Earlier this week, Facebook made an announcement that it will be changing the way it serves ads in such a way to thwart ad blockers.
The announcement sent shockwaves through the ad blocking community. Ben Williams at Eyeo GmbH, the company behind Ad Block Plus, called the move “anti-user”. He went on to say, “Wouldn’t it be better to address users (like all of you!) who have chosen to block traditional ads on their own terms? That is to say, don’t you want to be consulted here?”
However, Facebook expressly avoided any consultation, saying that it didn’t wish to work with ad blocking companies, especially those that charge for avoiding filtering, and instead felt this was a matter of principle.
But while it may be a matter of principle for Facebook, it will still have drastic implications for ad blocking as a whole.
As Williams put it, ad blocking has made it to the “big time” and this is uncharted territory for both Facebook and ad blocking as a whole.
Ad Blocking: A Brief Overview
Ad blockers, in general, are tools that prevent the loading of ads on websites. Most come in the form of browser plugins, though variations dome come as standalone software for your computer or router.
Though the technology has been around for over a decade, it’s grown steadily in how widespread it’s used. Previously a rare occurrence, now more than 25% of internet users in the United States run some form of ad blocker.
That rate is often higher on sites popular with ad blockers, such as technology and news sites.
As ad blocking has grown, it’s created tension with publishers, with many referring to it as a form of piracy. However, that hasn’t stunted the growth of ad blocking, prompting some sites to adopt technological means to prevent it.
One of the earliest and most famous attempts was done by Ars Technica. In March, 2010, the site posted an article about why ad blocking was hurting it and other sites. It then made a change to its site code that meant ad blockers, rather than seeing an article, saw a blank page.
They ended the experiment soon after it began, but not before creating a firestorm of controversy. The ad blocking community, predictably, was not amused. However, Ars Technica did say that the experiment did bolster their bottom line and helped drastically reduce their ad blocking rate.
Still, Ars Technica admitted that it did cause confusion, especially among users who didn’t know they were blocking ads, and that the effort was the “wrong approach”.
However, that experiment was six years ago. Facebook is a very different site trying a similar experiment at a very different time. The outcome is far from certain.
Blocking the Ad Blockers
While Ars Technica was one of the first major experiments in stopping ad blockers, it wasn’t anywhere near the last. Forbes famously attempts to prevent ad blockers from accessing its site (though it seems to have relaxed that some). Wired is doing the same as are City A.M. and a slew of Indian publishers.
However, as ad-blocking users have encountered such sites, one of three things have happened:
- The user agrees to whitelist the site or cease using ad blockers.
- The user seeks out updated lists or new technology to get around the blockade.
- The user simply goes somewhere else.
The latter two options are particularly bad for publishers. The use of new technology, such as anti-adblocker killers (tools that mask the use of an ad blocker), herald a game of cat and mouse that can be very time consuming.
The third option, however, is the most feared. The problem is that, even sites as large as Ars Technica, Wired and Forbes are not irreplaceable. Users can, and do, find news elsewhere.
In one example, moderators for the Technology subreddit at Reddit pondered banning links to Forbes and Wired over their practices. They were also considering bans against sites such as the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times that used paywalls that restricted the number of articles that could be read for free.
However, Facebook is a different beast and one that may prove more of a challenge for ad blockers than most sites.
Why Facebook is Important
When looking at the three potential outcomes of sites blocking ad blockers, it’s easy to see why Facebook is different. It’s a large enough site and company to go toe-to-toe in the cat and mouse game and it’s also a site without viable alternatives.
Facebook also has a technological advantage that most sites don’t have: It’s large enough to run and operate its own ad network.
This is crucial because of how ad blockers work. Ad blockers filter out known ad-providing domains and IP addresses. For example, if this site ran third-party ads (which it doesn’t), an ad blocker would allow content from plagiarismtoday.com, which would include the text and images, but block the ad network it used.
It’s a simple approach but, since Facebook has its own network, both the desired content and the ad come from the same domain. Though ad blockers can get more granular and remove subsets of content from a domain, Facebook can also alter its site to hinder those efforts.
While it’s still a game of cat and mouse, it’s one where Facebook has a greater edge than other sites that depend upon third-party ads.
If Facebook is truly committed to this approach, they can prove to be a much more formidable foe and they have much less to worry about in terms of lost traffic or revenue. After all, mobile already makes up more than 80% of Facebook’s revenue and mobile is excluded from the the ad blocking effort.
In short, Facebook is a powerful foe with a technological edge and very little to lose. While it may not win the ad blocking wars, it’s clearly going to be a very different kind of fight.
What’s Likely to Happen
While it’s impossible to predict the exact outcome, there are a few things that I think are likely to happen:
- Ad Blocking Community Well Get the Upper Hand: Facebook has a technical advantage that’s unique but ad blockers still control the browser and computer of the user. That plus the open source nature of the ad blocking community makes it difficult for Facebook to hold the high ground for long at a stretch, at least against the most dedicated ad blockers.
- Despite That, Many Who Block Ads Will See Ads: But even if ad blockers are able to get the upper hand, ads will seep through and users who previously blocked them will see them.
It’s the second that may be more important. Users who have run ad blocking software for a long time have become unaccustomed to ads and that makes an ad-free internet seem normal.
Facebook, as one of the most-visited sites and one of the sites and one of the sites that visitors spend the most time on, can single-handedly do a lot to change that normalcy. While I agree that Facebook can’t stop ad blocking, it can move the goal posts and change the conversation.
Just as Spotify didn’t get rid of piracy but still had a drastic impact on it, so Facebook might have the same effect on ad blocking.
The key, however, isn’t just because Facebook is trying to circumvent ad blockers, it’s also their plans to let users better control the ads that they see. This sends a message not just to ad blockers, but also to publishers and advertisers about what online advertising could be like.
Will this stop ad blocking? Of course not. But it will change the dialog and maybe open a path to a consensus, something that we’ve not had before.
Facebook isn’t going to single-handedly crush ad blocking. Ad blocking will always be around.
However, it’s very likely that Facebook is going to change ad blocking, including who does it and why.
If nothing else, this is the most significant pushback we’ve seen against ad blocking to date. While Ars Technica, Wired and Forbes are large and important sites in their own right, according to SimilarWeb.com, Facebook is the most popular site in the world.
It’s a site without an easy replacement, with a multi-billion dollar valuation and, most importantly, one that’s crucial to the lives of many of its users.
While ad blocking firms may downplay this, Facebook’s announcement is an important escalation in the ad blocking world and one that puts both Facebook and ad blockers in uncharted territory.
No matter how you feel about ad blocking, this is going to be an war to watch.