Ad Blocking

How to Create an “Ad-Lite” Experience for AdBlock Users

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No matter how much trouble it causes to publishers, the truth is that adblock drew the line on crappy online advertising. Media-sellers / buyers / ad tech vendors can debate the ethics and morality of “snatching away” the primary source of revenue that fuels free online content, but that isn’t going to slow adblock adoption down anytime soon.

In their helpful primer on adblocking, IAB put forth some ways for publishers to deal with losses.

Their proposed method began with Detecting adblock > Explaining why users should whitelist > Asking for a whitelist > Lifting restriction/Limiting access to content as per users’ response. A fair number of websites have tried it, including Forbes, Telegraph, Indiatimes, ComedyCentral, and more, with mixed results.

While this detection-restriction method is working pretty well for some websites (like Forbes, Bild.de), many others like Telegraph, IndiaTimes, ComedyCentral, etc. left the race while they were still behind. This was for one simple reason. There are filter lists (like Reek and Adblock Warning Removal) that are continually updated to remove publishers’ adblock restrictions from user’s access to content.

Publishers, in turn, update their own detection code, but the anti-adblock ‘killers’ keep pace, thanks to a global community working to fight anti-adblock warnings and keep these filter lists updated.

It’s one step up from a game of whack-a-mole where publishers and platforms (like Facebook) block AdBlock, and AdBlock responds by revising their code and blocking ads right back. And so on and so forth till the end of time.

Princeton University, the one that made headlines for coming up with Mother of All Adblocks (MOAB) earlier this year, explains this adblock arms race with a simple model:

According to Princeton, fighting adblock is an uphill battle for publishers, and one they’re going to lose:

The publisher may obfuscate their ad blocking detection code to evade active ad blocking, and the user may in turn respond by improving the active ad blocking technique. But beyond stage 3, our model makes it clear that no further escalation is possible. That is because active ad blocking runs at a higher privilege level than publisher code, so it cannot in turn be disabled — at best it can be evaded.

via The Future of Ad Blocking: An Analytical Framework and New Techniques

And it appears that publishers have come to the same conclusion. New York Times began last year but seems to have given up on fighting adblock. DailyMail continues to lose millions per year to adblock without attempting to win back any of it. Others like The Guardian, WSJ, The Atlantic, etc. are trying other ways to placate the ad-hating masses, but with unknown results.

Eight of DCN’s (Digital Content Next) 80 members are currently employing techniques to try and discourage the use of adblockers on their sites.

So instead of fighting users of adblock, publishers should try to understand why their audience is using adblock. Before trying to convince users to turn off adblock, publishers should work to clean up their ad experiences.

Here are some tips:

1. Ad Placements

Objective: Enhance viewability of ads without disrupting visual flow of primary content.

We’ve covered the need to optimize for viewability while balancing UX before in this post. To make ad placements user-friendly, swap in-content with in-feed. You need to place ads beside engaging content, not within.

Eyeo’s Acceptable Ads criteria makes it just as clear: place ads on top, side, or below the primary content (<main> HTML element) on the page.

This balances yield with UX and doesn’t disrupt visual flow of content. Above-the-Fold (ATF) placements will usually sell for higher CPMs. A sticky vertical banner next to content (in the sidebar) keeps it viewable for a longer time, another metric to aim for.

Note that the feeds are a different matter. Ads can be placed within the feed so long as they are not larger than feed’s individual elements.

Only text ads are allowed on pages with no primary content (404 error page, contact forms etc.).

2. Ad Sizes

Objective: Maintain a content-to-ads ratio well within 70 : 30, regardless of screen size or fold.

Ad unit sizes would depend on where you place the ad. For instance, on typical desktop screens (1366×768), ads should be:

  • 200px in height (when placed above main content)
  • 350px in width (when placed in sidebar)
  • 400px in height (when placed beneath the content)

While 70-30 is a good rule of thumb (Google Display Network abides by it), Acceptable Ads places a further limitation. Content-to-ad ratio above the fold should be 85:15. On the rest of the page, you can dedicate up to 25% of screen space to ads.

Note that search ads (displayed among results of a user-initiated search query) can be larger than search results.

3. Ad Creatives

Objective: Interactive ads need not be intrusive. Test with different demand sources to optimize yield.

Creatives are slightly more tricky to control; they depend on a large part on what a winning bidder is serving. For instance, IBV (in-banner video) needs to be specified as such by the buyer when traded via RTB. Publishers can still filter creatives if their SSP / ad network has the capabilities that allow them to do so. AdSense, for instance, allows publishers to filter out ads by type (image, text-image, etc.), categories, and more.

Publishers also need to take care NOT to implement popups and interstitials, autoplay audio/video ads, and other similarly annoying ad formats as noted by Adobe Digital Insights and Coalition for Better Ads research.

4. Ad Behavior

Objective: Provide an ad experience that’s visually unobtrusive but also easy on bandwidth and online security.

Adblock users are typically tech-savvy millennials. Most of them have concerns beyond intrusiveness of ads, namely bandwidth and privacy.

Global Web Index Trends ‘17 report noted some common reasons for (mobile) adblock usage:

In some fast-growth APAC markets, mobile ad-blockers have become a vital tool for reducing load-times and data spend, especially where internet users are coming online for the first time via relatively expensive and slow mobile connections.

Mozilla, in a massive online survey, reports similar concerns amongst a global group of respondents:

Hacking is a lead concern for web users, but it is closely followed by advertiser tracking, an issue the marketing industry may have to address if it wants to continue to deliver ads to these individuals.

via The Drum

Publishers need to ensure their ads behave well within reasonable UX constraints. Ad stacking and auto-refreshing units must go. Frequency capping on line items should no longer be an afterthought.

It should also be noted that across the world, ads are legally required to be clearly recognizable as such by humans. Add clear distinctions: Say ‘advertisement’  instead of “stuff around the web” or “you may also like”.

Keep your eyes peeled for malicious creatives. Report the creative to the network and block advertisers that issue such creatives continually.

Everything mentioned in the points above will sound counterintuitive to yield optimization: Bland creatives, restrictive placements, and less ads. Publishers could (and do) adopt a range of advertising techniques that disrupt user experience. Only the threat of losing to the competition prevents these aggressive monetization techniques from becoming the norm.

We know that bad advertising isn’t solely publishers’ mess to clean. Advertisers need to create relevant and compelling ad content. Ad tech vendors on either side need to improve the advertising standards and make their implementation easier.

For the moment, buyers are caught up with fraud and transparency and vendors are scrambling to prevent their losses. It falls upon the publisher, as the first touchpoint with the user,  to make ad experiences better from the ground up and provide a less cluttered environment for the content as well as ads to be seen.