There Won't Be An Ad Blocker War

People seem to have really taken notice of ad blocking. But despite the worries of publishers – and the ethics behind ad blocking – those who are basking in their newly fast web will quickly lose the war.

    Joe Kepley
  • Sep. 21 2015
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Enjoy your ad-free browsing while it lasts.

Ad blocking extensions have been around on the desktop for years now. But tools like AdBlockPlus and Ghostery haven’t received a lot of attention beyond the folks that eat, sleep, and breathe Internet.

The release of iOS9 seems to be changing that in a big way. With content blocking in Safari as one of the marquee features of the updated OS, and early reports singing tales of a blistering-fast web experience, people seem to have really taken notice. Just days after iOS9 was released, four of the top selling paid apps in the App Store were content blockers.

This has publishers worried. There have been plenty of articles waxing on the ethics of ad blocking, predicting an arms race between the advertisers and the blocking tools. Unfortunately for those who are basking in their newly fast web, this is a war that the advertisers will win, in short order.

How does it all work?

To understand why publishers and advertisers have the upper hand here, let’s look at how content blocking tools work.

When you install a content-blocking extension, it provides a file to Safari that tells it what content to block in one of two ways:

  • URL Blocking: Content can be blocked from loading by URL. So the content blocker provides a rule that says, “If this page tries to load something from ad.doubleclick.net, don’t do it.” This is how most blocking is done now. The big ad delivery and tracking networks all have well-known URLs to serve their scripts and ads, so the blocker can easily block them across a lot of sites without much effort.
  • Selective Hiding: Content can be removed from the page based on its ID or position. In this case, the content blocker tells Safari, “For the nytimes.com site, remove the image labelled ‘bannerad’ before you load the page.” This technique works too, but it’s much more site specific. Another designer might have called their banner ad something different, so now we need to have a set of rules for each site we want to effect. This is a lot more to keep track of.

In iOS, the trick is that the content blocker only gets to provide one file with all of the rules in it. Because Apple doesn’t want to expose your browsing history or page content to a third-party blocking extension (think about your banking site), the blocker can’t make decisions in real time, it can only provide a global list of rules.

What’s a Publisher To Do?

How publishers and advertising networks will react to this new revelation will depend largely on how much of their audience starts to use blockers. Sites like Wired and Ars Technica, where the audiences are more tech-savvy, are the most likely to feel the pinch first. But it’s unlikely that any publisher is going to look at their precipitously declining ad views and shrug their shoulders.

If enough people start to block ads, there are a lot of options available to get around it. Let’s look at the two types of content blocking and how they can be circumvented.

URL Blocking

From a content blocker’s perspective, URL blocking is Plan A. If we know where the undesirable content comes from, we can stop it from appearing anywhere on the web with one rule.

There have been plenty of articles waxing on the ethics of ad blocking, predicting an arms race between the advertisers and the blocking tools. Unfortunately for those who are basking in their newly fast web, this is a war that the advertisers will win, in short order.

DoubleClick, Quantcast, and the other large-scale ad brokers could start using a lot of different domains, but they’d all eventually be blocked.

What’s more likely to happen is that they’ll work with their large-scale publishers to install a sort of ‘pass-through’ on their servers so that the publisher’s domain is the one serving the scripts and ads, and simply passing everything through to the advertising network’s servers. This will put more burden on publishers, since their servers now have to route more traffic, but if that cost pales in comparison to lost revenue, they’ll get on board.

Blockers could try to get around this by blocking the script names instead of the domains, but this is quickly circumvented by assigning random names to the advertising scripts. Now the ad code is indistinguishable from the site’s content, from a URL perspective.

Selective Hiding

If URL blocking is no longer viable, then ad blockers will need to start removing ads from their placements on a site-by-site basis. This is an order of magnitude more work, since rules need to be adapted for the specific design of each site. Ad blocker effectiveness would drop way off, but still might have value if, say, the top 100 sites were still covered well.

Selective hiding is all about the ‘selector’, or the rule you put in place to decide what it is you’re going to hide. Right now, this is pretty easy. On the nytimes.com home page today, the top ad banner is in an HTML tag labelled with a class of ‘hp-top-ad’. So if I add that to my ad blocker, no sweat.

