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Why Facebook represents a fearsome opponent for ad blockers

The news that Facebook is going to stop users blocking ads is very welcome. 

While you can argue that ad blockers give users power over what they are exposed to online, they also damage the businesses of companies that depend on advertising revenue, and it’s good to see a company like Facebook, with both scale and great technology, fighting back.

Data from the IAB earlier this year says that 22 per cent of UK internet users use an ad blocker, and that the numbers are rising. It varies quite a lot by gender – men are more likely to block – and by age – the younger are more likely to be blocking.  People generally block ads because they don’t want to be interrupted – for example pre-roll ads before videos – or because they don’t want to be tracked by the ads.

Ad blocking essentially works by spotting content that is coming from a different place, and preventing it being displayed. For example, with a newspaper site, the editorial content comes from the newspaper’s own URL and the ads come from an ad server URL. It’s therefore easy for an ad blocker to stop any the content that is not from the newspaper’s own URL. Using ad servers to serve adverts, a different source to the site content, allows advertisers to more accurately target their messaging to consumers, based on factors like their location, content they have consumed and more; and it allows them to target their audience across multiple sites. The ads in the sport section of a physical newspaper will be the same for all readers; the ads in the sport section online most likely won’t be.  

What Facebook seems to be saying it will do is disguise the source of the ads so that ad blockers can’t tell that they’re ads. Facebook is famously great at technology – the site and app both work extremely well and load very quickly – and so it is likely to be a fearsome adversary for the ad blocking companies.

At the same time as stopping ad blocking it has said that it will give more control over which ads people see. Again Facebook is very well placed to be able to police the ads that appear within news feeds, particularly in terms of technical aspects like file sizes. 

Other players like Google and the IAB are also working on programmes that make ads load faster, and use as little data as possible, to ensure that ads don’t overly disrupt the experience of using the site, make the site slow to load, or use up too much mobile data. Some publishers, for example Washington Post and City AM, are fighting back against ad blocking by blocking access to their content unless users turn off their ad blockers. This has apparently had some success – essentially people will be willing to do this to get access to unique content.

Facebook is famous for its focus on the user experience, and making sure that ads bypass ad blockers, rather than asking people to turn off their ad blockers, is a far more seamless solution. Other sites can also use ‘ad blocker blockers’ like Secret Media, that also mask the source of the content, but I’m told that this is only practical for video ads.

Ironically, Facebook is less affected by ad blocking than almost any other media owner – its results show that about 85 per cent of its revenue comes from mobile, and of that the vast majority is through its app.  For privacy reasons the data in the app is encrypted – so ad blockers can’t tell what is an ad and what is content.  One ad blocker that tried to block ads in the Facebook app was quickly removed from the app store for its ‘deep packet inspection’ which basically means that it was looking too closely into the content.  

I’m sure this will just be the latest shots fired in the ad blocking war, but it’s significant that someone as big and powerful as Facebook is taking such a firm stance against the ad blockers.

Dan Calladine is head of media futures at Carat Global

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