Enrique Dans
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Enrique Dans

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The future of ad blocking

A fascinating academic paper entitled “The future of ad blocking: an analytical framework and new techniques”, reviews the current state of the ongoing war between websites and ad blockers, concluding that the use of such tools will become widespread in the coming years.

The team, consisting of three academics from Princeton and one from Stanford, has designed an ad blocker based not on detecting the advertiser through the website’s code, but by examining the content, taking advantage of the existing legal obligation for publications to clearly identify advertising versus content. In fact, examining the content and detecting when it is identified as advertising is something that a computerized vision machine learning algorithm can do with relative ease, and from there, it all comes down to choosing an appropriate course of action.

At the moment, ad blockers had been limited to keeping a list of pages to be blocked, which opened the possibility of publications simply looking for new ways to hide their ads. The next step was for ad blockers to appeal to users, who could update ad filters simply by reporting when an ad had been able to evade them in any way. The absolute king of this strategy has been the German Eye/o with AdBlock Plus, of which we have spoken about on numerous occasions.

From there, the publications focused on detecting the presence of an ad-blocker: if it was present, the publication would, in turn, present a blocking screen, which prevented the user from accessing its content, along with a message suggesting users unblock this page. This is the approach many Spanish publications taken, given that they tend to find that users confronted with such screens simply turn away and look elsewhere.

In other cases, such as Wired, users are prevented from accessing content and asked to unblock their ad blocker, which can be easily avoided simply by reloading the page. Other publications, such as The Wall Street Journal, have long maintained a “porous wall” strategy in which it was simply enough to search for the news headline on Google and click on the results page to access it freely, a strategy that has recently been eliminated by an unconditional block.

The evolution toward the strategy of “block the blockers”, according to the authors, is very simple: find a way to prevent publications from detecting the use of a blocker. This can be done by a faking a download of the page that is not exposed to the user, and rebuilding the page without advertising. This would mean publications would detect the downloading of their ads although they wouldn’t reach their destination, which is clearly tricking advertisers. It is quite possible that publications will respond slowly to these kinds of techniques, since they are difficult to prove and allow them to use metrics to argue that advertisers’ material is being downloaded. Eventually though, the use of tools of this type will break down trust in the system: a scenario in which thousands of advertisers pay for ads that increasingly are not seen by anyone is hardly sustainable in the medium term.

Technically, therefore, ad blockers have what it takes to win the war. The alternative, therefore, is to change the mindset of advertisers so as to make their ads acceptable. This requires replacing the current obsession with visibility at all costs or even persistent annoyance to users — who originated this war — with a more respectful approach that helps users understand that advertising is essential when it comes to funding websites. I block advertising on all pages that show me ads with pre-activated sound or video, extensible, full screen ads, excessive animations or any kind of annoying format, but I cannot imagine blocking a page that simply presents me with a reasonably discreet and non-annoying format.

The problem is that too many advertising or marketing directors have a mindset based on the “the more annoying, the more people remember them” similar to that of the idiot at Burger King we mentioned recently (and who, far from repenting or apologizing, modified the ad to evade the Google filter), leading to some requests for legal action and imprisonment under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, which prohibits access to third-party computers without authorization from their owner).

As long as advertising remains garbage, we will continue to rely on technology to help us get rid of it in one way or another. The argument that this hurts publications is in vane: there will always be ways for good information to reach people either through subscription or other means. Efforts such as the recent change in Medium’s strategy clearly point towards this idea.

Nobody is obliged to put up with annoying advertising to access content: if the contract does not suit you, break it and find all the tools at your fingertips to access the same content in another way. If a site tries to force you to see its ads before accessing its content, simply install the appropriate blocker or stop accessing it until it realizes its strategy is unviable. This is the only way to show advertisers and media that their strategy is unsustainable.

(En español, aquí)

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On the effects of technology and innovation on people, companies and society (writing in Spanish at enriquedans.com since 2003)

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Enrique Dans

Enrique Dans

Professor of Innovation at IE Business School and blogger at enriquedans.com

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