The Four Horsemen of the Adblockalpse: The First Horseman — Adblocking

Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse — Conquest, War, Famine & Death, an 1887 painting by Viktor Vasnetsov. (Pic Wikipedia)

We have been examining the digital publishing ecosystem and how to navigate this world. To survive we have some major obstacles to overcome and one of these obstacles is the rise of adblocking, which is a real warning sign to the publishing world, it is a make or break situation, let’s call it the Adblockalyse. The Christian apocalyptic vision is that of four horsemen are to set a divine apocalypse upon the world as harbingers of the Last Judgment. We are going to look at these 4 horsemen of the Adblockalypse. The horsemen include Ad fraud, Viewability, Poor user experience and today we look at the first horseman: Adblocking itself.

The Bathtub Test

There is a joke called the Bathtub test, it goes like this: During a visit to the local mental institute, John asks how to determine whether or not a patient should be committed. The Director responds: “We fill up a bathtub, and then we offer a teaspoon, a teacup and a bucket to the patient. We then ask him or her to empty the bathtub.” “Ah, I understand, obviously a sane person would choose the bucket because it’s bigger than the spoon or the teacup.” “No. A normal person would pull the plug and let the water drain away”, responds the director; “Would you like a bed near the window?”

Publishers are handling rise of blocking in a similar way to those who fail the bathtub test. Through a series of uncoordinated initiatives, some are using a teaspoon, a teacup and a bucket to deal with the problem. Such initiatives include refusing invasive ad formats, cleaning up their advertising layout to make ads more appealing to users and even opting not to serve display advertising at all and focusing on native advertising.

The problem cannot be resolved with these smaller strategies because the problem lies with both the bath and the water in the bath. Ad blocking is an industry-wide eco-system problem. Before we consider possible solutions, it is important to understand the myriad reasons for Adblocking and indeed how we got here in the first place.

The Rise of the Perfect Storm

Let’s go back only 10 years, ads were not that sophisticated, nor targeted. Cookies were not as widespread as they are today. Internet users were not that aware of being tracked on the web, if indeed they were being tracked at all. Internet users were not being retargeted by advertisers and privacy was not a major concern. Video ads were few and far between and mobile display advertising was non-existent.

When ads did appear, the formats were initially quite small and non-intrusive. Most publishers did not have a digital sales target and most likely bundled in digital advertising as a sweetener along with traditional sales. Agencies placed ads in the old fashioned way, an ad targeted at sports fans would appear on a pure play sports website or the sports section of a newspaper website. Ad format fragmentation was widespread and formats usually were an image with a link and some more sophisticated advertisers provided a click tracker (to see how many times that ad was clicked). Standardisation eventually followed, partly thanks to the IAB (Internet Advertising Board), partly because the agencies, who drove most digital sales, were sick of having to deal with many different ad sizes and formats. Standardisation, thankfully, helped eradicate formats like full screen pop-ups, which were full webpage sized images, that popped up on desktop versions of websites (which was then 90%+ of website traffic, the reverse of today, with mobile now almost up to 90%), much like the interstitial on a mobile site or app.

Several years ago there was a short-lived move away from intrusive ad formats towards standardised formats like MPU (the almost square ads, mid page units) and Video before mobile web became the dominant mode of web browsing. Nonetheless, we soon saw the re-introduction of bigger and more invasive ad formats like billboards and half pages in desktop and interstitial ads on mobile (full screen ads with an elusive little “x” in the top right corner to exit the ad). With the rise of these formats came the rise of user frustration and the beginnings of the perfect storm we have today.

Video Ads

Once the growth of platforms like YouTube scaled to the level they did, so did the opportunity for Video advertising in an increasingly digital world. You see when one creative can work at scale it means the return on investment in that creative all the better. It also means it is easier for media agencies to buy ad placements at scale. This is why major platforms such as YouTube and Facebook often set the standard for smaller publishers to follow, because they have global scale. Publishers, on the other hand, lack the critical mass it requires to forge new formats or set new standards.

