Battle Lines Drawn: We’re Not All About Blocking Ads, Says No. 1 Ad Blocker

BlockedContrary to the image the name conjures, browser plugin Adblock Plus says it’s not out to kill all the ads on the Internet.

Company co-founder and CEO Till Faida told AdExchanger that some 61 million people have downloaded Adblock Plus to date, and it sees, on average, 270,000 downloads per day. “There is demand to get rid of intrusive ads,” he emphasized. “At the same time, it becomes a lot harder for websites to monetize if people want to block their ads, so we want to facilitate a middle ground that works for both sides.”

Adblock Plus is an entity of Germany’s Eyeo GmbH, a community open-source software project of sorts formalized in 2011 by Faida and developer Wladimir Palant. According to Faida, an “Adblock” product emerged on the market in 2002, but has since been discontinued by its developer. It is unrelated to Adblock Plus, which was first introduced for Firefox in 2006 and has since “gained a massive user base,” as evidenced today.

Faida claimed “copycats have emerged, most of them simply copying our source code, logo and name, but that are completely unrelated.”  AdBlock, which is positioned as “the most popular extension for Chrome,” counts 15 million users by comparison, which is not pocket change.

On its site, AdBlock claims to have “been inspired by an extension created long ago for the older Firefox Web browser called ‘Adblock Plus.’” AdBlock claims to be 100% user-supported and allegedly “does not have a list of companies that get preferential treatment” for whitelisting in what looks to be a direct shot at Adblock Plus.

So, blocker battles aside, how does an ad blocker work? From the consumer’s vantage point, they get access to a tool that filters out the content they don’t want to see on their screen.

In the case of Adblock Plus, users either create their own blocking rules or activate community-generated filters sourced by 27,000 members that have the final say as to whether ads comply with community rules or not. These rules siphon out everything from tracking scripts to targeting cookies. If a banner ad is “removed,” the request to the ad server is blocked and the space is altered “so the page doesn’t look broken.”

But what about the publisher? With the launch of Eyeo’s Acceptable Ads Initiative in 2011 (keep in mind users can still disable the feature and the approved ads along with it), websites can apply for the rights to run ads that comply with Acceptable Ads criteria; although the company claims there is no way to “buy” a whitelisting, it is listed as “free” for small websites with a side note that “only corporations pay.”

So which is it? According to a Salon report, Google confirmed its paid participation in the Acceptable Ads program. Faida told AdExchanger that fewer than 20 corporations are participating in Acceptable Ads, although there is growing interest.

“Acceptable” is defined as static advertisements that are marked clearly as “advertisements.” Preferably, they contain only text and don’t obscure site content. And, no blinking banners. Even if a large publisher joins the Acceptable Ads ranks, content allegedly still has to pass community standards before getting the green light.

Adblock Plus is compatible with Firefox, Chrome, Internet Explorer and Opera browsers. About 20% of its users are US-based and 15% are in Germany. In absolute numbers, the US represents its strongest user base because of the higher Internet user population, but percentagewise, in terms of market penetration and user distribution, Europe is its strongest market, Faida said.

Twenty percent of Germans have an ad blocker installed and there’s growing interest in Eastern Europe, Russia, Poland and France. Firefox remains the market leader in Germany and Internet Explorer and Chrome take precedence in the UK, Faida said.

Asked to anecdotally contrast geographies and browsers with ad “tolerance,” Faida noted that while western countries tend to divert from ads for “annoyance” or “privacy” qualms, users in areas where there’s a less prevalent Internet presence shy away from ads to save bandwidth because of slower Internet speeds.

When asked what percentage of ads are blocked by browsers, Faida noted AdBlock Plus does not track user activity, so “it’s hard to have reliable data.” Set to default, AdBlock cuts all ads, except for those vetted by the Acceptable Ads initiative. At this point Faida said 99% of users have not turned off the Acceptable Ads portion to default to no ads at all.

Adblock is beginning to harness data on the publisher side to determine what percentage of “approved” ads garnered higher CTRs and impressions to add some incentive for publishers on the Acceptable Ads front. This, obviously, gives the company some additional sell-in. Adblock claims that publishers involved in the Acceptable Ads program are seeing strong results for “approved” ads, since the user is not inundated, and therefore more apt to “tune in.”

The ad-blocking space is getting increasingly obscure. There are emerging companies like ClarityRay, which raised $500,000 dollars in funding last year to develop software that essentially “blocks” the ad blockers. According to “Ad-Blocking, Measured,” a report the company issued last year, Austria, Hungary and Germany had the highest rate of blocked impressions, each totaling more than 19% in blocked ads. The United States, France, Russia and the Netherlands averaged a rate of 11% in blocked impressions.

In terms of browser implications of ad blocking, Firefox, unsurprisingly, stole the show at 17.8% while Safari came in at 11.3% and Chrome was just over 10%. Internet Explorer had the lowest rate of blocked impressions at 3.9%. Although blocked impressions range by content type and publisher, ClarityRay notes some sites have seen up to 50% of user-blocked ad impressions.

Randall Rothenberg, president and CEO of the Interactive Advertising Bureau, said there’s no grey area when it comes to blocker plugins. “Let’s be very clear – all companies and individuals engaged in ad blocking are interfering with legitimate publishing businesses, and depriving small publishers of the opportunity to earn a living,” he noted. “They may think of themselves as valiant warriors against ‘the system’ but their victims are mommy bloggers, gamer enthusiast sites, hobbyist zines, small news sites and thousands of other independent publishers who are trying to eke out a living from digital advertising.”

Companies like Adblock Plus claim that there is legitimate need for their services because of consumer demand. They say they’re not looking to eradicate ads, but improve the quality of ads vetted by a program such as Acceptable Ads.

Rothenberg retorted, “There is nothing honorable about standing in front of a newsstand with a pair of scissors and inviting passersby to cut out all the ads in the magazines being distributed. … Whether they get paid through voluntary contributions or by extorting payments from publishers is immaterial.”

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1 Comment

  1. Craig Simmons

    I’d like to hear where ad verification companies fit into this article. While verification providers sell their value add to advertisers instead of the consumers, the effect is the same: a blocked ad. The inconsistencies between the large ad verification providers can make blocking arbitrary and inaccurate. Leveraging blocking technology leads to unnecessary blocks, weaker reach, less conversions and poorer overall performance which will inevitably lead to lower sales for the advertiser. Everyone loses all the way down from the advertisers to the consumers. To Rothenberg’s point, when independent publisher revenue is negatively affected by ad blocking, they cannot afford to operate the site in the same way or at all. And when the site cannot operate, content becomes less frequent and content quality diminishes. Consumers then lose the very content they were craving in the first place.