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Adblock Plus Talks Content-Blocking And The Tricky Shift To Mobile

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dblock Plus has built a business out of helping web users avoid overly annoying ads and other unwanted digital content on the desktop by taking money from companies willing to conform to its “acceptable ads” manifesto in order to be whitelisted and have their marketing let through the gate. (ABP users can still opt out of these whitelisted ads if they want, although it says most users choose not to do so — it’s “low single digits” who turn them off.) Content ABP can block includes pop-up ads, flashing banners, distracting graphics, ad tracking tech, auto playing video ads injected into articles, malware domains, and — even — the ‘seen’ message on Facebook (should you wish to kill read receipts). So ‘ad’ blocking is just the tip, although the most vocal critics of ABP et al tend to be ad-funded publishers.

Google is among Adblock Plus’ paying customers. Most, some 90 per cent, of these whitelisted entities don’t pay, according to ABP’s head of ops, Ben Williams — as he says it only charges “large” entities, and the amount it charges is decided “case by case”. It’s a model that has drawn criticism of extortion from ad-funded publishers and ad companies, although ABP claims whitelisted entities see an uplift in ad revenue because consumers prefer the less annoying, contextually relevant ads they are served. It does not maintain blocking/filter lists itself — relying on third party, independent filter lists (e.g. EasyList and EasyPrivacy), and allowing users to choose which lists they want to use (or make their own) — depending on the types of content they want to block.

Consumers’ growing appetite for content-blocking tools is in no doubt. Adblock Plus is just one ad blocker among scores offered as desktop browser extensions, and says it has around 50M to 60M active users per month at this point (averaging 2.3 million downloads per week since 2013 — and staying “at a steady clip” ever since, as Williams puts it). And it’s built up this user base without doing any traditional advertising itself, of course. Because, you know, hypocrisy.

“I’m not really sure what happened in 2013 but the download rate really started to increase around that time,” says Williams. “What we found is most people hear about it from friends. So it’s really hard to predict when growth is going to happen. And clearly, as a company called Adblock Plus, we can’t really do much marketing. It’s hard to get the word out there other than just getting a lot of press coverage — and that also has picked up around 2013. So there’s a lot of factors.”

Another factor Williams suspects helped ABP’s growth is adding its extension to Chrome, having initially only been available for Firefox. “Chrome is the browser now in most places,” he notes. “There’s a lot of potential reasons why the growth has picked up, but it definitely has.”

Despite this uptick in desktop use (the vast majority of ABP users are using either Chrome or Firefox on the desktop), the rate of Adblock Plus usage in countries such as the U.S. and U.K. remains low — around 4 per cent, according to Williams (vs around 10 per cent in Poland). But he sees that as scope for lots more growth. “I see a lot of growth potential in the Anglophone world. Including Australia… In Brazil we have 0.5 per cent of the online population. I think there’s a lot of room for growth out there. It’s just a matter of people discovering it.”

The rise of adblocking has also, most recently, been driving the creation of anti-adblocking startups, such as PageFair and Sourcepoint, which aim to detect/track use of adblocking, and then serve users with messages encouraging them not to use adblocking. (Williams dubs these counter tech startups “competing solutions”.) There’s also advertising encryption startups like Secret Media, using more tech to smuggle ad content past ad blockers.

When you zoom out to consider the big picture, it’s a game of cat and mouse that looks pretty ludicrous, given the direct appeals to users to pay for a product now being served by the likes of Sourcepoint do rather resemble the text-only ‘acceptable ads’ that ABP allows through its ad-block filter… So you can’t help but feel that if the digital ad industry just stopped to look at how awful ads and ad tactics have become, and took a more trust-based, direct-appeal approach, then there might be no need for adblockers (or anti-adblockers) at all. But the reality of a free market of advertisers and increasingly large and powerful ad networks means there’s (apparently) no clear way for any kind of alternative consensus strategy to emerge. Ergo the ‘whoever shout’s loudest, most annoyingly, and does the most invasive tracking in an attempt to drive more ad clicks’ approach proliferates — which in turn drives consumers into the arms of ad blockers. And so the vicious cycle continues.

That cycle is something ABP has been trying to break with its manifesto for “acceptable ads”. “We set out, as an ad blocker, to try and be a positive force in the media landscape,” says Williams. “We had lots of different ideas for this. And this [acceptable ads] was the one that seemed to work at the beginning.

