The rise of AdBlock reveals a serious problem in the advertising world

AdBlock fail.
AdBlock fail.
Image: Reuters/Lucas Jackson
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On the grounds that it represents a major economic threat to their business, two groups of French publishers are considering a lawsuit against AdBlockPlus creator Eyeo GmbH. (Les Echos, broke the news in this story, in French).

Plaintiffs are said to be the GESTE (a French organization of editors for online content and services) and the French Internet Advertising Bureau. The first is known for its aggressive stance against Google via its contribution to the Open Internet Project. (To be clear, GESTE said they were at a “legal consulting stage”; no formal complaint has been filed yet.) By their actions, the second plaintiff—the French branch of the Internet Advertising Bureau—is in fact acknowledging its failure to tame the excesses of the digital advertising market.

Regardless of its validity, the legal action misses a critical point. By downloading the plug-in AdBlock Plus (ABP) on a massive scale, users do vote with their mice against the growing invasiveness of digital advertising. Therefore, suing Eyeo, the company that maintains ABP, is like using aspirin to fight cancer. A different approach is required but very few seem ready to face that fact.

I use AdBlock Plus on a daily basis

I’m not especially proud of this, nor do I support anti-advertising activism. I use the ad-blocker for practical, not ideological, reasons. On too many sites, the invasion of pop-up windows and heavily animated ad “creations” has became an annoyance. A visual and a technical one. When a page loads, the HTML code “calls” all sorts of modules, sometimes 10 or 15. Each sends a request to an ad server and sometimes, for the richest content, the ad elements trigger the activation of a third-party plug-in like Adobe’s Shockwave which will work hard to render the animated ads. Most of the time, these ads are poorly optimized because creative agencies don’t waste their precious time on such trivial task as providing clean, efficient code to their clients. As a consequence, the computer’s CPU is heavily taxed, it overheats, making fans buzz loudly. Suddenly, you feel like your MacBook Pro is about to take off. That’s why, with a couple of clicks, I installed AdBlock Plus. My ABP has spared me several thousands of ad exposures. My surfing is now faster, crash-free, and web pages look better.

I asked around and I couldn’t find a friend or a colleague not using the magic plug-in. Everyone seems to enjoy ad-free surfing. If this spreads, it could threaten the very existence of a vast majority of websites that rely on advertising.

First, a reality check. How big and dangerous is the phenomenon?

PageFair, a start-up based in Dublin, Ireland, comes up with some facts. Here are key elements drawn from a 17-page PDF document available here.

use of adblock is accelerating
types of ads blocked by adblock

Put another way, if your site, or your apps, are saturated with pop-up windows—screaming videos impossible to mute or skip—you are encouraging the adoption of AdBlock Plus—and once it’s installed on a browser, do not expect any turning  back. As an example of an unwitting APB advocate:

Image for article titled The rise of AdBlock reveals a serious problem in the advertising world

Eyeo’s AdBlock Plus takes the rejection of advertising into its own hands—but they are greedy and dirty ones

Far from being the work of a selfless white knight, Eyeo’s business model borders on racketeering. In its Acceptable Ads Manifesto, Eyeo states the virtues of what the company feels are tolerable formats:

  1. Acceptable Ads are not annoying.
  2. Acceptable Ads do not disrupt or distort the page content we’re trying to read.
  3. Acceptable Ads are transparent with us about being an ad.
  4. Acceptable Ads are effective without shouting at us.
  5. Acceptable Ads are appropriate to the site that we are on.

Who could disagree? But such blandishments go with a ruthless business model that attests to the merits of straight talk:

We are being paid by some larger properties that serve non-intrusive advertisements that want to participate in the Acceptable Ads initiative.

Whitelisting is free for all small and medium-sized websites and blogs. However, managing this list requires significant effort on our side and this task cannot be completely taken over by volunteers as it happens with common filter lists.
Note that we will never whitelist any ads that don’t meet these criteria. There is no way to buy a spot in the whitelist. Also note that whitelisting is free for small- and medium-sized websites.

In addition, we received startup capital from our investors, like Tim Schumacher, who believe in Acceptable Ads and want to see the concept succeed.

Of course, they do not post their rates publicly. Eyeo doesn’t provide any measure of what defines “small and medium size websites” either. A site with five million monthly uniques can be small in the English speaking market but huge in Finland. And the number of “larger properties” and the amount they had to pay to be whitelisted remains a closely guarded secret. According to some German websites, Eyeo is said to have snatched $30 million from big internet players; not bad for an operation of fewer than 30 people (depending on the recurrence of this whitelisting fee.)

There are several issues here.

  1. A single private entity cannot decide what is acceptable (or not) for an entire sector. Especially in such an opaque fashion.
  2. We must admit that Eyeo GmbH is filling a vacuum created by the incompetence and sloppiness of the advertising community—namely creative agencies, media buyers and organizations that are supposed to coordinate the whole ecosystem (such as the Internet Advertising Bureau.)
  3. The rise of ad blockers is the offspring of two major trends: a continual deflation of digital ads economics, and the growing reliance on ad exchanges and real-time bidding, both pushing prices further down.

Even Google is realizing that the explosion of questionable advertising formats has become a problem. Proof is in its recent Contributor program that proposes ad-free navigation in exchange for a fee ranging from $1 to $3 per month (read this story on NiemanLab, and more in a future Monday Note).

The growing rejection of advertising that AdBlock Plus is built upon is indeed a threat to the advertising ecosystem—and it needs to be addressed decisively. For example, publishers and advertisers could be brought to the same table to meet and design ways to clean up the ad mess. But the leaders and entity who can do the job have yet to be found.

You can read more of Monday Note’s coverage of technology and media here.