Ad Blocking’s Old Guard Remains Strong, But Faces Growing Competition

Ad blocking is generally associated with early browser extensions like AdBlock and eyeo’s Adblock Plus (ABP), which both make their money through the Acceptable Ads whitelisting platform designed by ABP to monetize ad-block users.

But the consumer market for ad blocking has branched into apps, mobile browsers and antivirus software all peddling ad blocking wrapped in different technology and business models.

The Second Wave

Just as AdBlock and ABP developed off the same open-source ad blocking code, the second generation of desktop ad blockers, including uBlock, uBlock Origin and Adblock Pro, are built off a single open-source code maintained by uBlock Origin developer Raymond Hill.

Combined, these three companies account for less than 10% of global ad-block users, according to the ad block solutions provider Sourcepoint.

But while the group lacks the scale of an ABP or AdBlock, which make up the remaining 90% of the market, they still nibble like piranhas at the margins of media buys.

These new ad blockers are also more aggressive in blocking publisher page-load notifications and soft paywalls, and often obstruct site design.

“UBlock Origin is growing but still niche relative to other ad blockers, partly because it breaks more sites,” said Dan Rua, founder and CEO of the anti-ad-block tech startup Admiral.

Newer ad blockers also embrace an antagonistic role vacated by ABP as it matured. Ad blockers like uBlock and uBlock Origin started picking up traction in 2015, just after ABP began pushing its ad industry initiative.

The original Acceptable Ads standards were conceived in Reddit and developer message boards. But now the Acceptable Ads committee is an independently operating machine that includes ad tech industry representatives and brand executives, among other industry stakeholders.

Becoming a partner in the digital ecosystem is a long-term necessity for ABP, which is developing its own SSP-like technology for reaching opted-in users, but that’s anathema for those original Redditors and developers, many of whom shifted to newer, more righteous ad blockers.

Startup ad blockers eschew Acceptable Ads whitelisting revenue in favor of paid downloads or donations. Meanwhile, uBlock Origin wants nothing in return for blocking ads. It has no donation service, site or forum, so Hill, its developer, is “free to move onto something else if ever I get tired working on these projects,” he wrote on Github.

Hill could not be reached for comment.

The Power Of Incumbency

ABP’s outsized role in the ad-blocking debate is justified in part by its outsized position in the market.

The Acceptable Ads program, developed by ABP owner eyeo, allows media companies or ad networks to serve ads to ad-blocker audiences if they abide by the program’s ad format standards. The integration is free for most inventory sources while the largest partners, like Google, Criteo and Taboola, are charged a 30% fee on revenue gained through the whitelisting service.

Google’s Acceptable Ads payments, the largest contribution to ABP’s coffers, are likely between $25 million and $50 million, according to AdExchanger sources last year.

Acceptable Ads combines the users of ABP, Crystal (which is co-owned by eyeo) and AdBlock, which was acquired by undisclosed investors in 2015 and then added to the whitelisting program.

“We know that great content creators need revenue to survive, but users want to have a good browsing experience – hence Acceptable Ads,” said Job Plas, eyeo’s senior manager of global partnerships.

“Scorched-earth ad blocking doesn't really help anyone,” he said of uBlock and its variants seeking to undermine ABP’s position among ad-block users because of the company’s ad monetization model.

Crowding In

Companies that develop mobile browsers and corporate antivirus software have sidestepped into ad blocking.

Brendan Eich, the co-founder of Mozilla who now operates the ad-blocking browser Brave, sees uBlock as “a really strong model of the kind of mentality and approach the space should bring to user privacy and ad tech vendors.”

Brave recently raised $35 million of its own cryptocurrency, the Basic Attention Token, which it hopes advertisers will use as way to buy inventory on the browser and for users to compensate content creators.

Other browsers have asserted their position in ad blocking. Google’s Chrome will include basic ad blocking by transposing recent ad standards from the Coalition for Better Ads. And UC Web, a popular browser in Asia owned by Alibaba, blocks more ads than any actual ad blocker.

Another category for ad blocking comes from corporate IT security software like Kaspersky and Avira that now come with some default ad blocking.

“These major antivirus players have determined this to be a feature that fits well with their audience and clients,” said Sourcepoint co-founder Jeroen Seghers.

Corporate firewalls are known for blocking sites like Twitter and YouTube that could turn into productivity sinkholes, he said, “but what we have seen quite frequently now is that it isn’t just those entertainment or content sites, but DoubleClick will be blocked or ads from ecosystem vendors.”

ABP has also built out an enterprise solution so universities, businesses or organizations can install ad blocking across a network – with the focus on savings from data, bandwidth and malvertising software, not consumer ads.

Meeting The Market

Despite a wave of direct and indirect challengers, eyeo’s Acceptable Ads whitelist “remains the dominant force in ad blocking,” said Johnny Ryan, head of ecosystem at the ad-block solutions company PageFair.

Other publisher executives and anti-ad-block developers echoed that for brands and sites, the scale of ABP and AdBlock, with hundreds of millions of users rather than mere millions, makes their joint Acceptable Ads product the only pressing concern around ad blocking. For the time being, at least.

Startup ad blockers mean nothing to advertisers unless they heavily target young, male developers, like gaming companies do. But those blockers would creep up on incumbents like ABP before they register on brand or agency radars.

ABP and AdBlock are vulnerable to upheaval because, unlike other industries driven by downloads, they track no data on users or downloads.

ABP can tell if it has had a good week for downloads, for instance, but wouldn’t know if that growth came from a certain geography or demographic. It has no customer acquisition price or sign-up funnel because it doesn’t pay to acquire or retain users.

The result is an opaque market that defies third-party and first-party tracking, making it even more difficult to ascertain true industry market share figures.

ABP was one of the first ad blockers and remains the most impactful source of ad blocking in the digital ecosystem, but don’t be surprised by the varied, growing ways consumers and businesses are finding to splice ads from the internet.

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