“Up to this point it seems like we’ve stumbled upon something good. In certain cases there’s one particular case where a client told us they had been running an ad on a German tech site and they told us that that ad was getting over a one per cent click through rate. Which may sound depressingly small but that’s actually huge. Click through rates of over one per cent are just unheard of. And the reason, to me, was that it was contextually relevant advertising. This was a non-intrusive ad, on the side of the page, on a tech site, and it was for jobs in tech in Germany, on a Germany language site. It stands to reason that developers are going to read that and they saw real jobs that were being advertised there so they brought value to the users.”

Anecdotes aside, what hard data does ABP have that its ‘acceptable ads’ are more effective — in terms of clicks or conversions — than the average online ad? “We don’t have a lot of studies, so to speak,” admits Williams. “I guess the proof’s rather in the pudding. More people are signing up for acceptable ads, and fewer people leave the acceptable ads list. So once you’re on it most people have seen their revenues go up because of it. And they see a value in that. And then on the other side of things, users don’t generally opt out of it.”

It seems logical that growth in ad blocker usage is testament to consumer irritation with current online marketing behaviors. And it also seems entirely reasonable that contextually relevant ads, which don’t attempt to hijack the readers’ attention with irrelevant sales pitches, might be able to gain a more appreciative audience. And 2.3 million average weekly downloads is a pretty compelling underscore to the point.

We’ve gone a little bit crazy in advertising because we’re able to get more information than we ever were able to get… Tracking, retargeting, placing cookies… We’ve overvalued that information — people still respond to contextual advertising.

“I just think in general we’ve gone a little bit crazy in advertising because we’re able to get more information than we ever were able to get in magazines or in newspapers,” argues Williams. “Things like tracking, retargeting, placing cookies and that sort of thing. We’ve overvalued that information — people still respond to contextual advertising. I’ve talked to a lot of big brands and they’ve all told me they’re very concerned with the image of their brand when they give whatever marketing company X all of their entire ad contract for that particular quarter and then they see that suddenly their ads may be a little bit annoying. They may be intruding upon the user’s experience. I don’t think that’s what the brands want. So it’s hard to see really who’s benefitting in this. I think it’s a system that’s really just based on short term interests.”

The system is shifting though, as mobile device adoption changes the game. And the key question is what happens to web users’ ability to opt out of ads or block other digital content as mobile adoption pulls more eyeballs off desktops and onto handsets and tablets? How do you block ads on mobile where a large amount of digital activity is being siphoned off by and siloed into apps — and where access to apps can itself be gated and controlled by the mobile platform owner? Google famously kicked ABP off its Play Store, back in 2013, for instance. There’s a workaround of course, given Android is an open platform which allows for apps to be sideloaded, but mainstream users won’t find it, so unsurprisingly ABP usage on Android is very limited at this point. (“We’re practically invisible to the vast majority of mobile users,” is how ABP sums up the impact of being ejected from Google app playground.)

ABP has since launched an alternative browser for Android with its ad blocking tech integrated — which remains in beta, and is available on the Play Store. It has also previously put out an extension for Firefox on Android. So it’s trying various approaches to establish a presence on Google’s mobile platform, although challenges remain — from simply reaching users and getting them to use its alternative browser, to performance issues on mobile, and specific technical difficulties in blocking ads over a mobile signal vs wi-fi. “If you have a non-rooted device, like most people do, then you’re only blocking on wi-fi,” explains Williams. “It’s just a different way that the ad is sent… Increasingly more ads are being served HTTPS… so it’s hard to block those without breaking a site.” (Mobile carriers are also apparently eyeing up cellular-network-level ad blocking as an opt-in service to lure subscribers.)

Perhaps even more importantly for ABP, the core premise of its business model — i.e. the notion that some ads are acceptable — looks problematic on mobile too. Here screen real estate is often highly constrained (vs the desktop), and users might want to see no extraneous content at all — especially if they are paying for mobile data. Add to that, its acceptable ads concept seems especially problematic when you consider apps — which are typically highly tightly focused on one task, and designed to work hand in glove with the hardware. So what might an acceptable ad look like here? At this point the concept really does start to sound like an oxymoron.

“On mobile, it’s hard to find, really at this point for me, what an acceptable ad on an app would be,” admits Williams. “This is all theoretical. We don’t have in-app acceptable ads right now. We’d like to develop them of course. I saw this really cool example in Russia where you get on the Moscow Metro and as you sign onto the wi-fi on the metro you have an ad on the sign-in. But then once you’re passed the sign-in then you can actually surf basically ad free. So that would be effective.

