Solving The ‘Law Of Ad Blocking’

tony-ralphBrand Aware” explores the data-driven digital ad ecosystem from the marketer’s point of view.

Today’s column is by Tony Ralph, director of advertising technology at Netflix.

Every time I open a mobile web browser I’m reminded of Wirth’s law. Wirth’s law postulates that software becomes slower more quickly than hardware grows faster.

Mobile hardware advances continue to lead to increased bandwidth, better cellular coverage and improved processing power. At the same time, the confluence of software that dynamically forms the mobile web browsing experience – browser, content and ads – continues to be aggravating.

Two recent announcements acknowledge this opportunity to improve. First, Google released Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP), the start of a framework that invites creation of optimized web pages. Second, Apple attempted to improve mobile web performance with the release of iOS 9, which allows developers to implement content-blocking solutions in Safari. Given the scarcity and cost of mobile bandwidth, it’s no wonder that most of the hype around the first wave of browser extensions to exploit this feature involve ad blocking.

Unfortunately, much of the editorial conversation regarding these two techniques revolves around the strategic jousting of corporate giants and ignores what should be the fundamental goal: providing users an efficient and delightful experience.

Alas, this circumstance is nothing new. In 2005, Google Web Accelerator was introduced as a desktop application that used similar approaches to AMP HTML, such as pre-fetching and caching. Not coincidentally, Adblock Plus, which remains one of the most popular ad-blocking solutions, was initially released in 2006. Different era, different devices, but Wirth’s law had been corroborated 10 years earlier.

Ashamedly, my personal contributions to substantiate Wirth’s law hearken back to my days at Yahoo. The web was gradually evolving away from “blue links on a white page” to a place where user experience enhancement was viewed as delivery of the next whiz-bang web 2.0 feature. Eventually, many Yahoo properties suffered from feature bloat, which, due to significant load times, hampered the precise goal of these shiny new features: enhanced user experience.

To rebalance, Yahoo initiated a web performance team and approach led by Steve Souders that produced tools, books and conferences that are still the canonical resources for web – and now mobile – performance research and knowledge sharing. As an offshoot, we formed an IAB working group in 2008 to adapt these guidelines to display advertising, which had remained years behind these fundamental techniques for optimizing content.

An interesting part of this exercise was the process of titling this document. The engineers in the room wanted to call it “Ad Performance Best Practices.” To these technologists, “performance” was measured by the number of milliseconds required to deliver bytes to users. Those of us more familiar with advertising pointed out that performance might mean something entirely different to the intended audience. We eventually stumbled onto the less eloquent “Ad Load Performance Best Practices.”

These different senses of the word performance help elucidate a primary challenge of our digital advertising ecosystem. A publisher sales team focuses on revenue and yield optimization; advertisers may measure performance as return on ad spend, clicks, conversions or forms of impact, engagement or brand affinity; production agencies may focus on rich visual effect and design elegance; as mentioned, engineers focus on delivering payload to users efficiently as well as back-end performance as they continue to plumb our programmatic infrastructure.

These siloed goals remind me of another obscure computer science adage: Conway’s law, where the architecture of a software solution inevitably reflects the organizational structure from which it was developed.

The application of this principle to our digital advertising ecosystem is clear. Complexity continues to spawn complexity, and the browsing experience is compromised to the point where ad blocking has evolved from an obscure solution for techies – as it was 10 years ago – to a point where is it now garnering enough popularity to be discussed in the mainstream media.

I’ve seen all senses of performance addressed simultaneously in the isolation of high-profile execution. When there are many eyeballs and a commensurate amount of spend at stake – imagine prominent front-page scenarios – designers, engineers, ads ops and QA processes from both buy and sell sides work in unison to produce an experience that gracefully blends content and advertising. It seems that when we satisfy Conway’s law by all parties working together as an extended team, we mitigate Wirth’s law.

To the extent this collaboration does not exist, we’ve witnessed what we might call the “law of ad blocking”: Ad-blocking solutions advance at a greater rate than the digital ad ecosystem evolves toward harmonious execution.

Reversing the law of ad blocking involves solving the 360-degree version of performance at the scale programmatic execution provides. To accomplish this, each participant must look beyond myopic self-interest and attend to every aspect of performance. The primary focus, however, must be the end user because if we cannot deliver their version, all the other senses of performance that we track daily will be, to use the word of the day, blocked.

Follow Netflix (@Netflix) and AdExchanger (@adexchanger) on Twitter.

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  1. Talk about burying the lead. Your last sentence says it all. “The primary focus, however, must be the end user because if we cannot deliver their version, all the other senses of performance that we track daily will be, to use the word of the day, blocked.”

  2. Reinhold

    I mean yeah, if ad experiences were better, ad blockers probably wouldn’t be as popular. But it’s a tragedy of the commons situation. It’s cheaper and easier to blast out intrusive ads that get people’s attention rather than taking the time and effort to do good work. And a few good apples that make the effort won’t make a difference unless a majority advertisers and publishers get on board.

    I don’t think it’s very likely. Even if they wanted to get on board, I don’t know that most marketers know what an actually good ad experience looks like. I think it’s more likely going to be an arms race between pubs and ad blockers. Pubs will increasingly block ad blockers from content until users inevitably find away around it and so on.