Just because people block ads doesn’t mean they hate advertising – it means they hate bad advertising.
Slow-loading, third-party tracking, battery-draining, bandwidth-bleeding, pop-upping, visually questionable and sometimes creepily relevant (but, more often than not, utterly irrelevant) advertising.
But a straw poll conducted by Dean Murphy, the developer behind the iOS ad-blocker app Crystal, found that 71% of ad-block users would proactively whitelist sites that are optimized for performance, maintain transparent privacy policies and only serve ads that meet “acceptable” criteria.
Twenty-two percent of Murphy’s respondents said they’d be willing to pay to support sites in exchange for additional content or an ads-free experience. Whether they actually do it is another question – but the inclination seems to be there.
Crystal is now the top paid iOS 9 content-blocking app (it costs 99 cents), having scooted to No. 1 after Marco Arment had a change of heart and abruptly removed Peace from the App Store just two days after its release.
In the months and weeks leading up to his app’s release, Murphy distributed a short survey to his Twitter followers and the people who had signed up on his site to get email updates about Crystal – ostensibly a tough-to-please crowd of techies with a stated interest in content blocking. Roughly 800 people responded.
When asked about the motivations behind blocking ads on mobile, the responses were not surprising, with 64% citing visual clutter and slow load times and 22% pointing to privacy concerns.
Although 22% is significant, bad UX appears to far outstrip privacy as an irritant. It makes sense, Murphy said.
“The issue is really about performance,” he said. “The majority of people, myself included to a degree, are not that bothered about the privacy intrusion on particular websites. The profiling is just part of what the websites do and how they make their money. Facebook and Twitter, for example, are free because, in exchange, you hand over a portion of your data for them to use.”
But, of course, the two issues are inextricably linked. Too many tags may lead to better tracking – but they also can lead to poorer performance.
A quick perusal of the reviews for any of the recently released iOS 9 content-blocking apps in Apple’s App Store should give publishers pause.
These scathing snippets are excerpted from reviews for Crystal: ”It’s a vacuum for Internet garbage;” “I feel no sympathy for publishers or companies;” “After years of being abused and ignored by publishers about the ridiculous amounts of tracking … I now no longer care about the lost revenue.”
When Arment pulled Peace, he posted a blog to explain his motives: “While [ad blockers] do benefit a ton of people in major ways, they also hurt some, including many who don’t deserve the hit. Peace required that all ads be treated the same – all-or-nothing enforcement for decisions that aren’t black and white. This approach is too blunt.”
Murphy seconds the sentiment. Over the next four to six weeks, Murphy said he’s going to add more robust user management features to Crystal, including the ability to whitelist on a site by site basis.
As it stands, ad-blocking apps for iOS 9 don’t leave much room for nuance – turn them on and they block all ads. Or almost all. The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday that Crystal, in return for a flat monthly fee, will allow some ads to circumvent its filter by default through a deal with Eyeo GmbH, the German creators of Adblock Plus. The white list will be instituted as part of a free future update to Crystal.
Roughly 70 advertisers and publishers, including Google, Microsoft, Amazon and Taboola, now pay Eyeo hefty fees to whitelist their ads. In order to get the green light, ads must be deemed kosher based on rules laid out in Eyeo’s Acceptable Ads Manifesto – aka not annoying, disruptive, deceptive, pushy or utterly out of place.
Eyeo launched its Acceptable Ads initiative in 2011 to “encourage better ads.” The program has since been endorsed by a handful of players including Adblock Plus (as expected), Duck Duck Go, Reddit, Sharethrough and even ad-block solutions provider PageFair.
For its part, Adblock Plus isn’t hugely forthcoming about how it determines whether a company meets the Acceptable Ads criteria, noting somewhat opaquely on its site that, “Right now this is a manual process. We are working on the right tools, and we hope that our community will help us by reporting violations of our policies.”
Sourcepoint CEO Ben Barokas, however, is far from convinced, declaring at an IAB event at the end of July that when ad blockers engage in pay-for-play, it’s just another name for "blackmail and extortion."
There were some harsh words written in the wake of the Crystal/Eyeo hookup news. The Awl put it this way: “If your ad blocker takes money from you in order to block ads, and then takes money from huge companies in order to show you the ads that you paid for it to block, then yes; it’s just using you to erect a toll booth.”
But the soft-spoken Murphy sees it as a way to spark an “open dialogue with publishers.”
“I get the feeling when looking at some websites in particular what whoever is in charge of them must not actually be using them, because, if they were, they’d be frustrated, as well – by the pop-ups, the videos that load in the background, the redirects that throw you to the App Store,” said Murphy. “But I’m happy not to play a part in the arbitration of what’s good or not. I’ll leave that to the professionals.”
Speaking of going pro, Murphy is planning to leave his job as an IT worker in UK’s public sector to pursue Crystal full time. Next up is a desktop version of Crystal for the newest iteration of Safari.
Eyeo’s Acceptable Ads Manifesto includes this line, “We don’t hate advertising per se, but nobody wants obtrusive ads and content-obscuring rollovers running amok on their computers and mobile phones.”
Allegations of extortion aside, it’s something that publishers can work with, said Jason Kint, CEO of Digital Content Next, noting that he’s “actually quite optimistic.”
“Premium publishers who have direct relationships built on the trust of their consumers have consistently strived to deliver clean, well-lit experiences, [but] billions of dollars have been spent on ad technology with little to no value for consumers,” Kint said. “Once we connect the dots on those two points and match the advertising and the site experiences with the demands of consumers, we’ll be righting the ship – or at least containing the problem.
“And those who continue to abandon the effort to improve experience, choice and controls for consumers will likely be left in the dust.”
That said, Kint said he believes in ad tech – and the positive role it will play for publishers who embrace intelligent innovation.
“Automation and programmatic are the future,” he said. “We just need that to align with benefits for consumers or at least respect for them.”