Turning inner space into outer space

June 6, 2015

Increase in popularity of ad blockers another headache for web publishers

It’s tough enough for publishers to make money to run a website, but things are getting worse with the rising popularity of ad blockers.

Digiday has put together some charts that show Google searches for the terms “ad block,” “adblock plus” and “ad blocker” have been rising steadily in the past couple of years. And so have downloads.

An ad blocker, for the uninitiated, is a plug-in or add-on for your web browser that — as you might expect — blocks out ads. They disappear as if they never existed.

The tech savvy among us have long known about ad blockers, but the rise in searches and downloads suggests they are going mainstream. It’s not often anyone feels sorry publishers, but you have to see where they’re coming from. They need revenue to pay the bills, pay the staff and pay themselves.

In Germany, some publishers have pursued court challenges, claiming that Ad Block Plus is anti-competitive and hurt their revenue. They lost.

In any case, studies have shown that Internet users already block out anything resembling advertising with their minds. Designers know this, and make sure important elements on a web page don’t look like ads — otherwise people won’t notice them.

Advertisers know this, too, but they often go to the opposite extreme, creating ads that are ever more intrusive. Some take over the page for a few seconds before you can see the content behind them.

With irksome tactics like these, it’s no wonder people are turning to ad blockers.

You might think Google, which is essentially an Internet advertising company, would be upset about the rise of ad blockers. Not just because their ads go poof, but also because the makers of ad blockers have a nice little system of ransom — forcing companies like Google, Amazon and Microsoft to pay huge fees to have their ads whitelisted.

Even so, Google CEO Larry Page is surprisingly sanguine. The answer, he says, is to make ads more attractive. Talking to shareholders recently, he said:

Part of it is the industry needs to do better at producing ads that are less annoying and that are quicker to load, and all those things. And I think we need to do a better job of that as an industry.

That’s good advice, but I’ve long thought that it would be better to go with a sponsorship model. I appreciate it, for instance, when I see that a company has sponsored an app for a month in order to keep it free. It shows they trying to do some good in the world, not just extract a few quick bucks from my wallet.

Of course, the downside would be that the sponsor might be seen as having undue influence over the content of the publication. This also happens with regular advertising, but at least publishers have more flexibility in turning to other advertisers.

The truth is, there are no easy or pat answers. The people have spoken: they love the Internet but they don’t want to pay for the content.