Web Publishers Escalate Arms Race With Ad Blockers

167754154_c20122523f_bIf there's one thing that some web publishers hate more than trolls, it's people who use ad blocking plugins. These plugins may be legal but web publishers aren't happy. Some are suing or threatening to sue, while others are taking a more direct approach.

Remember a few years ago when Ars Technica briefly blocked all visitors who were using ad blocking plugins? That was intended more to make a point than to punish visitors, but some web publishers are taking it seriously.

They're following in Ars' footsteps both in developing their own tech and in partnering with companies like Sourcepoint, a company that has developed a platform that either blocks users that have ad-blocking plugins, or tries to get around the plugins and show ads anyway.

Digiday reported back in February a couple UK tv broadcasters are fighting ad-blockers on their website:

ITV, the U.K.’s top broadcaster, for example, thwarts ad-blocking-software users by completely preventing them from watching its content. Those using ad blockers are politely, but firmly, turned away. The approach is best described as tough love.

“We think you may have software installed that’s blocking the adverts on ITV Players,” reads a message on the site presented to ad blockers. “We understand you may not always want the ads, but that’s how we make money that pays for the shows you love.”

The UK's Channel 4 has taken a similar tact for its own visitors, and there's also a rumor that Axel Springer (in Germany) has a similar system in the works (I can't confirm that).

8322572581_dbee741bf9_kNot all sites want to go to the extreme of blocking the freeloaders, but they might be interested in companies like Sourcepoint. Business Insider reported earlier this week that this startup had raised $10 million with the goal of offering a solution to the ad blocking problem:

Speaking to Business Insider, Barokas explained that to solve the existential crisis ad blockers pose to publishers, Sourcepoint wants to help the publishing community solve two problems: It has the technology to punch through "all the ad blockers."

And it wants to help publishers have a more open dialog with readers about the transaction that takes place when they consume content: The implicit (but often over-looked) understanding that publishers serve ads in exchange for content being presented for free. And that a transaction needs to take place in the first place because content requires investment.

As a web publisher myself, I can see why others might choose to block the ad block users or hire Sourcepoint.

I'm losing about 10% to 15% of page views to ad blockers, even though I don't have horribly ugly adverts like The Washington Post or The Next Web. I know this because I can see the difference between the number of ads that Amazon and other ad networks say being served vs the total number of page views (as reported by analytics plugins).

Even though I know I'm losing ad revenue, I don't plan to respond with hostility. A smarter move would be to adapt my business model.

For example, I could follow Liliputing and Techdirt and do a sales links post for the affiliate revenue. Book Riot, with its t-shirt sales and quarterly fun box, would be another site worth emulating. Or I could follow GigaOm over to the dark side and sell posts as native advertising (my opinion: fuck no).

And then there are the sites whose solution is way outside the realm of what I might carry out: Pando Daily, Techcrunch, and DBW. All 3 run conferences (so did GigaOm and PaidContent, when they were still around).

My point, folks, is that there are other solutions to the advertising problem than simply fighting with visitors or engaging in an arms race with the ad blocking companies.

And if ads are really such a failed concept that web publishers can't get visitors to watch them, then it is past time to look at those other solutions.

images by KJGarbuttRichard Masonerepicharmus

About Nate Hoffelder (11467 Articles)
Nate Hoffelder is the founder and editor of The Digital Reader: "I've been into reading ebooks since forever, but I only got my first ereader in July 2007. Everything quickly spiraled out of control from there. Before I started this blog in January 2010 I covered ebooks, ebook readers, and digital publishing for about 2 years as a part of MobileRead Forums. It's a great community, and being a member is a joy. But I thought I could make something out of how I covered the news for MobileRead, so I started this blog."

25 Comments on Web Publishers Escalate Arms Race With Ad Blockers

  1. I live in a retirement home and we have a rather old Vista computer in our recreation area. It’s old and slow and balky and our internet connection is slow. In the past year it’s gotten nearly impossible to browse with it. The browser locks up for a minute or two and sometimes for much longer, every few minutes.

    In desperation I installed an ad blocker on it and now it’s just fine again. Some sites still get to it but for the most part it works really well. Better than it did years ago.

    If websites want to stop ad blockers I suggest they be more responsible with their ads.

    I’m typing this from my apartment where I have a kind of fast connection and a fairly fast laptop. I also had to add an ad blocker here. It wasn’t nearly as bad as at the recreation room but it got painful at times. And, for what it’s worth, your site, which I visit several times a day, was one of the problem sites both here and at the rec room. Many others were much worse but this wasn’t one of the better ones.

    I don’t like ads but that isn’t why I installed the ad blocker. It was out of necessity. But now I’m used to not seeing so many of them and I’m not going back even if sites start being more responsible. You guys (websites) are cutting your own throats and blaming us.


    • I do understand why you block ads; that’s one of my reasons as well. There are sites that make my blog look like a piker.

      So when did you start blocking me, may I ask?

      Last July I cleaned up the blog in order to speed it up. I’m curious to see whether that may have improved things enough.