Of course, if this becomes commonplace, it’s pretty easy for the Times to change that label to something else. The labels are there for the Times to use as a reference in their own styles and scripts to make their site work. But they can change it, or even set it to rotate its name every hour or so. It would also be pretty easy for them to add more tags to the page that do nothing but throw ad blockers off track. Again, this is more work, and thus more expensive, but it’s cheaper than losing your ad revenue.

The Nuclear Option

If neither of these techniques thwart ad blockers, there’s always a nuclear third option: pulling out all the technical stops to make ads and trackers mandatory.

Imagine if I built a site with a white background, and white text, and I cover it all with a big, empty white box. It would be illegible. Then I add an advertising script and a tracking script. But I’ve worked with my advertising partner, so that after their script inserts its ads, it tells the browsers ‘turn the text black to make it legible’. Then after the tracking script gets done sending its tracking data, it tells the browser, ‘remove the white box so people can see the text’. Now the page is ready to use.

I’ve effectively handed over some of my site design rules to my advertising partners, ensuring that my site is broken if their scripts don’t load. This is a pretty ham-handed example, but there are plenty of other ways to do the same thing. I might, for instance, insert a big warning not to use ad blockers that only disappears when the ad blocker doesn’t affect the site.

Changing The Landscape

Once there are well-defined procedures for stopping the ad blockers, the ad distribution and analytics networks like DoubleClick, Adobe, and Google Analytics will all have pre-packaged methods to get around them. Some of these will be things that need to run on the server, so they’ll be tougher to implement than the simple script embeds they use now, but they’ll have plenty of options in order to stay relevant.

So ultimately, ad blockers won’t block ads, and they won’t end publishing, but they might make other, more subtle changes to the web’s ad-view financial model.

Right now, if a publisher loads their site with 20 different kinds of trackers, scripts and ads, your browser pays the price but the page still serves at the same cost, because all those scripts come from other places. If in the future, a publisher has to use their servers to help pass along some of the script’s data and traffic, or perhaps deploy components on their server for a new kind of script, it may give them a little more pause to think of the cost vs the benefit.

Ideally, advertisers themselves would fight back a bit by purchasing more pay-per-click advertising. A stunning amount of web advertising is still sold by ‘impressions’, or views. In other words, the publisher and the ad networks get paid if you see the ad, never mind if you care about it. This has led us to the world of poorly-targeted, uninteresting ads, served in huge quantities. Ads are considered to be a huge success if a tenth of one percent of the people who see them click on them. If more ads were pay-per-click, you’d see both ad networks and publishers working harder to deliver meaningful content to people who might be interested in receiving it. That, or find increasingly more annoying ways to get you to click on something you don’t want.

The Shorter Guys Are In More Trouble When The Water Rises

The biggest impact, though, will likely be on smaller publications and upstart ad networks. Dealing with ad blockers will require tighter integration between publishers and delivery networks. This will mean more resources, contracts, and good business relationships, none of which a small publication is likely to have. So the smaller creators will need to keep using the current model of blockable embedded scripts.

Users will see their ad blockers stop working on major sites like the New York Times, CNN, and Buzzfeed, but they’ll still work on smaller blogs and publications. It’s going to be these smaller-scale content creators that feel the pinch, which is unfortunate, because these are the sources that represent the Independent Web: authors who only answer to their audience rather than a publisher or a media conglomerate. Inevitably, if content blocking is popular enough, some of them will see enough of a drop in income that they’re no longer viable.

Following this thinking through, you’ll see a condensation of the paid-by-ad content model. Smaller creators will need to band together into larger entities to pool their resources, find new ways of funding, or join with a larger media property.

There has been a lot of debate about whether content blocking is good or bad, right or wrong. Like most things, there’s no black and white there. Content creators should have a viable model to pay for their work. Users shouldn’t have to tolerate their bandwidth and computing time being used abusively.

What we can say is that we’re not likely to see the Great Ad Blocker War predicted by so many articles. If enough financial pressure is applied, ad distributors and large publishers can work together to circumvent blocking in short order.

If content blocking becomes the majority behavior, it’s only going to provide a brief respite on some of the most cluttered publications. But we could see a long-term impact on smaller independent creators that aren’t as able to fight back.