Ad wars: the browser strikes back

By Marc Schenker Posted Mar. 16, 2016 Reading time: 4 minutes

Ad blocking has become so prevalent on the Internet that a study from last year estimates that publishers will lose as much as $22 billion from this software. Their fears have only been worsened by Opera’s powerful move, announced just last week, to allow its users to block ads natively, from right within the browser. At the same time, worried companies, such as the New York Times, have begun to dabble with thwarting users who rely on ad blockers.

The current situation is a bigger-than-ever conflict between ad blockers and ad publishers and websites, with the former advocating for a superior user experience, and the latter trying to protect their all-important bottom line. Only time will tell if publishers will just have to get used to all that lost revenue from ads not getting to users or if websites can somehow find a way to still continue running ads without bogging down the user experience significantly.

In the meantime, moves from both sides indicate a series of escalating volleys that show no signs of abating anytime soon.


A revolutionary way to block ads

In a first for browsers of any kind, Opera last week announced in a blog post that it had incorporated an ad-blocking feature right in its browser, at the “web-engine” level. The company asserts that its native, ad-blocking technology is superior to the usual ad blockers that users would simply install on their browsers with a plugin.

One motivation for Opera’s radical shift in ad blocking was data that shows that more and more users are already employing ad blockers in their browsers. From 2014 to 2015 alone, those using ad blockers on computers jumped by a staggering 41% across the globe. Opera is interpreting this stat as widespread approval and demand for more ad blocking, which led to the company’s revolutionary, native approach to blocking ads.

In an experiment Opera performed, it concluded that its native ad-blocking feature produces browsing speeds that are up to 45% faster than even Chrome’s AdBlock Plus extension. It similarly beats all of the other major browsers’ ad blocking extensions when it comes to speed.

Allegedly, it beats:

  • Mozilla Firefox by 21%
  • Internet Explorer by 89%

While the company is confident in its own research, a test performed by TechCrunch comparing Opera’s browsing speed from its native ad blocker to the rest found less dramatic results.

What makes Opera’s venture into native, in-browser ad blocking so surprising is the fact that it actually owns an online advertising firm. Nonetheless, the company maintains that it’s a purist when it comes to the user experience, so its efforts are aimed at helping the users, first and foremost.

According to Opera’s SVP of Engineering and Head of Opera for Computers, Krystian Kolondra, it recognizes that ads fuel the web and ensure that many services are free for the users. Even so, its own research strongly concludes that ads are the culprits behind many websites’ slow loading times and, therefore, poor user experiences. This is unacceptable to the company as an advocate for improving the Internet for everyone.

This is a definite boon for users worldwide, but it isn’t sitting well with some companies.


Retaliating against ad-blocking users

One of the more noteworthy companies that’s taking a stand against this ad-blocking explosion is the New York Times. While it certainly isn’t the first—others that have waged war against ad blockers include Wired, Forbes, The Washington Post, and Hulu—it’s prominent because it’s one of the oldest papers in the U.S.A.

Last week, the Times started to experiment in small baby steps with different methods of retaliating against ad blockers. Targeted at a “relatively small population of subscribers and nonsubscribers”, the company is forcing some users to either whitelist its site, or pay for a subscription. In a tactic that some may call putting pressure on ad blockers, the paper is planning to protect its bottom line.

The paper is being straight to the point about why it’s blocking ad blockers. The few, select users—the criteria for selecting these users remains undisclosed—who are unlucky enough to be targeted by its anti-ad blocking efforts have seen this popup message:

The best things in life aren’t free. You currently have an ad blocker installed. Advertising helps fund our journalism. To continue to enjoy The Times, please support us in one of the following ways.

This copy then leads to two call to action buttons: either “Subscribe” or “Whitelist Us”.

Understanding the reality that its attempt to pressure users to fork over money or get rid of their ad blockers may backfire, the Times has other options ready for testing if people decline this pressure tactic in droves.

As a way of justifying what some would call heavy-handed tactics, a spokeswoman for the paper claimed that the intent of this popup message is simply to inform users of the financial damage that ad blockers cause. Digital content creation is quite pricey, so ad blockers actually hinder operations like the Times from raising adequate money through their sites to keep funding news-gathering operations. The spokeswoman also mentioned how, in the long run, only the consumers would be hurt… presumably from not having access to publications like the Times anymore without paying.

It remains to be seen, however, whether the consumers the Times claims it’s trying to serve would agree with the company’s belief that paying for content and reporting they could get for free elsewhere is really in their best interest. After all, these consumers are the same users who have to put up with slower page load times and a poorer user experience if they don’t use ad blockers. That’s the entire reason for these stepped-up ad-blocking wars in the first place.


What each side is betting on

So this is where we stand on the web as 2016 gets underway. With users getting increasingly fed up with sub-par user experiences that studies partially blame on ads, it’s no surprise to see the proliferation of ad-blocking features, whether as extensions or as native features in browsers like Opera. One might ask what took users so long to finally make this statement.

From the viewpoint of publishers and websites, it’s all about losing money: money they require to keep their doors open, keep their staff employed, and hook new users and readers.

Ad blockers believe that they’re acting in the good of users worldwide, and that sites are powerless to stop them. On the other hand, sites like the Times believe they can slowly but surely pressure users into either paying money to read their content or putting up with their ads just the same.

Unless all major news sites on the web agree to do this, it doesn’t seem likely that the Times can succeed.


Featured image, missing advert image via Shutterstock.