      • I’m not specifically blocking you. I installed Adblock sometimes last year. I’m not sure if it was before July or not. I didn’t go into the settings. I just left everything at default so maybe that’ll tell me if you’re blocked.

        I do remember that yours was one of the problem sites. Maybe not the worst from your point of view but it’s one of those I check most so from my point of view it was pretty bad. I don’t think yours was the one that caused me to try Adblock but I’m not sure. I really don’t remember now. It was probably a more general problem.

        I installed Adblock on the recreation room’s computer about 2 or 3 weeks ago. I have links on the browser there for sites I visit regularly including the popular ebook blogs and Lilliputing and a couple of other tablet blogs. It was becoming unusable. Again I don’t know the ranking of the sites in terms of badness but yours was one I checked most and I’m sure it was having problems. If it hadn’t been I probably would have noticed that. That’s a kind of extreme situation since it’s an old slow computer with very little RAM and a slow connection.

        I have an Asus 2 in one that doesn’t have Adblock installed and I’ll give your site a try on it next time I use it and let you know. Today or more likely tomorrow.

        I’m not going to remove Adblock from this computer. It makes life much easier. Honestly I think you guys need to find a way to set limits on your ads. I’m not sure how much control over that you have but I suspect if you don’t you’ll be in trouble in the long run.

        I enjoy your site, which is why I keep checking it. Sometimes you guys drive me nuts. Other times you do good stuff. That makes for a good mix. You’re better than most. You’re at the top of my ebook blog list. And now that I’ve gotten rid of the ads your site works very nicely. If Adblock costs you money I’m sorry. If you and the rest can find a way to keep ads from getting in the way I might consider removing it but my guess is you can’t. So if you’re running a charity and I’m the beneficiary I thank you. You can at least have the satisfaction of knowing you’re doing it well. 🙂


  2. The problem is that even if your site doesn’t have “horribly ugly adverts” (or worse yet outright scams disguised as advertisements) other sites do. And once I install an adblocker because of those sites I’m not going to take the time to unblock the “good” sites.

    • To put it another way, the well is poisoned by all the bad actors. This by itself is a good reason for sites to stop fighting over advertising and look for a new business model.

  3. Ads are the #1 way that malware gets installed.

    • That’s why I use an adblocker – one site I regularly visited got poisoned banner ads and a bunch of folks’ computers got infected.

      Not going to go back. You can’t guarantee that your ads don’t contain malware (no one can). Better safe than sorry.

      I don’t think that makes me a bad person. 🙂

  4. Put you in my exceptions for AdBlock Plus. Hoping there won’t be Flash. 🙂

  5. I just went into Adblock and found out how to unblock this site, which I’ve done. I’ll keep it that way until I have a reason not to. I’ve just done it so I can’t say yet if it changed anything.


  6. Sturmund Drang // 19 June, 2015 at 6:58 pm // Reply

    I really appreciated both of Barry’s posts.

    Nate, I’m not happy that my installation of NoScript is stopping you from making a few microcents on my visit, but it’s either that or I don’t visit. I have no problems with never visiting Engadget, or Forbes, or liliputing, or TechCrunch. I’m not going to have my computer damaged by the ads that are on more sites than not. I wish there were another way. I wish I could visit five paid links a night to funnel a little money your way. But I’ll never again open my computer to the dangerous, obnoxious, and misleading ads that have proliferated. I’m truly sorry it has to be like this.

  7. Artem Russakovskii // 19 June, 2015 at 7:41 pm // Reply

    “Or I could follow Android Police over to the dark side and sell posts as native advertising (my opinion: fuck no).”

    Whoa whoa whoa. First of all, thanks for the mention. But I have to vehemently disagree with how you wrote it and the horrible impression this must give to those unfamiliar with how we do our (relatively rare) sponsored posts.

    Unlike many sites out there, we *insist* on clearly identifying each sponsored post in the title. Not a brief mention somewhere but in the title. So it’s immediately clear even on social networks that it’s sponsored.

    If you don’t see a mention of a sponsored post, that post is not sponsored.

    Oftentimes, we even go as far as including a blurb at the end of the post that explains once again that you just read a sponsored post. The author is A Word From Our Sponsor.

    Finally, these posts are marked as noindex so as to not ever have them show up in search engines and potentially mislead people.

    Most urls (there are very few exceptions) are also nofollow.

    I totally feel the pain on the publisher side that you’re taking about, but you have to understand that our staff isn’t one person, it’s over a dozen, and bills run almost $30k a month. With the recent huge drops in ad rates and rise in ad block usage, we’re barely breaking even right now.

  8. I agree that the well has been well and truly poisoned. I have used an ad-blocker for years. For me Ad’s first became a problem with the advent of large flash ads and intrusive flashing ad banners and pages totally full of ads. Another special hate is sites that break short articles into 9 or 10 pages chock full of ads. Or the endless pop-ups that obscure pages. Sites make some revenue, yes. On the other hand, the worst ads consume large amounts of bandwidth and resources, and would probably cost me more than the site gets. And, of course, this is quite apart from virus and malware issues. In earlier days I did not object to some unobtrusive ads. After all, ads are virtually the only way for most content providers on the web to make any revenue at all. But the horse has unfortunately bolted. And make no mistake. An arms race between ad-blocker hackers and companies like Sourcepoint won’t have the results that advertisers want. Perhaps some guidelines for responsible ads and an option on ad-blockers for people to easily exempt these responsible ads may hold some promise. Then again, even if this worked to some extent, how long before the less responsible advertisers abuse this. Perhaps time for a good micro-payments system.

