Online ad blocker technology usage, innovations & trends in the UK in 2021

   Here’s a transcript of my talk on the use of online ad blocker technology usage, innovations & trends in the UK in 2021 from the Search Advertising Show conference in July 2021 (a sister conference of which is dedicated to PPC advertising on Google, Bing and Amazon). I’ve edited it slightly as some of the talk refers to slides which you can’t see in the transcription here: here’s the video of the full talk with slides: 

   So what is “ad blocking”?  Wikipedia defines ad blocking as a type of software or less commonly a computer hardware device that can remove or alter advertising content from a web page website or mobile.

 Where are we today in the United Kingdom in early 2021? The most recent stats I could find were from  February 2020 which suggests according to a poll conducted by YouGov on behalf of the Internet Advertising Bureau UK is that around 25% of all people in the United Kingdom surveyed have ever downloaded an ad blocker and are currently using one, and that the reported ad blocking levels from that survey have been relatively stable for the past four years . So the breakdown regarding devices: 21% of online adults in the United Kingdom use ad blockers on desktops or laptops but it's worth noting that according to audience measurement (less than 20 percent of the time spent online in that territory is via those devices) compared to 10% on smartphone. In terms of demographics the 18 to 24 age group remain the most likely ad group to have installed an ad blocker - however this decreased significantly over the previous year to 2020.

  An important concept in relation to ad blockers and how they work is the idea of an "acceptable ad". The criteria’s creator Eyeo ( parent company of AdBlock) state that, “Acceptable Ads is a set of criteria for placing ads on a website ... if websites live up to this standard then ad blockers may not block ads on them ... Allowlisting [i.e. classification of content as an “Acceptable Ad”]  is free for all small to mediumsize websites and blogs. However, managing this list requires significant effort on our side and this task cannot be completely taken over by volunteers as it happens with common filter lists. That's why we are being paid by some larger properties that serve nonintrusive advertisements that want to participate in the Acceptable Ads initiative .”   Acceptable Ads are ads which aren't intrusive / annoying and they're clearly labelled as advertisements: there's certain legal requirements which require that as well in various territories and ads that abide by the those standards are placed on a "white list".

 In terms of the usage the Chrome store reports 10 million plus users of the Adblock Plus browser extension and Firefox extension store around 6 million users . Back to the IAB February 2020 - this data suggests that ad blocking levels have remained relatively consistent since 2016. Men are around two more times more likely to use adblockers than women - this is possibly due to that we know that men are more likely to take up new technology than women.  In terms of the motivations of ad blockers in the UK: by far and away the most popular reason to block to use ad blocks is "to block all types of ads" which stands to reason really! In terms of trends beyond the UK some research from Northern Europe and the United States finds that fewer respondents said they use ad blockers in 2020 than four years ago. So it's potentially a broader trend than just in the UK.

   So why has there been a decline in and / or stabilization in the use of ad blockers? It's possibly down to the shift to browsing on mobile devices in various markets and also due to the rise of “ad blocker blocking” (websites blocking people from viewing their content if an adblocker is detected) and the reasons for that . Publishers and tech companies are asserting more discipline around the display of annoying ads like pop-ups and auto play videos with sound on: they're listening to their audience and their concerns. There's some research from the Press Gazette which is a publishing trade newspaper - they tested the Ad Block Plus Chrome extension on every major online news website serving the UK and found that less than half take action against ad blockers! Some major ad reliant news websites such as the Daily Mail, the Sun and the Mirror were taking no action at that time to prevent ad blocking.

 It's worth noting the Daily Mail has since blocked Adblock users since the aforementioned research took place. So in terms of how publishers are reacting to adblock users- some add an overlay which basically stops your access if they detect an ad Blocker in your browser . Others use a different type of overlay which is to encourage people to disable their ad blocker.

