I have a confession to make, for I have sinned: Over the last few days I have been using Adblock Plus on my work laptop. And frankly, it has been pretty wonderful.
Using an ad blocker on your browser to surf the web is a sin in my profession — news media — because Business Insider UK, like all digital media companies, relies on advertising for its revenues. When I read Business Insider now, I no longer see ads, and the company’s revenues suffer as a result.
I told a colleague I’d been testing Adblock and her immediate reaction tells you a lot about how publishers regard the rise of adblockers: “Jim!!! You cannibal!”
It’s true. This is suicidal behaviour. Advertising pays my salary at Business Insider.
There is a social contract between news publishers and readers, which goes like this: We’ll give you news for free. You agree to look at the ads next to those stories.
I have betrayed that contract.
And yet … as a reader, the experience of browsing the web while using Adblock Plus is vastly better than without it, mostly because web pages now load in my browser lightning fast. Ads take up about 25% of all internet bandwidth according to a recent study by a team at the Simon Fraser University in British Columbia (a study which was funded by Adblock Plus.) Delete the ads and then everything else — the content you want — loads that much faster.
Billions of pounds and dollars in revenue depend on the speed at which content loads when users click on it. About 144 million people use Adblock, and 41% of users aged 18-29 have tried it, according to PageFair, the Adblock monitoring service. Those users have wiped about 10% off Google’s revenues, by PageFair’s estimates, or $US6 billion.
When Apple announced that it would include an ad-blocking add-on option inside its upcoming update to Safari for iPhone, it immediately wiped 7% off the value of stock in Criteo, the web ad buying company.
People think ad blockers could destroy the web by cutting off its ad revenue. Jefferies analyst Brian Pitz and his team wrote in a recent note to investors that “In a worst case scenario, this is Apple against the entire mobile publisher and advertiser ecosystem.”
Apple’s Safari blocker is a clear signal to publishers that says, “serve your content through apps that can be downloaded in our App Store, not from the web.” (Apple has long discriminated against apps that simply serve a mobile web version of the internet. The company wants a unique, rich experience in the app, which ultimately to benefits the Apple device ecosystem that serves it up.)
The load-speed issue is why Facebook introduced Instant Articles, in which it lets publishers put their news directly onto Facebook in exchange for a share of the ad revenue. When Facebook users click on a news link it can take eight seconds for the web page to load. (Think of all those times you’ve clicked on something and then wondered if your phone has crashed while waiting for the article to appear.) Many users abandon web pages before they load, the wait is so long. An article served directly by Facebook just loads pretty much instantly.
The reason the web has become so slow is due to the sheer volume of stuff that has to be loaded onto a web page in order to show it to a reader and still make money from it. Here is a vastly simplified explanation of that: To load a page, the publisher site has to begin loading the story under the link the reader wants, that triggers a call for advertisers, those advertisers then begin bidding for the ad space and the winner loads their ads into the page. This takes a few seconds because the number of companies — bits of software on each page, all loading separately — can be huge. Here is a diagram of that system from Luma Partners, the tech investment bank:
Adblock deletes much of this process. The first thing I noticed about using it is that I can now open multiple browser tabs and not have to watch those spinning wheels while each page loads. My computers crash much less often.
My colleagues are going to be angry about this. This is money we could lose if ad blocking becomes more popular. Or if Apple — which owns a 25% share of mobile browsers — succeeds in its ad block plan for iOS 9.
But if publishers and advertisers are serving up an experience that is vastly improved when you delete the ad tech side of it, then at some point, both publishers and advertisers will have to admit that they need to provide a better service. (Alternatively, they could decline to show pages to people using an ad blocker — which broadcasters like Channel 4 and ITV already do when users try to watch their shows on-demand with an ad blocker installed — but that could backfire if users simply go elsewhere for news.)
Myself and my colleague Lara O’Reilly, who writes about advertising for Business Insider, have had this discussion with a number of adtech execs in the last few weeks. Their response is uniform, and it sounds like this: “The answer is to serve a better, more creative, more effective ad experience (and oh, by the way, my company loads ads the fastest).”
That is not likely to be good enough.
We’re 15 years into the adtech revolution and pages are still loading like it’s 1998. Ads just don’t load fast enough. It will likely get worse, too. PageFair offers an adblock blocker, which puts yet another step into the page-loading process — any user trying to open an article via Adblock will get a workaround that displays the ads anyway. So add another box into that Lumascape.
The endgame is that eventually publishers are likely to tell adtech companies to take a hike. Native content — sponsored articles, special publisher units and other devices like Facebook’s Instant Articles — is already more lucrative for many publishers than standard ad units served via an exchange or ad network. Publishers whose revenue suffers from ad blocking are likely to start sewing more ads directly into their content so that it loads as one with the articles the user actually wants. That would cut page-load times, defeat many adblockers, and maintain the revenue publishers need to survive.