Creative advertising agencies could now also make digital-friendly versions of TV ads and thus marketers could now use their expensive TV ad in a digital world. Early on in all this YouTube recognised the balance between user experience and advertising revenues. In simple terms, I don’t want to irritate my audience so much that they leave my platform, audience is the reason I am such an attractive platform in the first place. Then, along came the many video networks and indeed direct video sales by publishers large and small. With such variety comes both fragmentation of ad serving platforms and indeed video serving platforms (the software used to deliver the right ads at the right time on the right website or app).

This fragmentation in platforms makes the process of booking ads for media agencies even more time consuming and makes the direct buying approach by marketers even more confusing.

As for the user, she is confronted with more ad formats, some she can skip, and some she can not. Some ads even have their volume out of sync with the visual content they are serving and some have a video ad half way down a page amidst a written piece of content, which auto starts and blasts out sound when the user is trying to read a piece of content during a brief coffee break at their desk in their office or on the bus surrounded by people.

Analogue dollars and Digital Dimes

Concurrently there is another storm brewing. Traditional publishers are grappling with the decline in analogue dollars and the battle to earn digital dimes. The price of a traditional advert (Press, Radio or TV) is much greater than the digital counterpart. In addition, the traditional publisher needs to invest in new digital sales people, who possess different skills and mindsets than their traditional sales or production colleagues. To make matters worse, the publisher needs to invest heavily in their digital platforms to be omnipresent with premium websites, mobile sites and native apps. In an ideal world the publisher will need social community managers, data analysts and even videographers. This all means the publisher would have to invest ahead of revenue and put itself under even more pressure amidst declining ad sales. The CFO most likely has their way and stifles investment deciding “good enough” is OK for now.

Desperate to get some digital revenue wins, the sales team cannot be seen to turn down digital revenue, even when this jeopardises the very audiences and owned platforms (publisher websites and apps) that makes this revenue opportunity possible in the first place. To that end, the publisher accepts intrusive formats such as the interstitial, as well as poor looking creative and badly formatted video pre-roll advertising.

Next comes comes programmatic advertising (advertising booked by computers) and the publisher should be seen to partake in this new oil strike. This opens up their advertising inventory to even cheaper ads if the publisher drops the bidding floor low enough (once again because of client and agency pressure alike, and alas a lot of publishers do so).

Meanwhile, the user gets even more frustrated. Exasperated, the user may even find an alternative source of their content, that is if they don’t install an ad blocker first.

Cookies, Tracking and Retargeting

Parallel to all this there is another player coming to prominence. Cookies and user tracking are now commonplace on the web; in fact, if you are a digital publisher who is not profiling your users in some way, then you are considered a long way behind the posse. Apart from website owners and publishers, advertising networks are well advanced in building up data on users to offer sniper targeting to marketers. Such targeting maximises return on investment and gives a slight (if any) uplift in advertising rates to the publisher and to the advertising network. In simple terms, more data and more targeting possibilities which means higher advertising rates and increased customers. This is where the world of retargeting kicks in.

So, we have established that all large ad networks drop cookies on users, building profiles on their estimated (or known) demographics, content preferences and web usage. For example, a user visits Amazon and looks at a male grooming kit, the visits a motoring website, then that same user visits a publisher website, which happens to be tracking its audience via a third party ad tag. A profile is developed that this is a male user, likely 18–34, who likes cars and needs a shaving kit. This user then visits a sports site and low and behold they get an ad for the exact car they were looking at on the car website and/or the grooming kit they added to their basket in Amazon. Not subtle at all!

Small Screens, Big Ads and Big Data Costs

If most publishers have not experienced a tipping point where their traffic is coming more from mobile than desktop, then either they have a very poor mobile experience or an older demographic or high working-hour usage from office workers.

