The topic of ad blocking has been a hot one ever since Apple launched iOS 9, which allows developers to create ad blocking capabilities for the Safari browser (the default web browser installed on Apple’s mobile devices).
As a paid search executive, agency owner and a person who browses the web, I can understand all sides of the issue. On one hand, I’m completely against ad blocking software because I believe in the power and benefits of advertising. (Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer and I see eye to eye on this one.) To those who say advertising is not helpful, that’s simply not true — if it weren’t, it wouldn’t be so successful.
On the other hand, I can see why people use ad blocking software. All you have to do is try navigating a handful of popular websites on your mobile device to see that the user experience stinks. Want to read an article on Forbes from your tablet or look up a recipe on your smartphone at one of those big recipe sharing sites? Forget it.
To someone like me who makes a living on advertising and who also wants a good experience on the web, the solution is not so black-and-white but requires everyone who plays a role in advertising to come together with as much of a focus on user experience as monetization.
Ad Blocking Software: User Experience Vs. Monetization
Solutions to create a better user experience on the web as it relates to ads have been in motion, but some feel the intentions are backward. At the same time Apple came out with more ad blocking opportunities in iOS 9, it also unveiled Apple News, a content-curating app, which would allow advertisements for publishers that participated.
Publishers will be able to sell their own display ads within the app and keep 100 percent of the revenue. Apple says it will also sell ads itself directly within the app with its advertising platform iAd, and partners who wish to benefit from Apple’s salesmanship will keep 70% of the revenue.
In another scenario, ad blocking software AdBlock Plus has been a favorite for many over the years, but it allows a “white list” where advertisers can pay to avoid being blocked — and many have reportedly taken advantages, such as Google, Microsoft, and Amazon.
Google’s SVP of advertising and commerce, Sridhar Ramaswamy, said at an Advertising Week event that it was time for the industry to agree on advertising standards, arguing that there are certain sites that are to blame for bad advertising practices.
Yet what’s interesting is that Google has not cracked down on bad advertising practices as it relates to user experience with the same fervor as it has in the organic search results over the years.
I suppose the page layout, aka “top heavy,” algorithm worked to address the issue in some fashion, but only ended up negatively impacting sites from an organic search perspective.
So maybe this is also a wake-up call to Google in light of the potential ad revenue loss it is facing. While site owners self-regulating the user experience would always be the first choice, maybe Google will look to other regulations as a solution.
Who Is Responsible For What?
As Ramaswamy points out, it’s everyone — the publishers, the advertisers and the networks (and maybe the ad blockers). Everyone has something to lose.
It’s not just the advertisers who are responsible, and I think a lot of people recognize that. It’s the publishers (those sites that feature ads in a way that disrupts the user experience) that also need to be an active part of the solution.
In an article for Marketing Land, Jonathan Hochman discusses how the television industry has perfected the number of ads that are tolerable to the public and that those same principles should be applied to online practices:
A typical television show of 30 minutes has eight minutes of ads, about 25 percent. Over the decades, television networks have figured out how much advertising is tolerable, and they maintain a reasonable limit.
As a starting point for designing Web pages, it might be reasonable to limit ads and sponsored content to 25 percent of the page area. Publishers should look at their pages and consider, “Would I pay for my ad to be on this page?”
Magazine brands at one point had figured out just “how much” advertising worked for print, yet, unfortunately, many of those same brands haven’t been able to perfect how that model transfers online to their digital publications.
Since advertising dollars represent many online publishers’ livelihood (and ad blockers are estimated to represent $21 billion in losses this year), publishers have a real stake in finding the solution. (Many of them may find the solution in places like Apple News, which will ultimately take away users from the search results and further harm advertising networks, advertisers, and paid search agencies.)
Others have different ideas about who is responsible for what in all of this.
Scott Cunningham, general manager of the Interactive Advertising Bureau Technology Laboratory, recently called ad blocking software “highway robbery.” Speaking at the same press conference, CEO of JoyOfBaking.com Rich Jaworski said, “ad blockers have a business they’re trying to run. I don’t like their business. We have to try to remove that model.”
Those in the ad blocking space have responded in different ways. AdBlock Plus is assembling an independent board to take a deep dive into the issue of ad blocking and what ads are “acceptable.” And recently, ad blocker app Peace pulled itself off the market with its creator citing that “it just doesn’t feel good”:
Ad blockers come with an important asterisk: while they do benefit a ton of people in major ways, they also hurt some, including many who don’t deserve the hit.
Search Agencies & Professionals Factor
Paid search agencies and professionals can do their part in all of this, too. Aim to manage where your client’s ads are being placed, and if you think the ad placement is not relevant or provides no value, negate it.
Over the years, we’ve had some clients voice concern over display ads, and ads on YouTube specifically. These clients typically have a comfort level of how often and where their ads show up. We’ve been careful to avoid the annoyance factor by limiting daily ad frequency on our re-marketing and display campaigns, and we closely manage where our ads are placed.
It’s worth noting that our clients’ display ads are limited to the Google Ad Words Display Network, and we have been really happy with its targeting options. So choose your networks wisely.
The Solution: Quality Over Quantity?
A quality-over-quantity approach when it comes to displaying ads on a web page can address both the user experience and monetization goals if publishers perhaps sold less space but charged more for it.
As a paid search executive (and someone who browses the web), I’d gladly accept a higher rate of advertising to create a better user experience for potential customers (and I’m sure many of my client advertisers would, too).
A better user experience essentially benefits everyone — the advertisers, the publishers, and the advertising networks.
The biggest loser in this approach would likely be ad blockers that are monetizing their business model. Yet, there will likely always be those people who don’t want to see any ads at all, and ultimately, they should have that choice.
In this scenario, ad blockers could shine by coming up with quality standards, too, as Ad Block Plus is doing right now in order to establish which ads can and should get through.