Vicious cycle boosts use of browser-based ad blockers

23% of browsers run ad-blocking add-ons that threaten some sites' survival

Nearly one in four browsers are armed with an ad-blocking tool, reducing revenue at free-content websites, an Irish company said today.

The popularity of ad blocking -- driven by users' frustrations with intrusive, distracting or just-plain-ugly-and-noisy ads -- threatens the free-for-all model of the Internet, said PageFair, a company that's helping content publishers audit the problem and try to stem some of the bloodletting.

"It's a vicious cycle," said Neil O'Connor, CEO of Dublin-based PageFair. "Ads are becoming more aggressive to capture eyeballs, but that forces more people to install ad-blocking software. It's a lose-lose situation."

But without ads and the revenue they generate, most content publishers cannot sustain operations. Sans ad revenue, the only options are to charge for access -- the path taken by publishers like the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times -- or fold the tent.

[Note: IDG websites, like the vast majority of content creators, relies on ad revenue.]

PageFair mined its data from the past 11 months and found some surprising nuggets about ad blocking.

"We started this because we were a publisher ourselves, in the game space," said O'Connor. "We wanted to know how many of our users were dropping out by installing ad blockers, and thought it was maybe as high as 10%. But we found that 30% were blocking our ads. That was shocking to us."

On average, 22.7% of the users who browsed to the several hundred sites monitored by PageFair since September 2012 used an ad blocker, but the range was very wide, from just 1.5% to 65%.

The more technically savvy a site's audience, the more likely they will block ads, said O'Connor. Game-related websites, for instance, deal with an average ad-blocking rate of 30%, the highest of any category. More mainstream websites, however, have a lower percentage of ad-blockers: The average for travel sites is around 5%.

"The severity of ad blocking on a given site is positively correlated to the technical ability of its audience," said O'Connor in a report PageFair published Wednesday ( download PDF).

That's because browser ad blocking relies on add-ons, which not all users are comfortable installing, or even know exist. AdBlock Plus, which offers add-ons for Chrome, Firefox, Safari, Opera, and most recently, Internet Explorer, is the best known.

Firefox users block ads more than those running any other browser, said O'Connor, perhaps because the Mozilla browser has long trumpeted its add-on ecosystem. Also, AdBlock Plus has supported Firefox the longest of any browser.

According to PageFair's data, 37% of Firefox users block ads. Google's Chrome took second place with a 30% blocking rate. IE's rate was miniscule, under 1%.

Corroborating PageFair's numbers is difficult. A May 2012 analysis ( download PDF) by ClarityRay, which like PageFair works with companies to counter ad blocking, pegged the percentage of browsers running blockers at 9.3%. But the two companies agreed on many points, including Firefox users' greater interest in ad blockers and technical sites' increased likelihood of being blocked.

Ad blocking is becoming more popular, O'Connor contended. Of the 38 sites for which PageFair has the most data, the annual growth rate was 43%, meaning a site that saw 10% of its visitors using blocking tools one year could expect that number to climb to 14.3% the next.

And appealing to users to not block a site they patronize has proved futile. PageFair offers site owners tools that make such appeals, reminding customers that the site depends on advertising to survive. The efforts have been disappointing.

"It's as if people don't care," said O'Connor. "Even for those who visited a site every day, only 3% to 4% would turn off ad blocking for that site. And those were smaller sites. For bigger publishers, it's even more difficult."

So what's the answer for sites struggling to deal with ad blocking?

"They have to rethink how they advertise," O'Connor said. "Rather than just chasing the click, they need to really engage customers in the advertising."

One way to prevent even more users from adopting ad blockers, said O'Connor, is to ditch the most intrusive and annoying ads -- especially ones that use distracting animations and sounds -- and rely on more discrete text-based ads.

The fact is, however, that display ads, which do not restrict themselves to text, are most sites' most effective advertising.

Some companies have taken to working with ad blocker makers -- AdBlock Plus in particular -- rather than fight the tide. Earlier this year, reports claimed Google had paid AdBlock Plus to get on the latter's "white list" as an acceptable advertiser. AdBlock Plus kicked off an acceptable ads program late in 2011, and does require large advertisers to pay to be on the list.

AdBlock Plus dismissed the claims, saying in a blog-based response that "you cannot 'buy' your way into the stack."

O'Connor said in lieu of a Google-like effort to get on AdBlock Plus' whitelist, he recommended that sites "put in place much more acceptable forms of advertising," those that won't prompt users to turn to ad blockers in the first place.

PageFair is working on a platform that will help site publishers do just that, perhaps with a two-tier system of ads, one acceptable to ad blockers like AdBlock Plus, another more aggressive, then ask users to opt in to one or the other.

"But short term, for some sites, it's already too big a problem," said O'Connor, again citing gaming sites as an example. "For them, they don't have time to wait for online advertising to adapt."

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed. His email address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

See more by Gregg Keizer on Computerworld.com.

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