The reality is that brands need to be omnichannel and omnipresent, available on all devices. Publishers receive a huge amount of referral traffic from Facebook and Twitter in particular and because traffic to those platforms is primarily on mobile devices, the user lands on a mobile-optimised site (or should do). Like the social networks, most publisher traffic is now mobile; so the referred user needs to experience a fantastic mobile experience on the publisher’s site or app, but this is quite often not the case.

Due to the small size of the screen and the user’s need for speed on mobile (3 seconds is barely tolerable); the ads on mobile are an even bigger irritant. Anything that blocks the user from getting to their content quickly makes the user experience awful. The user does not care if a publisher has revenue targets to hit.

Apart from the wait you endure due to advertising there is another reason the user is dissenting. Mobile data “all you can eat bundles” from mobile providers are declining in line with the Telco’s profits from voice and text revenues. Users are opting instead for free disruptive services such as Whatsapp, Facebook Messenger, Viber, Snapchat and Skype (to name but a few). Due to the cost of data, users do not want to “waste” their data allocation on ads. Loading ad trackers and cookies uses up data and because of the amount of third party tags on websites and apps, (which track usage patterns, advertising habits and indeed content consumption) these websites and apps load significantly slower. Every time you open a webpage the content load, but so do ad tags, analytics tags and observational behaviour tags. Without these tags websites load much quicker. In a mobile environment such delays feel much longer and when you add in patchy 3g and 4g coverage the experience becomes even more frustrating.

Why this is a Big Deal now

Ad blocking was not considered a major problem by publishers a year ago for several reasons. It was happening, but it wasn’t causing enough pain to be noticed. The main one was only tech savvy users knew how to use them and they were only available on desktop web (not native applications or mobile browsers such as Apple’s Safari). Remember Ad Block Plus is around since 2006!

Ad blocking has grown by 90% globally in 2015 (According to Irish Entrepreneur Sean Blanchfields PageFair).

A less apparent reason as to why ad blocking has become a big issue for publishers is that in the past publishers were never sold out of ad space, so ad blocking did not have a major revenue impact.

Today, however, most publishers are using programmatic sales and advertising networks. The difference today is that a publisher is always selling (their programmatic stack actually). To explain a little more, in the past most campaigns were mainly sold directly by sales representatives and ads were served by an in-house “human” resource and capacity was not an issue. With real time bidding and programmatic buying, ads are bought in real time as advertisers and agencies increasingly target moments, such as breakfast time with breakfast deals for example. If ad blockers are preventing users seeing the ads in real time, then it becomes an even bigger problem for publishers.

The Tipping Point

Most publishers (including small niche blogs) have the majority of their traffic now coming via a mobile device. So the mobile tipping point, which has been long predicted, has happened. With that, Apple recently made the decision to allow ad blockers in the iPhone. Up until now with most Adblocking occurring on desktop, publishers didn’t stand to lose considerable amounts of revenue. In what has become known as “Adblockalypse”, the decision to enable ad blockers on iPhone, publishers who rely on advertising are severely affected. Bear in mind according to Pagefair’s 2016 ad blocking report at least 419 million people are blocking ads on smartphones (this number excludes content blocking apps, in-app adblockers, and opt-in browser adblockers).

While Apple is seen to be acting in favour of the user here, this decision is part of a war where Apple is taking on Google’s ad network. Some believe this is a response to what Steve Jobs saw as a Google betrayal. There was an unwritten rule between the two companies that Google would dominate the ad and search market and Apple would dominate the Smartphone market. When Google acquired Android and thus entered into competition with Apple; Jobs famously vowed he would avenge this betrayal. We can expect to see some more battles there as that war progresses.

Sola Dosis Facit Venenum — “The Dose Makes the Poison”

Paracelsus (above), the father of toxicology wrote the dose makes the poison (sola dosis facit venenum); too much of anything is not good for you. Too much advertising is definitely not good for the user. Here is the problem though, even reducing the amount of ads on sites will not fix the ad blocking problem. Even when certain publications and publishers act with best intentions and say no to bad creative and invasive advertising formats, there will be always someone somewhere accepting those creatives and those formats.

