Imagine a web without ads: No more intrusive page takeovers, no more irrelevant pop-ups, and no more bizarre, third-party banners promising a septuagenarian’s secret to wrinkle-free skin.
For millions of media consumers around the world, this commercial-free utopia is a reality.
Ad-blocking has been a major concern for digital publishers and advertisers for a number of years, with consumers migrating to mobile, where the uptake in ad-blockers is greater.
PageFair, a Dublin-based company that provides media organisations with ad-blocking analytics and which creates anti-ad blocking technologies, published a report last year in conjunction with Adobe. It found that 200m desktop users have installed ad-blockers in their PCs and laptops.
A second report, focusing on mobile ad-blockers, was published last month. It found that 419m mobile users have installed ad-blockers in their devices.
“We’ve had 20 years of the online advertising industry, and it has gotten itself to a point where it faces a cul-de-sac that is self-destructive,” said Johnny Ryan, head of ecosystem at PageFair.
“Ad-blocking is like the remote control for TV, invented in the 1950s. It might have taken a few years to land on your couch, but it was inevitable that it would eventually do so. I think it is possible to slow the spread of ad-blocking, but I suspect that the genie is out of the bottle,” he says.
The Interactive Advertising Bureau — IAB — a non-profit group that promotes best practice for online advertisers and publishers, has strongly condemned companies that create ad-blockers.
Recently, the IAB published the results of a small survey on ad-blocking, quizzing 1,300 desktop users and 201 mobile users in the US.
It found that 26% of desktop users and 15% of mobile users avail of ad-blockers. A further 17% of the sample, who do not currently use blockers, are “at risk of starting to do so”.
Similar to PageFair’s research, young respondents were the most likely to block ads, particularly young males who play data-heavy online games.
The reasons for using blockers are varied: over-populated ad spaces are distracting for consumers, ads sometimes intrude on content, and interactive ads consume a lot of data — a reason why many readers in emerging markets use blockers.
Mr Ryan says the rise of ad-blockers is also because of digital advertisers’ over-use of personal data.
“Advertising has evolved into a position where the industry is preoccupied with the notion of monitoring your behaviour to build a profile of you.
“It’s a mistake, because advertising worked just fine before the web. It was based on the idea of context,” Mr Ryan says.
The over-reliance on data has also led to inaccurate counts of genuine readers viewing advertisements online.
However, the problems created by ad-blocking and poor online advertisements have given publishers the opportunity to reimagine online advertising.
Mr Ryan, who is author of the book, A History of the Internet and the Digital Future, sees the problem of ad-blockers “as being one of those historical milestones”.
One proposition is to simply reduce the quantity.
Ads would cost more for advertisers and give readers an uncluttered space.
Suzanne McElligott, CEO of IAB Ireland, which in September will publish a Red C study on ad-blocking in Ireland, predicts that “we will see more engaging, more creative, better-quality advertising served in a more user-friendly manner”.
She thinks publishers will have to educate online users about the purpose of ads.
Harry Browne, a journalism lecturer at DIT’s School of Media, said he likes and uses ad-blockers.
But he warns that “it breaks the 200-plus-year-old, traditional media business model more surely than the mere provision of free content online ever did.”
This article first appeared in the Irish Examiner on August 1, 2016.