Webmaster Publishers Fight Back Combating Anti-Tracker Adblockers

How The Top 50 Websites


Adblock has become a major problem. We lose over 15% of our revenue each year because of Combating Anti-Tracker AdBockers–and the impact is growing larger every month. We are now embarking on an effort to recover a portion of this lost revenue. To identify best practices, we conducted a study of the top 50 media websites, analyzing in detail how they combat adblock. What did we find? Remarkably, not a single top publisher is able to sidestep adblock and show standard ad units. However, many publishers take advantage of tactics to show non-standard units. Read more to find out how.

A Primer on Adblocker Prevalence

Let’s start with quick primer on the impact of adblock. Combating Anti-Tracker Adblockers work by blocking network requests to known ad serving domains and hiding parts of the page that show ads. When adblock blocks ads, publishers earn no ad revenue. Users install adblockers to eliminate obnoxious ads, protect their privacy, speed up the web, and save on bandwidth. Survey results suggest 89% of people who installed adblock did it to improve the user experience.

Combating Anti-Tracker Adblockers have grown at an astonishing rate, increasing from 20M users in 2009 to 200 million in 2015. From Q2 of 2014 to Q2 of 2015, they grew by 41%, adding more than 50 million new users.

‍Source: Pagefair and Adobe Report

In the US, adblock is loaded on approximately 12% of pageviews. Across Europe usage is even higher, reaching a whopping 30% of pageviews in France. The greatest uptake of adblock is among younger users and more affluent users. This variation by age, income, and geography means that Combating Anti-Tracker Adblockers can have a widely varying impact on publishers based on the demographics of the site. CBS Interactive reports that across their 20 properties, adblock usage ranges from 5% to 40% of traffic.

The most common adblocking plugins are Adblock Plus with 51% market share and Adblock with 38% market share. The adblock problem has historically been confined to desktop browsers where these plugins have been free and easy to install. On mobile, adblock usage in the US only amounted to 0.1% of pageviews in September of 2015. But that is about to change. With the introduction of iOS 9, Apple enabled adblocking apps in the app store. Within the first few days of the release of the operating system, 3 of the top 5 paid apps in the app store were Combating Anti-Tracker Adblockers. Hard data on the impact on publishers has yet to be released, but it’s clear that the use of Combating Anti-Tracker Adblockers is going to become more pervasive on mobile.

Data on the Top 50 Websites

We set out to learn more about how the top media properties on the web have responded to the rise of Combating Anti-Tracker Adblockers. We figured that many of these companies, given their size and dependence on ad revenue, have the most to lose when ads are blocked.

We started our study with the comScore Top 50 Digital Media Properties. For each property, we identified a URL that we thought would represent a typical ad page for the company. By way of example, for Google, we did a search for the term “mortgage”. For Yahoo, we clicked on an article featured on the homepage. In each case, we loaded the URL once with adblock disabled, and once with AdBlock Plus enabled. We then counted the ad units on the page under both scenarios. Ad units were classified into three categories:

  • Standard – these included traditional display ad units, AdSense ad units, and other standard units.
  • Articles – these included promoted or sponsored articles, often with a headline and an image.
  • Native – these included ads that matched the format of the content on the site, like a search result on Google, a tweet on Twitter, or a picture on Pinterest.

Here is an example of how we collected screenshots before and after using adblock.

CNET – Before Adblock -and– After Adblock

In our list, 11 of the properties, including sites like Wikipedia, Craigslist, and Netflix, didn’t earn money from ads, so we excluded them from the analysis. The resulting data represents the adblock strategies for 39 of the biggest sites on the Internet. We’ve made our raw data available if you’d like to take a look.

The Results: The Death of the Display Ad

Of the 39 sites analyzed, adblock succeeded in blocking every ad on more than half of the sites. For 18 websites, some form of an ad continued to show, even after adblock was installed.

The ad that remained was never a standard ad unit, however. No publisher–not a single one–had developed an approach to circumvent adblock’s network and page content blocking and show standard ads.

The results could sometimes be quite dramatic. Take a look at the before and after screenshots for SFGate.

SFGate – Before Adblock

SFGate – After Adblock

What Works: Article Ads

Article units were one of the few types of ad units that had some staying power when adblock was installed. Out of the 18 sites that showed article ads, 8 of them (44%) continued to show article ads even with adblock present.