Take YouTube for example. As noted above, YouTube recognised the balance between user experience and advertising revenues (enabled by mass scale) and introduced skippable video ads after 5 seconds for the user and TrueView for the advertiser, which is that the advertiser only pays when the ad is seen all the way through (true).

Some publishers have invested in excellent website layout, scaled back on ad placements and insisted on high quality creative.

Then there are VC backed publishers like, who boast beautiful readability and have little or no ads at all, opting instead to build a community and monetise it later (the successful Facebook model).

There is Poison in the Well

Despite the good intentions of certain publishers to optimise user experience (while still serving high quality advertising), unfortunately, once there is any poison in the well, everyone is affected. Once a user installs an ad blocker it wipes out all publisher ad revenue.

Take an example of a user of a site that illegally streams sports and that site crams as many ads as possible into the frame surrounding the video screen. That user says to a friend how annoying those ads are the friend suggests they install an easy browser extension ad blocker to make my experience slightly better, and slightly better is still better than paying a subscription (remember that so many of these users are not used to paying for content and will find it free where possible).

The ad blocker software does not recognise the good from the bad. Most publishers are now trying build a relationship with their audience and foster a community, while the example above exhibits that there is no relationship being built — the site is simply scatter gunning ads at users hoping some may stick (be clicked upon, intentionally or unintentionally). This is what is often referred to as “The Tragedy of the Commons”. An example is that of crop rotation, which reduces soil erosion and increases both soil fertility and crop yield. Similar to our problem, some will take advantage, some will respect the ethical rules, sometimes unwritten. In our eco-system, some will act as parasites and some will sell snake oil and leave the eco-system barren like a band of locusts destroying crops.

Selective ad blocking does indeed exist and will eventually go main stream, just like ad blocking has already. With selective ad blocking a user can support (whitelist) or ad block certain sites as they wish. However, this takes effort and time for the user to create a whitelist of websites the user would like to support by allowing advertising.

Since there is poison in the well most sites will be tarred with the same brush and lose their valuable display, native and video advertising revenue stream. With declining print circulations most publishers need this lesser, but valuable advertising revenue to upkeep high quality journalism and resist the world listicles and content marketing.

The Problem with Solutions

Ad blocking is an industry wide problem and when you look at solutions you need to look at the digital media industry as a whole.

We have explored lots of contributory reasons above, but one piece of the pie that is often overlooked is the knowledge gap in digital marketing. Bad digital creative comes from a lack of understanding of the digital eco-system. A lot of marketers only pay lip service to digital marketing or outsource it altogether, thus outsourcing the opportunity to learn. I call this tick-the-box digital marketing, where a marketer will just apportion 5% of their overall budget to digital marketing and get their ads on quality digital publishing websites. Then this marketer includes screenshots of their ads in place on their board meeting slides to a board who may know whether it is a good thing or not. According to the International Data Corporation (IDC), 25% of high-tech Chief Marketing Officers (CMOs) will be replaced every year through 2018 and by 2017, 25% of marketing organizations will solve critical skill gaps by deploying centres of excellence. In the meantime we will continue to see poorly developed creative and more poison in the eco-system.

Some media experts have called for reform on the ad blocker, which is utopian and unlikely to happen. Some publishers detect adblockers and politely ask the user to whitelist them declaring that they require the ad revenue to make the experience better and pay for the content. This works when the content is of high quality, local and unique.

Other hard-core publishers in Germany, where ad blocking is at critical mass, detect adblockers and declare that if the user does not whitelist them they will black list the user (This makes building a community pretty difficult).

One admirable approach is where some publishers have focused on highly targeted and customised advertising for the user. The problem with this solution is that it requires the user to login. Once you have logged in users your next problem is scale, if I want to target male sports fans, who drink beer, I need enough scale for that to become appealing to an advertiser (or an agency representing the advertiser). Even if I have that scale, despite all my investment in a logged in first party system, the uplift in my CPM (cost per mille/thousand) rate only marginally raises and in some cases all it gives me is a competitive advantage. So, to make this viable, I need demand from the advertiser and I need repeat business from that advertiser or if the advertising is booked via a media agency I need my terms with the media agency favourable enough to ensure demand.

