Gilster: New ad blocking apps show need for customization

There’s no question that Apple’s new iOS 9 operating system is off to a swift start. Laden with features like an updated Maps application, a tuned-up Notes function and an enhanced Siri, iOS 9 also beefs up battery life with its new low-power capabilities. Apple’s user base seems to be responding, with the company announcing that iOS 9 is now on over 50 percent of its iPhones and iPads. That would make this the fastest rate of adoption for an iOS upgrade ever.

We can’t know this early on just what is driving the push, but I do think one factor must be the ability of iOS 9 to block ads delivered to its Safari browser. There are any number of options for stopping intrusive ads on the desktop, but the mobile arena has been a different story. Now that we’re expanding our options for blocking ads on our phones – and apps like Purify, that do just that, have begun to appear in the App Store – a mobile-centric public is deciding to sign on.

Advertising conundrum

I know people who would be delighted to block every ad in sight, whether on their phones or their desktop machines, and I can share their frustration. A particular aerospace website that’s important in my work is so laden with ads that whenever I find a story I need to see, I find myself facing unwanted video, popup boxes asking me to complete surveys (which must be clicked to dismiss), numerous static ads and ugly, double-underlined “links” to still further advertising. All this is mixed up inside an ugly interface saturated with social media links.

I often need to use this site (and others like it), but whenever I’m forwarded a link to a story on it, I brace myself for the onslaught before clicking through. And yes, I could always enable something like Adblock, which will run inside any browser I happen to be using, but I don’t do that because of the other side of the advertising conundrum. People need advertising revenues to pay for the content they’re publishing. It’s easy to see that the more ad blockers we put into the mix, the more revenues will drop, making it particularly hard for small web publishers.

What’s needed in the short run may be ad blockers to help us work with the Web more effectively, but the longer-term outlook is that we need an advertising model for the mobile and desktop Web that doesn’t destroy itself through over saturation. Consider: A new study from Catchpoint shows that video ads mixed with third-party tracking programs slow page loading times precipitously. The Financial Times, a site I used to hit daily (no more!), ranks as the slowest site in the analysis, with an average load time of, get this, almost thirty seconds.

The right mix

Various tracking tools follow you around on the Internet to keep an eye on your behavior, the kind of information that is a goldmine for marketers. Catchpoint adds that the big news sites like CNN and Forbes average 27.8 different third-party connections on their pages. Long load times are frustrating on a desktop computer but we’re learning that readers using mobile devices have even less tolerance for ads that clog performance. No wonder Facebook is concerned with publishing material from third-party sources in such a way that the content appears within its own mobile app, thus giving the social media giant the ability to control load times.

The introduction of ad blockers to iOS could be a boon for publishers if it makes them re-evaluate their advertising campaigns. The Web can’t do without advertising, so sifting out every ad in existence is simply not the answer. But as ad blocking apps proliferate, we should be thinking about how to customize them for particular kinds of content. There are ads we may well want to see, and formats that are acceptable because they take less of a toll on performance. Publishers, meanwhile, have to see the numbingly obvious: There is a point when the combination of advertising and tracking stops being useful and drives customers away.

Paul A. Gilster is the author of several books on technology. Reach him at