Adblockers, Mobile Websites, and the Importance of Apps

09/28/15

A strong feature in Engadget warned about the impact that iphone ad-blockers appear to be having on people’s ecommerce experiences. Specifically, that these iOS-based ad-blockers are blocking elements of content on mobile web sites in much the same way that they are blocking ads. Such ad-blocker apps are not entirely new. But their availability on iphones is a new development, and one that is disconcerting to many advertisers and publishers.

From the story:

Ads pay the bills for a lot of sites (including this one). But they can also be intrusive and with some of the tracking abilities available out there, a bit creepy. To combat some of that and to speed up page loads Apple introduced a Content Blocker feature for mobile Safari that allows third-party developers to create extensions that are “a fast and efficient way to block cookies, images, resources, pop-ups, and other content.” Apparently people really hate advertisements on the internet because ad blockers have rocketed to the top of the paid app section of the App Store. But the side effect of at least a few of these apps is that it screws up shopping on the online versions of Sears and Walmart.

While ad-blockers have only recently been made available for iphones in the app store, there is growing concern, particularly among mobile publishers who rely of ads on iphone and Android to monetize their content.

UK’s The Guardian newspaper reports that blockers are among the most popular app downloads since their inception on iphone.

From their story:

In the UK, two content blockers have hit the top 20 paid apps, with Purify at number 11 and Peace at number 12. In the US, the take-up has been even starker: Purify is at number 5 in the charts, and Peace is the top paid app in the whole country.

Purify’s founder has recently pulled its app from the app store, citing discomfiture with the potential impact of its burgeoning popularity.

Here is a chart for the Wall Street Journal that provides some hard data on downloads of ad-blockers:

ad blocking statistics

Most of us know that mobile ads are the primary monetization approach for the web. Because consumers have largely proven unwilling to subscribe to web content, pubs have had to rely on ads. If software and apps that block ads become very popular, many sites may simply cease to be. Recently, a number of German sites sued – and lost – a fight to ban ad-blocker-equipped browsers from their content.

Since mobile ads are expected to comprise more than half of digital ads in the near future, the threat of iphone ad-blockers is potentially rather large.

That risk said, makers of ad blockers say that there is also an argument to be made that the implied social contract – free content in exchange for ad views, may not cover particularly intrusive ad formats that truly impede the consumption of content.

The Guardian piece mentioned above quotes Marco Arment, developer of the Peace Adblocker, as saying:

“We shouldn’t feel guilty about this,” he said in the app’s launch announcement. “The ‘implied contract’ theory that we’ve agreed to view ads in exchange for free content is void because we can’t review the terms first — as soon as we follow a link, our browsers load, execute, transfer, and track everything embedded by the publisher. Our data, battery life, time, and privacy are taken by a blank check with no recourse.”

Pop-up blockers essentially ended the pop-up and pop-under ad phenomena, so the industry has been through this sort of disruption before. But these iphone apps threaten to limit most forms of advertising – something that spreads fear more quickly among major advertisers.

One ad-blocker developer, Crystal, has taken a different tack, allowing certain formats of less intrusive ads through to enable publishers to monetize. To have ads deemed eligible to pass through the filters, the advertising company must pay a fee to Crystal.

But setting the ethical googlies of ad-blocking aside for a moment, the rapid growth of these apps may portend a very real threat to the digital economy. And in addition, one of the key side effects of ad-blocking has been to block some elements of mobile web sites from displaying properly in browsers equipped with the technology. Here’s an example that Fortune ran in its article on the topic, from the Bass Pro website.

Ad blocking example 1

ad blocking example 2

And an even better example from the article, showing the effects of ad blockers on the Sears site:

ad blocking example 3

adblocking example 4

Wow, hunh?

Doubtless there will be changes made (to either the sites, the blockers, or both) but these developments certainly underscore the tremendous value that apps can provide in helping a brand ensure that it’s content and properties are properly represented to consumers on an Android or iphone app. Some of the great things about apps for retailers (and really, any sort of brand) include that they are experiences that are completely architected by a brand, with formats optimized for the mobile environment. Very little is left to chance, and the brand needn’t worry so much about the quirks and idiosyncracies of various browsers and extensions. Apps are very much a WYSIWQYG world.

App don’t solve the problem of reduced revenue for publishers, but they can be an important part of a retailer ensuring that they get their fair share of mcommerce spend. Having a great app doesn’t eliminate the problem of bad mobile website display characteristics in browsers equipped with ad blockers. But they do represent environments in which you can exercise greater control and be more certain that the experience you hoped to  provide actually gets delivered in that format.

Advertising and its blocking is likely to take on the characterisitcs of an arms race – with each successive development and change begetting another from the opposing team. Sophos now reports, for example, that an ad blocker blocker has been developed.

From their post:

As Business Insider describes it, Sourcepoint’s adblock blocker works in a similar fashion, by giving publishers a few choices on how to proceed when encountering a site visitor who drops by with an ad blocker installed:

  • Circumvent the ad blocker and serve the ad in spite of it,
  • Tell the visitor that “our ads pay for your content, how about you choose to allow them?”
  • Allow the user to choose how ads will get served up: three ads for three stories, for example, or
  • Ask ad-blocking visitors to pay to subscribe.

But whatever the pace or outcome of that set of challenges, it’s clear that apps provide a great enclave for brand communications.

 

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