What do Adblockers Mean for the Web?

With adblock use on the rise in a growing trend towards ad-free surfing, has the era of advertising as we’ve known it run its course? And what will it mean for the Web?

Rising popularity of adblockers

“Everyone agrees that advertising on the Internet is broken,” says Till Faida, CEO of Adblock Plus, a four-year-old plug-in owned by German company Eyeo that blocks ads, disables tracking, and blocks domains known to spread malware on the Web.

The company is part of a rising trend towards ad-free surfing. While adblockers have been around on PC for some time, this year the number of adblock users worldwide grew to 198 million, up from about 150 million the year before. Adblock Plus itself is currently downloaded around 3 million times per week and has around 50 to 60 million active monthly users. Downloads grew 70% between 2013 and 2014. And a second industry leading adblocker AdBlock is seeing similar success, counting 40 million active users.

But what does this all mean for the future of the Web? So much of which survives on advertising as its overwhelming source of revenue: from Facebook, Google, YouTube, Yahoo, and Twitter, to countless websites, niche blogs, established online magazines and newspapers, apps, and games.

The benefits of adblockers

The popularity of adblockers clearly signifies that they are serving a need. The online advertising that they block has become an increasingly invasive experience, a deluge of pop-ups, flashing banners, and auto-play videos which slow browsing and on mobile, can drain data with expensive results. And also, adblockers act to raise standards of privacy online by reducing the number of different parties tracking user activity and profiting from the data. Apple CEO Tim Cook has openly criticised Internet companies for violating privacy rights to make money from ads: “They’re gobbling up everything they can learn about you and trying to monetize it”, he has said. “We think that’s wrong”. In September, Apple gave adblocking its official blessing, making adblockers downloadable on iOS 9. Adblocking apps immediately rocketed to the top of the App Store.

The costs of adblockers

The prospect of ad-free mobile browsing should be particularly worrying, as mobile now commands somewhere between 30% and 60% of all internet use (the data varies wildly). UBS has claimed that adblocking could cost the advertising industry $1 billion, and a report by Adobe and PageFair (an anti-adblocking company) puts that figure at a significantly higher $21.8 billion for 2015 alone.

But adblockers also come at another cost. As money, and as a result, attention, is taken away from the Web, what happens to innovation? And what happens to our favourite content? Inevitably it will be the small enterprises, the ones who have always formed the fabric of the web, which will be hardest hit.

And at the same time, more power will be transferred into fewer hands. Apple will be one step closer to owning the mobile browsing experience. Large corporations will be the only ones with a budget to innovate. And because adblocking doesn’t yet work to the same extent in so-called walled gardens, where only key words such as “sponsored” are detected, Facebook, Snapchat, and other dominant walled garden models which specialise in valuable, targeted and measurable ads are likely to get a much bigger slice of the advertising revenue pie. Snapchat already charges $750,000 per day for some ads. And Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg has claimed that Facebook mobile ads will become as or more important than big budget TV ads, offering what she calls the Super Bowl, every day.

Do we really want the web, which began as a democratiser, giving everyone the ability to have a voice, launch a blog, magazine, or small business, wherever they were in the world, reduced to the control of a few super-sized companies?

A new wave of innovation

Where it is on the consumer to make that choice, it is also on the publisher to innovate. Adblock Plus accepts a fee and wont block ads from approved acceptable advertisers whose adverts meet certain specifications. The New York Times is a good example of a site that has found a way to integrate advertising tastefully. And we’re seeing a rise in sponsored content, as popularised by e.g. BuzzFeed, whereby advertisers pay for much less obtrusive sponsored articles. All these ideas can contribute to making a better Web.

Is advertising on the Internet broken? Probably not. But it does seem that the era of advertising as we’ve known it might have run its course.

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