Facebook battle against ad blockers is a sign of what’s to come

Facebook’s announcement on Tuesday that it had implemented a work around that will make sure its ads are shown to users even if they are using an ad blocking plugin is a sign that the battle over internet advertising and how websites generate money is heating up.

The New York Times said that Facebook’s changes to its website were design to make it much more difficult for ad-blocking tools to identify ads, and that re-blocking the replacement ads would be too resource intensive to be worthwhile.

However, never ones to turn down a challenge, the ad-blocking developers quickly got to work to do just that – and they did so within a couple of days, with a simple update to their blocklist filters. In releasing news of the counteroffensive, AdBlock Plus, one of the most well known ad blockers, noted that the “cat and mouse” game had escalated to another level.

The millions of web users that use an ad blocking plugin say that they use the tools to better protect their privacy and to stop the advertising bloat that slows page views and burns up battery life – and these issues are very real.

Publishers and advertising networks have not helped themselves over the years, with the introduction of ever more intrusive forms of advertising in attempts to grab user attention so afflicted by so-called “banner blindness”. The more aggressive the advertising, the more users are pushed towards using ad blockers.

However, this is not some game where if the ad blockers win everyone just gets a faster and more beautiful web – the ads fund the content that people love to read and watch. Without the money from advertising, much of the content will either stop being produced or simply be hidden behind paywalls. Free content means ad-funded content, and calls from some of the most fervent believers in ad blockers for publishers to “find a new revenue model” is not hugely helpful.

In the offline world, if readers of a magazine did not like the direction the magazine was going or their content to ads ratio, then they simply stop buying the magazine. This is a strong signal to the publishers that things are not going well and they will need to change or die. Ad Blockers make this all a lot more complicated online, as rather than show their distaste by not visiting the site – ad blockers still read all the content, but block all the ads and try not to let the site know they are doing so (so the site doesn’t block them for free-loading).

Native advertising is one way that publishers are getting around ad blockers, and sponsored articles are something we do here at TechFruit already (example). However, it is difficult to create sponsored content that will get enough readers to click on it to make it it worthwhile to advertisers – and the production costs are far higher. Due to its focus on listicles, Buzzfeed has managed to seamlessly add sponsored lists on topics requested by advertisers, and people click on them by the million – but it is more difficult for web publishers that focus on editorial to make such compelling sponsored content.

Photograph by Geralt

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