   Personally speaking one of the things I think is possibly a factor in terms of ad blocking is the re-marketing ads "following" us around the internet! I personally don't like that and I'm suspect that may be a factor in adblock take up. So beyond the traditional text ads on search engines and banner ads on publishing websites there's other types of advertising such as native advertising like Taboola and Outbrain and it's worth noting that somehow ad blockers do block that type of ad as well.  I tested it on the IMDB which is a database about films and even on the the default setting the Taboola ads were blocked and I also tested Amazon Sponsored Listings using Ublock Origin Ad blocker and it blocked the sponsored listings but those ads weren't blocked in my test using Adblock Plus or just the normal Adblock browser.

   There is a move to use of browsers on smartphones - the mobile Chrome for Google Android has no extension support so you can't block ads with a browser extension. There are various options for Chrome such as Adshield and one of the technologies they're using is DNS based interception of ads . There's for other browsers like Samsung Internet there's Ad Guard .

   I haven't gone into the history in this talk but ad blocking has around a 20 year history on the internet and the technology is evolving. So in the past how it would work is there'd literally be text-based lists made of content to block which would be how the ad blocker would work. Now Adblock Plus has "perceptual ad blocking" which where ads are visually detected - this is a more scalable method than applying tens of thousands of manually created filter rules.

 In terms of the wider ad blocker market there's some academic research which suggests that Ublock is considered the plug-in with the best performance in terms of ad and third-party tracker filtering and the least privacy tracking. There's also ways you can block ads on modern Android smartphones by changing to an ad blocking service’s Private DNS provider. In terms of the bigger picture is worthwhile noting that there is a conflation of online privacy and ad blocking: Ghostery the online pro privacy/ ad blocker tool calls itself “online privacy made easy” - that's its catch phrase . 

   There's also artificial intelligence technology which has been developed in research recently which can achieve a rate of 93% accuracy into detecting sites that successfully circumvent ad blockers: because there are 3 technologies: the ad blocker, there's the adblock blocker and there's also the ad blocker blocker. It is a war of technology which is continuously evolving and suffice to say it's ever-changing .

 So as I say ad blocking and privacy are very closely related (not necessarily the exact same thing) but certain brands using privacy in their marketing as one of their unique selling points e.g. Apple is doing that and you can't ignore what Apple are doing. For example in the upcoming IOS 14 software there's a feature which lets users opt out of ad tracking on a per app basis , and that has everyone from Facebook to use publishers concerned about advertising revenue. Quelle horreur! 

  There's ads in other forms which hitherto haven't you haven't been able to block but there's technologies developing and evolving such as Ad Skip Pro which allows you to block audio ads in podcasts. Its functionality is limited and to the best of my knowledge only works on certain podcasts at the moment - it's still evolving.  It's also worth noting there's some gaps in how these technologies work. For example you do a search on Google for the brand “adidas” with Adblock Plus built into the CC Cleaner browser and with the ad blocker on you can still see the Adidas ad at the bottom and the sponsored  Google Shopping listings which are also ads . It's not blocking sponsored listings and if memory serves I contacted the makers of Adblock Plus about this about five years ago and they said it'd be bad for the user experience if they blocked all of the the shopping listings in the shopping section. That was when shopping listings were only ads so i don't know what's going on there to be honest! 

  A few takeaways: so obviously there's implications in relation to SEO and PPC and in terms of how you target your audiences .

    1. there's less ad blocking on smartphones according to the research in the UK because it's more difficult basically to do that . Your online marketing and advertising strategy needs to take into account that some of the recent new and next generations of internet users may be invisible to certain advertisers in certain Markets 

    2. so you do need an SEO / content strategy to engage the ad blocking demographics such as the young - high earners are more likely to use ad blockers as well 

    3. it's possible to track site users ad block usage with Google Analytics 

    4. you need to test your sites using the popular ad blockers on various devices and operating systems because how you've structured your site may cause some content to be blocked which is not even ads.

  There's also the bigger picture of how will online newspaper and magazine publishers pay for content if the customers won't see or click on ads . There's consequences for society of not funding journalism essentially so think about that in terms of your own use. It's worth noting that they're still privacy concerns and tracking concerns with the default settings of Adblock Plus so that may become more of an issue as time goes on as we move from the from specific concerns of ad blocking to privacy on the web more generally.