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Facebook’s fight with AdBlock Plus suggests middle ground is needed

I’m all for getting a reasonable return for honest work, but some websites drive me to distraction. Advertising is more or less a given – it’s how many sites support themselves. But advertising can run amok in the form of constant pop-ups, many in video, delivering music and sales pitches as they obscure the text I’m trying to read. And doing this over and over again.

One solution is ad-blocking software, and of late we’ve seen the entire category come under new and deadly fire. The case in point, as so often happens, is Facebook. Not long ago the online behemoth changed the way it displayed its ads so that popular ad-blocking software like AdBlock Plus (adblockplus.org) couldn’t recognize them. With ads now looking like everyday content, the ad blockers couldn’t filter them out. At least, that was the theory.

The interesting thing here is that software like AdBlock Plus doesn’t come from a small company as much as from a global community dedicated to the proposition that ads should be filtered out of the web experience. This is open source coding, in other words, and it means that when a challenge arises, a workaround will invariably be found, as indeed it was for Facebook.

It took only a couple of days for AdBlock Plus to figure out what Facebook was doing and add new coding to its product. Away went the ads once again, for those who used the software. There followed a back and forth between Facebook and AdBlock Plus in which each worked to defeat the other’s best efforts. AdBlock invoked “the will of the people” even as Facebook claimed AdBlock Plus was now blocking not just ads but regular posts from friends and family.

What to make of this? For one thing, the ad wars in encapsulated form reveal the same essential dichotomy that is at work throughout the internet. Someone builds something, then someone else tries to break into it.

The producers of malware are forever trying to find ways to defeat security programs to install their own infections onto unsuspecting consumers’ machines. That’s a clear case of hackers as bad guys, but ad blocking is a different beast, and the range of opinion on what’s fair here and what’s not seems to be widening. Some people are in favor of this kind of hacking.

So is ad blocking theft from people who are trying to make their living online? Or is it up to the individual user to make a declaration about what he or she is willing to look at on the internet? Who gets priority? For that matter, what happens if we start blocking well-targeted ads that may be interesting if we would only look at them?

It’s clear that the problem posed by online advertising and blocking strategies is not going to go away. While the battle rages, consider this: According to a new report from IAB, 26 percent of U.S. internet users use ad blockers. Moreover, the most likely group to use ad blockers are the highly sought-after millennials. So some kind of middle-ground solution is struggling to be born.

Facebook won’t charge users a subscription fee for its service, so advertising generates 97 percent of the site’s revenue. A potential Facebook solution for ad-frustrated readers is to simplify the ad preference process and offer more options for user input, in line with Facebook’s frequent tweaking of its user information feed. Ads that are truly relevant make the case for keeping an eye on what Facebook might offer up, as long as it doesn’t become too intrusive.

The stakes are high for Facebook as it tries to find this golden mean, because too flagrant a policy against blockers can backfire. We’ll have to see what long-term results the stringent anti-ad blocker policies of sites like Forbes and Bloomberg will have, for some of us get impatient quickly with sites that go beyond minimal ad presentation.

But web advertisers have a developing worry. If Facebook ad targeting changes are less than optimum, is the money they’re spending on ad placement delivering maximum value?

Paul A. Gilster is the author of several books on technology. Reach him at gilster@mindspring.com.

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