The article ads were often provided by Taboola or Outbrain. Here is an example from USA Today.

USA Today – Before Adblock

USA Today – After Adblock

What Works: Native Ads

Native ads were, by far, the most successful ads in bypassing adblock. Of the 14 sites running native ads, 10 of them (71%) continued to show ads even with adblock present.

Native ads were most common on search engines and social networks. Below is an example from Bing, illustrating how adblock had no effect on the ads.

Bing – Before Adblock

Bing – After Adblock

The Secret to What Works: Pay the Piper

The prevalence of native ads and article ads, even with adblock installed, may not reflect a shortcoming of the adblocking software, but rather evidence of the ransom fee many large companies have paid to the maker of Adblock Plus to show ads. More than 700 companies, including Google, Microsoft, and Taboola have paid to have their ads whitelisted as part of an Acceptable Ads Program by Adblock plus. The full white list also includes publishers like Ehow.com, Abbreviations.com, and Reuters.com. Here’s an example of where the Reuters.com application to join the whitelist was under consideration. The management of this white list was recently handed over to a third party. Adding clout to the list, the second largest adblocker, Adblock recently announced they would begin using the whitelist, shortly after being purchased by an anonymous buyer. Many adblock users are fleeing Adblock Plus and Adblock, in favor of Ublock and Adguard, which have each grown to more than1 million users in less than a year, and have no acceptable ads list.

The Pay to Play Strategy

The most surprising aspect of the research may be what we didn’t find. We didn’t find a single site that communicated with their users about adblock. No site prevented access to their content. No site showed alternative content in the spots where ads formerly appeared. And no site asked their users to whitelist them within the adblocking software. The only pattern we were able to identify was that many sites paid adblock or used a network that paid adblock. We set out to learn how the largest publishers are fighting back against adblock. In short, they aren’t. They are paying adblock.

Bonus: Five Innovators

Given the feeble response to adblock among most large publishers, we set out to identify a few experiments that innovative sites are conducting. Here are a couple strategies that we’ve come across.

Aim to be Universally Whitelisted – Reuters.com

As mentioned above, Reuters has successfully included a few ad units on their site as part of the acceptable ads program.

Require Users to Take a Valuable Action to Read the Content –WashingtonPost.com

The Washington Post recently blocked access to its content unless users whitelisted them or subscribed to a newsletter. As of the writing of this article, however, we were not able to reproduce this test. The German newspaper site,Bild, recently block access for people with adblock as well.

Show the Content and Ask for Support – Atlantic.com

The Atlantic asks users to disable adblock, subscribe, or join their newsletter.

Self-host Commission-based Ads – RetailMeNot.com

The coupon and promo code site, RetailMeNot, continues to earn commissions for referrals to online retailers, even with adblock installed.

Ask Users to Pay – Guardian.com

The Guardian asks users to become paying supporters with a subtle bar at the bottom.

The jury is still out on whether these strategies work. Limited data on their effectiveness is available in the public domain. One tactic we’ve left off, whitelisting, does seem to have data available, however, and it looks to be ineffective. In an experiment across 140 websites, asking people to whitelist the site, the uptake was less than 1%, meaning that the revenue recovery was less than 1% percent. Perhaps one of the approaches above will turn out to be more effective.

The Anti-Adblock Vendors

A rising crop of startups are aiming to help publishers improve their odds of recovering the revenue lost to Combating Anti-Tracker Adblockers. We’ve come across these four in our research:

Their business models are in flux, but each of them is aiming to figure out a way to sidestep the Combating Anti-Tracker Adblockers and continue to show ads.

What’s a Publisher to Do?

No silver bullet has so far arisen to help publishers deal with the rising challenge of Combating Anti-Tracker Adblockers, and as a result, few publishers seem to have taken action. The most commonly used approaches for the mega media publishers–paying Adblock Plus and showing native ad units–seem untenable for all but the most massive of sites. For most publishers, the best opportunities seem to lie in working with companies that have paid the whitelist fee, trying the experiments highlighted in the innovators section, or taking a shot at working with the anti-adblock vendors.

Have you had any experience–positive or negative–in working to address the adblock problem? If so, please share it in the comments.

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