“I think the thing you have to take into an account with an app, is that every app has a functionality — so if you’re being intrusive on an app, as opposed to a browser, you’re basically limiting that functionality… We have to look at it a little differently, because of the real estate issue and also because of the functionality that apps have. They’ve very keyed into doing one thing.”

“We haven’t developed any sort of criteria for [acceptable] in-app ads,” he adds. “We’re jumping into new frontiers here… They would be really difficult too because it would depend on the app, because it would depend on the functionality of the app… It would be impossible to scale. Maybe there’s no way to have acceptable ads on mobile. Or maybe there only is on a couple of very popular apps. Again this is uncharted territory right now.”

One interesting recent development in the mobile content-blocking space is Apple’s forthcoming iOS 9 update looks set to brings users of Cupertino’s mobile platform more options for content blocking as it furnishes developers with a web content blocker tool that can be used to pervasively block content via Safari on iOS (although it does not look like it applies to blocking in-app content at this stage).

It remains to be seen what Apple’s opening up of blocking tools for its mobile browser will mean specifically for ABP’s business. Williams says it’s planning to launch an Adblock Plus browser for iOS in “early fall/late summer”, although the company has blogged about concerns over Apple’s different implementation of content blocking and how it might affect its own (different) approach. “We’re not sure if we’ll be forced to rely upon their content blocking rules and if those will be as good as the ones we currently have which are pretty good,” he adds. “Of course we’re hoping it paves the way to in-app ad blocking on iOS 9. But that’s something that only Apple can answer at this point… We prefer not to rely on waiting on what these rules might be because we already saw a way that we could develop an Adblock browser for iOS and we just started to do so.”

He also notes that Safari mobile currently doesn’t allow extensions — which cuts off another potential route to market for ABP on iOS. Hence its decision to go with the ad-blocking browser approach at this point.

Despite the lack of Safari mobile extensions, Apple looks to be encouraging developers to build all sorts of content blockers into the iOS browsing experience to offer users more control and choice. Implementing content blocking on iOS is potentially a way for Apple to put more clear blue water between its mobile platform and Google’s (Apple’s CEO took some implicit swipes at Android on privacy grounds in a recent public speech, for instance). And something that Williams sees as good for ABP — given, presumably, the extra attention it will bring to ad blocking (and ad blockers) in general. As well as the fact Apple is lighting a clear path for content-blocking on iOS. “We hope… it’ll be a really effective solution that will pave the way to great content blocking on iOS,” he adds.

He also remains hopeful that app-level ad blocking will be possible on iOS in future — albeit, figuring out what an acceptable in-app ad might be is still a question mark for ABP.

“We certainly think we’ll be able to give users complete in-app ad blocking as well, at some point, and certainly the signs that Apple has shown are encouraging — we don’t know exactly what they will mean, but they’re encouraging at the very least that this day is going to come because I think that the user demand for in-app ad blocking is going to be there,” he says.

“It could go very quickly,” he adds, discussing what an acceptable in-app ad might look like. “We developed these [desktop ad] criteria over several months and they just jumped into the public eye very quickly. So I feel like if the development came and we were able to block ads in-app then there would be another cry from developers and from advertisers to say ‘hey, there’s some stuff out there that may be good. We should develop something together’. So I think it could move very quickly.”

Ultimately though, the ABP business model may end up evolving to meet mobile’s more bounded landscape, as Williams says he believes reducing mobile data consumption will be the “big selling point” for ad blocking or content blocking on in-app content on mobile. “This may mean that having acceptable ads is something we don’t have to think about quite so much because consumers are just very interested in having some sort of a content blocker,” he adds.

Why does he think Apple is offering a content blocking tool for iOS now? “It could have been user demand, it could have been developer demand, there’s any number of speculative reasons you could come up with,” he says. “If you compare the Play Store and the App Store one is much more dependent on advertising than the other. So [Apple] would be the ones who would make a move like [in-app ad blocking].

“And even in the store, if you’re a developer developing in Play you’re much more reliant on advertising than if you’re in the App Store which a lot of it is the premium/freemium model — so you’re actually getting paid for that so ads aren’t as important.”

Whatever’s on Apple’s mind exactly, giving users more control over the stuff they are able to see and unsee inside its walled garden by enabling developers to build content blocking extensions for iOS apps, and doing it in a way that does not require users to hand over preference data to third parties, is a welcome development. And another sign that Apple is pushing privacy as a defining driver for its business.

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