother is a journalist, and I wanted to make sure that publishers that create great content still get paid if a user wants to avoid advertising, with the user getting some (but not all the) say in which publishers get paid. That’s why we’re soft-launching a $5.99/month service for US mobile users that takes 70% of that fee and pays it to publishers. I don’t think everyone will participate in this, but I think many people will see this as the right way to foment change without killing GOOD content in the medium term. Many also realize it can be a good alternative to some publishers trying to do this themselves and charging users unrealistic amounts for skipping ads ($4/month for one site? Crazy!), or trying to force users to turn off their adblockers and shooting themselves in the foot.

Business Insider wrote about the calculator today. In it, I say:

We hope that people will choose to subscribe and support publishers by paying $5.99 a month, but on balance given the privacy, data use, and malware problems we think ad blocking makes sense for users.

Should you block ads on your phone? Yes. Given the data charges, the interruptions, the unregulated app store popup ads and other dreck, and the unchecked fraudulent advertisers that unfortunately can afford to pay top dollar to be on even the “best” content websites, you absolutely should. I think that, until the industry can guarantee you 100% safe/friendly ads, you should use our subscription product. We’re going to (1) continue to build and enhance these products as an alternative to ads, will be working directly with some publishers to add extra value for consumers, and also (2) collaborating with other companies to improve the quality and safety of ads, things that shouldn’t be any surprise as I’ve outlined in other Medium posts.

I personally decided that I wouldn’t at all until my team had built this solution, and I’m now blocking ads and have been setting aside $5.99 for publishers every month (with a little extra for some of them, by the way!). I hope some of you will join us, “become a member” (think of it as a club of forward-thinking individuals banding together to fix advertising by ‘taking a break’ from it for a while…!), experiment with our little mobile web application and share your feedback with us.