Why Startups And Publishers Are Punching Up Against Ad Blockers

adblockblockersFrom 2007 to 2013 ad-block downloads grew steadily to about 50 million users. In 2013, that number more than doubled, and is on pace to do the same this year.

The result has been an influx of startups meant to help advertisers address a problem that in two years has gone from low-level annoyance to legitimate business threat. In verticals like gaming sites, the issue could even be existential.

Intuitive ad-block foes like Google and Apple, who control the app stores where ad blockers can be acquired and the browsers through which they run, have made it clear that they won’t nip ad-block use in the bud.

When Ben Barokas worked as Google advertising marketplace GM, he thought the company’s decision not to take on ad blockers was logical. He and his peers, who are now reacting to ad blocking, understand it’s a legitimate user choice.

“The problem at hand is we need to rethink what the future of monetization looks like for digital media companies,” Barokas said.

Barokas launched Sourcepoint in June with the intention of building more stable publisher revenue streams by giving users monetization choices (such as subscriptions, personalized ad experiences or the established market).

Barokas compared publishers’ situation to the music industry. Users initially ripped music online for free until business and revenue models emerged to provide streaming options for different types of listeners.

On the other hand, companies like Dublin-based PageFair develop tech to block the ad blockers. Company CEO Sean Blanchfield said his product’s solution is to encrypt the ad call so that the phrases ad-block software is looking for (DoubleClick, AppNexus, Page-Ad, etc.) are not identified.

Similarly, Secret Media, founded last year, provides solutions that encrypt phrases that trigger ad blockers, or that bounce between servers to avoid ad-block detection, said company CEO and co-founder Frederic Montagnon.

But these are risky solutions.

Montagnon pointed out that, like Wikipedia, Adblock Plus (ABP), the world’s largest ad-blocking provider, has “a small army” of users – a disproportionate number of them fluent coders – who update the tools the service needs.

EasyList, for instance, is an open-source database that filters publishers based on the quality of their ads and their response to ad blocking. EasyList is an integral part of ABP’s solution, but is maintained by people who aren’t affiliated with the company besides being in the beta testing community.

The result, according to Blanchfield, is a heavily imbalanced relationship.

“A website has to abide having something like this imposed on them,” he said, “because you might think ‘why don’t they just block it?’ Which to a degree they can, but the ABP community can then go nuclear and block all scripting on your site.”

Having established the legal right to block ads, companies like ABP are in the same position as a poker player holding a straight flush: When push comes to shove, they’re going to win.

When asked directly about ABP deploying its user community as a means to do material harm to publishers that work around ad blocking, ABP manager Ben Williams responded in an email that “when a publisher chooses anti-user tech that serves ads to those who have chosen to block them, users complain. So the filter list moderators try to ‘uncircumvent’ the tech that is actively circumventing the filter list.”

Barokas doesn’t see those technology workarounds as valid long-term options. Publishers will be bound by ad blockers’ terms until they establish new ones with their readers – as is perhaps best exemplified by the unwillingness of almost any publisher to speak publicly about its anti-ad-blocking solution.

“Once we can establish that these are advertising experiences or pieces of content that the reader has chosen, and actually say, ‘This has been requested,’ then the ad blockers are in the wrong,” said Barokas. “That may not change the legal status of ad blockers, but I think publishers need to establish a moral consumer high ground, and then move forward.”

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1 Comment

  1. Morally speaking, blocking ad blocking seems a little like a tv-channel who forces people to stay on the channel during commercial breaks. I’d like to hear how ad blocker blocker company founders / sales justify such an approach to their children. Making money is one thing, but it seems that in advertising technology common sense is often not accompanying the desire to make money.

    Worse, attempting to block ad blocking is not even trying to address the problem itself. Why are people increasingly reluctant to see ads in the first place?