Firms help websites evade ad blockers
To hear David Mendels tell it, advertisements are the Brussels sprouts of the Internet — they're good for you, even if you can't stomach them. So Mendels, chief executive of Boston Internet video company Brightcove Inc., plans to make you watch more online ads, whether you like them or not.
Brightcove is among several companies that are helping digital publishers and their advertisers defeat software that hides ads on Internet sites. Programs like Adblock Plus and Purity are popular with millions around the world. But they are a nightmare for Internet sites that depend on advertising revenue to survive.
How bad a nightmare? Data are hard to come by. Pagefair Ltd., an Irish company that makes a service to fight ad blockers, says that blocking will cost online publishers $22 billion worldwide in lost revenue this year, but this estimate has been widely criticized as implausibly high. Still, there is no dispute that online publishers are worried, and many are fighting back.
For instance, the Washington Post has begun testing a system that locks out visitors who block advertisements.
"In the long run," said Post spokeswoman Jennifer Lee in an e-mail, "without income via subscriptions or advertising, we won't be able to deliver the journalism that people coming to our site expect from us."
Meanwhile, Internet video streaming service Hulu and the website of television network CBS both require users to switch off ad blockers and let the commercials play, if they want to watch the shows.
But these efforts probably won't dent the popularity of ad blockers. A recent survey from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism found that 47 percent of Americans use them. And that number is likely to soar, now that the newest software for Apple Inc.'s iPhone allows users to run ad-blocking software in the phone's browser. This could result in blocked ads on hundreds of millions of iPhones.
"That's a disaster, and not just for individual publishers who are going to lose money," said Mendels. "It's a bad thing for society," because millions will lose access to vital news and information services if ad-supported sites are driven out of business.
So Brightcove's new service will deliver video ads to consumers, even if they're running an ad blocker. "We inject the ad into the video before it even gets to the page, so the ad blocker can't block it," said Mendels. "We're not blocking the ad blocker; we're just avoiding it." He claimed that one unidentified customer saw ad revenues rise 50 percent after signing up for the Brightcove service. (The Boston Globe uses the Brightcove system on its website.)
Meanwhile, in Waltham a company called Yottaa Inc. is rolling out a service to display ad banners and sidebars in Web browsers even when they've been blocked. "Our goal is to allow our customers to preserve their revenue stream, while giving viewers the content they came for," said Ari Weil, Yottaa's vice president of product strategy.
What's next, software to block the software that blocks the ad blocking software?
Mark Addison, a spokesman for Adblock Plus, says he hopes not. "We don't want an arms race," Addison said. "We consider ourselves representing the will of the people. We're a tool that people use to make advertisers behave."
Besides, he added, a company isn't likely to win a new customer by forcing its ads onto his computer. "Are we really expecting that guy to click on the ads now?" Addison asked.
Whatever the tension between the ad blockers and the anti-blockers, both sides are remarkably unified on one point: They dislike much of the advertising found online.
"In the desire to make websites more profitable," said Mendels, "people have added more and more and more advertising, and a lot of that's been very irritating advertising."
Weil was even more blunt. "I like ad blockers for the same reason everybody does," said Weil. "Because I hate ads that ruin my experience."
Even Scott Cunningham, senior vice president of technology for the Interactive Advertising Bureau in New York, a business organization that develops industry standards, admitted that his industry's bad habits created the demand for ad blockers.
"We've put too much stuff into these ads and it's slowing down consumers' devices and creating unpleasant user experiences," Cunningham said.
Cunningham, Weil, and Mendels agree that the solution is better online advertising. Ads should be tasteful and attractive, but they should also be designed to use as little Internet bandwidth as possible, and to display on screen in ways that don't interfere with the main content on the page.
Weil's system doesn't just resurrect blocked ads. It also attempts to display them as painlessly as possible. "We control the sequence of what gets loaded onto the page," he said. If someone visits a newspaper website that uses Yottaa, the story on the page gets top priority. It's fully displayed before any of the ads appear. And loading the ads won't make the story flicker or shift on screen, an annoying glitch found on many ad-supported sites.
Internet ads could have been designed this way all along, but many advertisers didn't bother. So the Interactive Advertising Bureau is now tightening its standards. For instance, ads should be designed to load more quickly, with less disruption to the page. Users should have the option to refuse tracking cookies that some regard as a violation of privacy. And advertisers should avoid audio content that starts playing without the user's consent.
These are guidelines, and there's no guarantee that advertisers will follow them. But the threat of being blocked is a strong incentive to comply.
Meanwhile, Adblock Plus has developed a controversial policy of allowing some ads to get through, if they meet the company's "acceptable ads" standards. A number of major companies have paid Adblock Plus to have their ads declared acceptable, causing some critics to accuse the company of extortion. Adblock Plus replies that only large companies must pay to be added to the company's whitelist. Smaller firms need only promise to comply with the company's standards.
Tom Davenport, professor of information technology and management at Babson College in Wellesley, predicted that the contest between ad blockers and their foes will sort itself out in time. Davenport recalled dire predictions of doom in 1999 when TiVo Inc. introduced ad-skipping digital TV recorders.
"Television seems to have survived perfectly well," he said, "and I think we'll see similar things on the Internet."