  9. Have you considered a weekly sponsor model like Daring Fireball or Six Colors? They service a pretty upscale fanbase, but it seems to me this site is pretty special too.

    Daring Fireball charges: $9,500 for a one week sponsorship and only takes one a week. Six Colors just got started on a similar business model and while it’s presumably charging a lot less, the creator of it says he’s doing well.

  10. Vikarti Anatra // 20 June, 2015 at 2:47 am // Reply

    Adblock Plus has acceptable ads program, for ads which don’t annoy most users, see https://adblockplus.org/acceptable-ads#application

  11. I don’t use an ad blocker.
    But more and more advertising on sites and in videos is becoming invasive.
    I am definitely NOT talking about is site.
    Some sites take for ever to load, crash the browser, open windows.
    In videos I am forced to watch the same ad over and over and often 15 second clips are prefaced by 30 seconds ads.

  12. I have to agree with the preponderance of comments above. I don’t mind ads, and I understand the importance of self-funding blogs etc. through advertising, but ads have become so obnoxious and intrusive and bandwidth hogs with loud video and flash crap, that if you live in a rural area, as I do where internet speeds are already slow, adblocking is critical to prevent internet crawl. I DO pay for sites I like and want to read, but the content has to be really good. Currently I have subscriptions to about 7 sites. I suspect that those sites who employ software to block users with Adblocks will simply find their traffic dwindling considerably. And that’s good, because most of those sites have little or no serious content.

  13. If site publishers push this through, then can people sue them if their systems get infected by various forms of malware, since the ads would be the likely vector?

    • I would expect so, and i’m actually not joking.

      As I was writing that article last night I got to thinking about where this arms race would end up. If ad blockers get better and the bypass tricks get more sophisticated, by the time this goes through another few rounds of move counter-move the ad blocking plugins will move into the realm of computer security. I wouldn’t be surprised if ad blocking started being regarded as just another firewall feature, with McAfee, norton, et al bundling it into their security software.

      • I also wasn’t joking. I suspect that they’d be liable for damages the way a bank would be if they forced customers to walk through a hallway full of exposed power lines and swinging blades to get to the ATM.

        And given that ZoneAlarm used to include a banner blocking function… I can see them incorporating those extra features in the name of malware protection b

  14. After I finished this post yesterday afternoon, something crossed my desk that added a new dimension to this story.

    I might take a nonchalant attitude to ad blocking but not all publishers agree. PC Magazine weighed in the new ad-blocking parts of iOS 9. They think it’s a terrible change which will hurt publishers.

    I think they misunderstood the purpose of the new options (see Baldur Bjarnason for a post on why this has to do with blocking scripts that track you and not ad blocking), but more importantly PC magazine is unironically objecting to ad blocking while standing as a perfect example of a site which is unreadable without an ad blocking plugin.

    As has been pointed out on twitter, the PC Magazine website is virtually unusable on an iPhone. It’s nearly as unusable in Safari on a Mac.

    That site is an example of why I use an ad blocker, and the same goes for many other users.

  15. I’ve been too lazy to seek out an ad-blocker, BUT when my load times seemed to be going up, I disabled Flash in my browser. I noticed an immediate decrease in load time on many pages, so it feels like a win. I’m wondering – does this impact * your* bottom line the same way an ad blocker would?

    I don’t really mind static ads, but I DO mind ads that start talking (whether video or audio) before I can even find them on the page. I don’t want a video to start automatically when my significant other is asleep or when I’m at my desk at work. Disabling Flash has helped so much in this area.

    One thing that I find interesting about ads nowadays is that when I do click on an ad, they want my email or facebook account before I can access their pages. So basically, I can’t find out WHAT they are selling without giving up personal information. Generally, I feel they haven’t earned the rights to my info, when I don’t have access to learning about their products or pricing. So basically, my following a link was a waste of time. Just curious, but do you know if websites that carry the advertising link get paid when I follow a link then decide that I don’t want to give my email or facebook login?

    • I don’t know. I know Flash is used in a lot of sites (still), but I don’t know if disabling it impacts ads.

      And yes, I’ve had trouble with Flash myself. There was a point where it was making Gmail hang (seriously) so I can see why disabling it would improve things.

  16. The advertising isn’t a problem, and if it was just that, I wouldn’t be blocking (mainly through my hosts file and noscript). No, it’s all the tracking and profiling and spread of malware (I’ve had infections so bad from ad networks that I’ve had to reinstall Windows 3 times so far to get rid of them – twice from DoubleClick after Google bought them) that comes with it.

    Don’t blame the people blocking, blame the advertisers for being unethical scum and/or being VERY lax about the security of their networks.

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