Ad Blocking: the war behind the scenes

The release of the latest version of Apple’s mobile operating system iOS9, has caused a major stir and some panic in the online media publishing and advertising industries. All due to Apple opening up extensions (in the form of apps) to block ads in web pages in their Safari browser for iPhone and iPad. In short, you can now buy apps which allow you to block out online ads from loading in your mobile browser. And boy have they been popular.

On the surface this seems like a big win for Apple mobile users. Block out having to see those annoying ads and improve privacy by disabling loading of the intrusive tracking code which follows you around the web and tries to work out which ads to serve to you. In turn this also means faster page loading times and less data being used on your mobile plan. Seems like a win win scenario but what are Apple’s real motives for allowing this and what are the ramifications.

Apple will tell you they want you to have a better user experience when surfing the web on their phones and that they care about your privacy. This might be true but in reality they just happen to be the outcomes of Apple’s primary motivation for doing this. One word. Google.

"This is about Apple trying to take a chunk out of Google’s advertising revenue and control the way online advertising dollars are spent moving forward."

Google are the biggest provider of ads on the web. They own Double Click for Publishers (DFP) which serves up the vast majority of ads you see on websites today. It’s a major slice of Google’s revenue. Apple is trying to kill it.

This war has been heating up for awhile now. Over the years, you could say Apple and Google have gone from being friends to sworn enemies after the release of Android. Apple CEO Tim Cook turned up the heat on Google earlier this year stating that "they’re gobbling up everything they can learn about you and trying to monetise it. We think that’s wrong. And it’s not the kind of company that Apple wants to be.”. But really, this is less about privacy and more about opposing revenue models with Apple trying to take a chunk out of Google’s advertising revenue and control the way online advertising dollars are spent moving forward.

The problem though is this. Most website content you read today for free is made possible by online advertising. If ad blocking keeps rising in popularity, online publishers are not going to be able to generate the revenue required to justify their existence and that means a lot of websites you love could cease to exist. The developer of Peace, the most popular iOS ad blocking app released and the number one app on the Apple app store, stopped selling the app after just one day. Why? They stated ‘it just doesn’t feel good’ as it hurts online publishers who don’t deserve to have their revenues eroded.

"Apple and Facebook are trying to shift advertising away from the open web to app platforms."

To prevent the death of online media publishing (and to expedite the death of Google), Apple and Facebook are trying to shift advertising away from the open web to app platforms. The release of iOS9 also saw the release of their new ‘News’ app, essentially an RSS news aggregator which displays the articles in a magazine style format very similar to Flipboard. What’s important to note here though is ads are not blocked. Indeed, Apple will take 30% of all ad revenues generated by serving them within the app.

This move is very similar to Facebook’s Instant Articles. In a nutshell, they urged online media publishers to not even bother posting content on their own websites, instead publishing directly to Facebook apps and sharing ad revenue with them. Apple’s ad blocking move will be welcomed by Facebook as it now makes Instant Articles an even more attractive proposition to the media publishers.

Now Google’s a huge, cashed up company employing  some of the smartest minds in tech. They could surely work out a way to serve ads which ad blockers are not able to intercept. However it might be too late for that now - it’s not really a tech issue anymore. Apple and Facebook are changing the conversation on how and where online ads should be served - moving from the open mobile web to the semi walled gardens of app platforms. It has Google playing catch-up. I’m sure they’ll be fine however the dominance they have enjoyed is beginning to erode.

"Why has ad blocking software become continually more popular and doesn’t that mean something is wrong with the way online advertising is being served?"

I think what’s most important to look at here though is not the war between Apple and Google or the business sustainability of online media - rather, it’s you and I, the consumer. Why has ad blocking software become continually more popular and doesn’t that mean something is wrong with the way online advertising is being served?

It’s not the online media publishers fault but online ads today simply deserve to be blocked. Ad blockers have become more popular because online ads have become continually more intrusive. It’s a painful experience on a mobile device to have pop-ups. page takeovers, auto playing videos and the like hampering your experience when you load a web page.

Apart from slowing down the loading of pages it’s just simply a terrible user experience. It’s gone too far. TV, radio and print advertising are tolerated because they have settled on a sweet spot that doesn’t kill the user experience. Imagine watching your favourite TV show and having an ad pop up covering the entire screen while you're in the middle of watching a climactic scene - that’s what online ads do the equivalent of. The way ads continually follow you around on the web for months just because you once visited their website appears to be pretty infantile tech in an age where we’re making great advances with artificial intelligence.

So here’s a challenge for Google, advertising agencies and online publishers (and believe me I do feel sorry for the latter). Get more creative around how ads are served. Come up with methods that consumers don’t mind viewing and they are less likely to block them. Make them blend in with the content better and appear at the most optimal time for the consumer.

Google - stop forcing us to sit through 30 second pre-roll ad videos before we get to watch the 15 second video highlight we wanted to watch. Advertising agencies - stop creating popup and takeover ads which prevent us from viewing the content we wish to see and have us accidentally clicking on the ad because we can’t work out how to close it. Online media companies - stop creating articles which contain ‘53 top reasons to [insert whatever]’ as a 60 image photo gallery just so you can load a new ad as we have to slowly click through each one with a few images which just are ads in between.

"I believe we will start to see increased adoption of native advertising through sponsored editorial articles and use of social media influencers."

I believe we will start to see increased adoption of native advertising (whereby the advertising appears as though it’s actual editorial content of the site displaying it) through sponsored editorial articles and use of social media influencers. Advertising through controlled app platforms such as Apple News, Instant Articles and Snapchat Discover will also rise and it will be interesting to see if anyone can dominate this the way Google used to. I also look forward to seeing what new online advertising methods appear - I just hope they’re not as horrible as what we see today.