Serena Kutchinsky, digital editor of Newsweek Europe, takes a closer look at the back-and-forth competition that has erupted between Facebook and Adblock Plus, and asks why Facebook has chosen this moment to pick a side in the ad blocking debate.
The ad blockers have already beaten Facebook. Weaknesses in the tech giant’s supposedly invincible new system were exposed with two days of it being rolled out. Market leader Adblock Plus quickly hit back announcing the introduction of a new filter aimed at blocking Facebook ads, allowing users to avoid seeing them in the sidebar and their news feed.
But this kneejerk reaction, typical of the cat-and-mouse tactics deployed by ad-blocking developers, might also be flawed. Facebook says that in its attempt to remove ads, Adblock Plus is also removing regular posts.
“We're disappointed that ad blocking companies are punishing people on Facebook as these new attempts don't just block ads but also posts from friends and Pages," a Facebook spokesperson told Ad Age.
The real story is that ad blocking software has been causing serious problems for publishers over the past year. Many liken it to stealing, posting pleading pop-ups on their site trying to communicate the decimating impact of ad blockers on their profits to readers. Now it seems even Facebook, whose business model also relies on online advertising revenue, is feeling the fear. Ad-blockers — web browser plugins or smartphone apps that prevent ads from appearing on websites — have been around in some form on desktop computers for over a decade.
But the decision last year by Apple to allow ad blockers on iPad and iPhones has seen a dramatic increase in their popularity. About 200m people worldwide are now using ad blocking software on their computers, including nine million in the UK, and while traditional media have failed to find an effective solution — Facebook is the first to develop a fresh approach to eliminating the threat. Not only are they attempting to disable ad blockers but they are striving to keep the trust of their over 1bn users — empowering them to choose the types of adverts they see by selecting preferred brands and businesses.
In a blog post introducing the move, Andrew Bosworth, Facebook’s vice president for ads and business, expressed an understanding of the problems caused by “bad ads” on the internet which he defined as “Ads that obscure the content we’re trying to read, ads that slow down load times or ads that try to sell us things we have no interest in buying. Bad ads are disruptive and a waste of our time.”
Facebook has both the tech savvy and the scale to be a significant force in the fight against ad blockers, but why it has chosen this moment to enter the fray is unclear. Ironically, they are one of the least affected media companies, with about 85 per cent of their revenue coming through mobile and the vast majority via their app. One explanation could their focus on the user experience and desire not to interrupt it with annoying pop-ups or other intrusive anti ad-block measures.
Whatever their motivation, this looks set to be a bloody virtual battle, with Adblock acknowledging that defeating the tech behemoth is likely to be a lengthy process. “Facebook might 're-circumvent' at any time," Ben Williams, communications and operations manager for Adblock Plus' parent company Eyeo wrote in a blog post. "This sort of back-and-forth battle between the open source ad-blocking community and circumventers has been going on since ad blocking was invented; so it's very possible that Facebook will write some code that will render the filter useless—at any time."
Serena Kutchinsky is digital editor of Newsweek Europe