5 min read

Kicked into overdrive by Apple’s iOS9 infamously coming with adblocking options for Safari, the content creators of the Internet have woken up to the serious challenge of ad-blocking tech. The AdBlock+ Chrome extension boasts over 50 million active users. I’m one of them. I’m willing to bet that you might be one too. AdBlock use is rising massively and globally and shows no sign of slowing down.

Commentators have blamed the web-reading public, have declared web publishers have brought this on themselves and even made worryingly convincing arguments that adblocking is a conspiracy by corporate supergiants to kill the web as we know it. They all agree on one point though – the way we present and consume web content is going to have to evolve or die. So how might adblocking change the web?

We All Go Native

One of the most proposed and most popular solutions to the adblocking crisis is to embrace “native” advertising. Similar to sponsorship or product placement in other media, native advertising interweaves its sponsor into the body of the content piece. By doing so, an advert is made immune to the traditional scripts and methods that identify and block net ads.

This might be a thank you note to a sponsor at the end of a blog, an ‘advertorial’ upsell of a product or service, or corporate content marketing where a company produces and promotes their own content in a bid to garner your attention for their paid products. (Just like this blog. I’m afraid it’s content marketing. Would you like to buy a quality tech eBook? How about the Web Developer’s Reference guide – your Bible for everything you need to know about web dev! Help keep this Millennial creative in a Netflix account and pop culture tee-shirts.)

The Inevitable Downsides

Turns out nobody wants to read sponsored content – only 24% of readers scroll down on a native ad. A 2014 survey by Contently revealed two-thirds of respondents saying they felt deceived by sponsored advertising.

We may see this changing. As the practice becomes more mainstream, readers come to realize it does not impact on quality or journalistic integrity. But it’s a worrying set of statistics for anyone who hoped direct advertising might save them from the scourge of adblock.

The Great App Exodus

There’s a increasingly popular prediction that adblocking may lead to a great exodus of content from browser-based websites to exist more and more in a scattered app-based ecosystem.

We can already see the start of this movement. Every major content site bugs you to download its dedicated app, where ads can live free of fear. If you consume most of your mobile media through Snapchat Discover channels, through Facebook mobile sharing, or even through IM services like Telegram, you’ll be reading your web content in that apps dedicated built-in reader. That reader is, of course, free of adblocking extensions.

The Inevitable Downsides

The issue here is one of corporate monopoly. Some journalists have criticized Facebook Instant (the tech which has Facebook host articles from popular news sites for increased load times) for giving Facebook too much power over the news business. Vox’s Matthew Yglesias’s predicts restructuring where “instead of digital media brands being companies that build websites, they will operate more like television studios — bringing together teams that collaborate on the creation of content, which is then distributed through diverse channels that are not themselves controlled by the studio.” The control that these platforms could exert raises troubling concerns for the future of the Internet as a bastion of free and public speech.

User Experience with Added Guilt

Alongside adding advertising <script> tags, web developers are increasingly creating sites that detect if you’re using AdBlocking software and punishing you accordingly. This can take many forms – from a simple plea to be put on your whitelist in order to keep the servers running, to the cruel and inhuman:

Some sites are going as far as actively blocking content for users using adblockers. Trying accessing an article on the likes of Forbes or CityAM with an adblocker turned on. You’ll find yourself greeted with an officious note and a scrambled page that refuses to show you the goods unless you switch off the blocker.

The Inevitable Downsides

No website wants to be in a position where it has to beg or bully their visitors. Whilst your committed readers might be happy to whitelist your URL, antagonizing new users is a surefire way to get them to bounce from the site.

Sadly, sabotaging their own sites for ad blocking visitors might be one of the most effective ways for ‘traditional’ web content providers to survive. After all, most users block ads in order to improve their browsing experience. If the UX of a site on the whitelist is vastly superior to the UX under adblock, it might end up being more pleasant to browse with the extension off.

An Uneasy Truce between Adblockers and Content

In many ways adblocking was a war that web adverts started. From the pop-up to the autoplaying video, web ad software has been built to be aggressive. The response of adblockers is an indiscriminate and all-or-nothing approach. As Marco Arment, creator of the Peace adblocking app, notes “Today’s web readers [are so] fed up that they disable all ads, or even all Javascript. Web developers and standards bodies couldn’t be more out of touch with this issue, racing ahead to give browsers and Javascript even more capabilities without adequately addressing the fundamental problems that will drive many people to disable huge chunks of their browser’s functionality.”

Both sides need to learn to trust one another again. The AdBlock+ Chrome extension now comes with an automatic whitelist of sites; ‘guilt’ website UX works to remind us that a few banner ads might be the vital price we pay to keep our favorite mid-sized content site free and accessible. If content providers work to restore sanity to the web on their ends, then our need for adblocking software as users will diminish accordingly. It’s a complex balance that will need a lot of good will from both ‘sides’ – but if we’re going to save the web as we know it, then a truce might be necessary.

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