Google is our Friend

Google is our friend in the quest to clean up the eco-system. Yes, it is a self serving strategy, Google wants a cleaner web, because people using Google to find content means revenue for Google. Google invests millions in suppressing ad fraud and in Q1 2016 launched AMP (accelerated mobile pages). AMP makes the mobile web experience much faster and facilitates better viewability (whether ads are viewable or not). AMP leads to a better mobile experience and enhances advertising monetisation for publishers using AMP. AMP can only be used by publishers if they opt out of invasive ad formats like interstitials, so it does promote a better user experience. The concept is basically that yes, you may lose that ad format, but you will serve more ads and make that revenue back through “sticky users”, users who consume more of your content, loyal community members (the holy grail).

Google’s mission is to organise the world’s information. Google wants searches to be ultra relevant on the web, that is, you get what your searched for. A slower web, a cluttered web and a web fraught with ad fraud does not work. Google is working on an antidote for the poison in the well.

Not out of the Woods yet: A Storm is Coming

If you are in emerging markets, where access to the web is reliant on smartphone access, loading ads and the trackers that go with ad serving means you are using up your data bundle. An ad blocker means not only pages load faster, it means you pay less. Enter the Alibaba-owned UC Browser (in its many versions), which now has more users than all other forms of adblocking combined. 36% of smartphone users in Asia-Pacific are blocking ads on the mobile web. So UC browser will speed up your web connection, reducing your data costs, obliterating ads and will become a gateway to the web, just like Google.

In this week’s RTÉ innovation show, CEO and founder of PageFair Sean Blanchfield told us that it is only a matter of time before both UC browser and large scale mobile ad blocking comes to the West. Pagefair also aims to clean up advertising, where the company’s ad serving technology displays safe and respectful ads in a way that Ad blockers are unable to block. Like Google, Pagefair wants to clean up the web experience, while taking a small fee for doing so.


An ideal scenario would be that we didn’t have a tragedy of the commons scenario with intrusive ad experiences and poor advertising creative. The IAB, Interactive Advertising Bureau have launched an initiative called L.E.A.N. which stands for Light, Encrypted, Ad choice supported, Non-invasive ads. This is a good start, but needs to be enforced and publishers blacklisted if they do not comply. In addition, publishers should consider AMP, google’s initiative, which has many benefits including speed and enhanced search engine results performance. Finally, the World Federation of Advertisers has proposed the creation of a global advertising watchdog.

The industry needs to act in unison to make a difference. Marketers need to focus on better execution of digital advertising, they also need to focus on what works and what does not, if a product or service is not gaining traction throwing money at poorly executed advertising is not the solution. Instead look at the product first, make it the best it can be and then focus on pulling in audience, not pushing out messages to that audience.

Decision makers need to accept less, but sustainable revenue in the short term to achieve long term gain and indeed long term survival.

For publishers logged in ecosystems, transparency, trust, excellent user experience and high-quality content is a good start.

Regarding advertising it is really is about quality over quantity. Quality advertising beside quality content, in context, adapted for the right platform and the right device and served at the right time. Failing to act in unison will result in more and more falling victim to the poisoned water in the well.


If you like the topics covered here, subscribe to the RTÉ Innovation Show here.

This Saturday, 11 June we talk to CEO and Founder of Pagefair Sean Blanchfield about ad blocking. Giustina Mizzoni tells us about the ☯ CoderDojo Dublin coolest projects awards: A free tech event for the world’s youngest innovators, creators and entrepreneurs. Barry Winkless continues our Masters of Imagination series with a look at Heston Blumethal. As part of RTÉ Supporting the Starts CEO and Founder of Wia Conall Laverty tells us about Internet of Things as a service.

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