Ad blockers are one of the ways in which users can say no to (certain) ads. By definition, this has a negative impact on advertisers’ revenue. But is that the full story?

Like a mute or skip button for TV (or YouTube) ads, or turning the page when seeing a newspaper ad, there have always been methods of avoiding advertising. But, ad blockers play a major role and impact within the wider context of the internet.

NY Times without ad blocker
NY Times without ad blocker
NY Times with ad blocker
NY Times with ad blocker

Ad Blocker usage

Around  42% of users worldwide use some form of ad blocking. And, 27% of people use ad blocking across desktops, mobiles, or tablets. 

AdBlock, one of the most popular ad blocking extensions, reports around 65 million active users. 

The capabilities of the different tools vary, with different thresholds for what they deem ‘block worthy'. Because of this, the impact on users, content publishers, and advertisers also vary. 

How do ad blockers work?

To understand the impact of ad blockers, we first need to understand how they work.

There is no single method of blocking ads. Each ad blocker is designed to block different things. Very aggressive blockers might target all advertising formats. More liberal ones might only block pop-ups.

But all of them pick up on bits of source code common to the items they are trying to block.

For example, aggressive ad blockers pick up on JavaScript (JS). JS is commonly used within richer ad formats - like videos, pop-ups, or interactive ads. JS is also used by many sites to power the interactivity of the content itself, which is where some problems might pop up (no pun intended).

Others block spaces in the source code reserved for ads. Below you can see an example of this from the Daily Mail’s homepage.

ad blocker in the source code blocking spaces reserved for ads. Example from Daily Mail homepage

Other ad blockers might block tracking codes. These are little scripts that fire when the page loads. For example, the code highlighted below (on the ASOS homepage) is a little JS script firing data to TikTok analytics.

ad blockers blocking tracking codes. example from ASOS homepage.

The impact of ad blockers on tracking

A number of ad blockers block web analytics tracking. This can also lead to a loss in tracking data. Even the cookies that site-owners use to improve user experience can be at risk.

You need to make sure you have proper tracking in place. Conduct user testing first-hand with ad-blockers in place. 

There are ways to use JavaScript to see what percentage of your site visitors have ad blocking software in place. This can help assess the amount of data you are losing.

The impact of ad blockers on UX

One of the main reasons quoted for using ad blocking software is ads being annoying, irrelevant or too frequent. Blockers also cite ads interfering with the content users are trying to access among the top reasons to have such software. 

In a large portion of cases, the user’s experience on the website is improved by removing disruptive ads. 

However, some ad blockers don't replace the blocked ads with anything else, leaving large gaps in content. 

Website UX can also be hindered, with some content publishers reporting missing buttons and calls to action. Some sites rely on JavaScript to show important content to users. If you're one of them, people that have aggressive ad blockers might not be able to see a lot of your content. If you are using JS for an element such as your navigation, this might lead to a negative user experience and an increased bounce rate. 

Let’s take the ASOS homepage as an example. The site works really nicely with JavaScript. But, it becomes close to unworkable if we block JavaScript.

ASOS homepage with and without javascript

As you can see, we lose a lot of color and motion. We’re also served the spinning wheel of death for product images.

See if you can guess which of the screengrabs below had JavaScript disabled.

Javascript disabled on ASOS homepage

Google also ignores JavaScript when crawling pages. So, the screenshot on the right is also what GoogleBot sees when crawling the page. 

If something needs JavaScript to appear, Google can’t see it. Turning off JS means that most of the links on this page don’t work, so they are essentially rendered invisible. You can imagine how Google won’t like what they see. The impacts on SEO performance can be catastrophic.

The widespread use of ad blockers is just one major reason why you should never use JS for important elements of your website.

Impact of ad blockers on and from Google

Advertising on Google Ads is largely unaffected because Google is a member of the Acceptable Ads program. This whitelists Google’s ads to show through some of the most popular ad blocking programs. 

However, users still have the option of manually opting out. Many ad blockers let them disable whitelisted sites. This will then block search and display ads, including advertising on Facebook or Youtube.

Google Chrome has the highest market share of browsers in the UK and globally. So, Google does have some indirect influence on how some of these extensions will evolve. 

For example, Google’s Manifest V2 extensions will stop working within the Chrome Web Store starting from 17 January 2022. This impacts the underlying code on which a large number of current ad blockers run. The new V3 extensions will have a greater focus on security. They also restrict access to sensitive data. 

This change will reportedly force ad blocking tools to adapt and update. Google argues that “this change is meant to give developers a way to create safer and more performant ad blockers”. But, the move is widely seen as an attack on the least sophisticated blockers.

Impact on your advertising campaigns

By default, ad blockers only block those ads which are disruptive to the user experience. Ad blockers mostly affect display advertising, but that is only one piece of the puzzle.

Independent homepage with advertising

In theory, ad blockers can make the advertising market more efficient. They filter out users who don’t want to see adverts and who are unlikely to convert anyway. 

But, ad blockers will reduce ad spend for advertisers trying to expand their reach through display campaigns. The impact on different advertisers will vary depending on their size and industry. Competition for ad spaces might be increased, but the cost per lead can also decline by improving targeting. 

Ad blockers cause CPCs to rise as more advertisers compete for a smaller number of placements and advertising types. Standing out in front of your target audience is crucial. Measuring ad fatigue also becomes more important for any brand looking to advertise across different channels without annoying their audience. 

On the other hand, the impact of ad blocking on inbound marketing is likely to be very small. Organic and direct traffic isn't directly affected by ad blockers. On the contrary, the trustworthiness of owned and organic traffic increases further. 

Traffic volume through organic also rises as a result of ad blocking. If users get frustrated with the experience offered by ads, they will go through organic placements instead.

The increasing use of ad blockers, coupled with cookie and iOS updates, will likely encourage more focus on inbound marketing. Ad blockers prompt two major shifts in digital marketing:

  1. A greater need to drive organic traffic to your website through owned content that doesn’t trigger ads. 
  2. A need for better targeting, creatives and messaging within paid campaigns.

Regardless of where they sit in your buying funnel, the user’s intent should be at the heart of your strategy.

What does the future of ad blocking look like

A growing number of websites have started to restrict access of content to users who have installed ad blocking software. From GQ, to the Telegraph and Forbes, online content publishers have taken a stance to ask users to disable ad blockers if they want to access the content. 

Advertising is essential in supporting a large proportion of content on the web. Ads will therefore continue to shape the way both Google and the internet as a whole continue to evolve. 

The ongoing growth of ad blockers, platform updates centered on privacy, and cookie restrictions will continue to make the news. Ad blockers will continue to impact content publishers, users, and advertisers. 

Understanding the impact on ad spend, revenue and competition is crucial for marketers. Now’s the time to take action, with the growth of ad blockers increasing the importance of four of your key  priorities:

  1. Measuring the impacts of ad blocking
  2. Ranking well organically and reducing dependence on ads.
  3. Setting up cookieless tracking and building your first-party data.
  4. Improving your users’ ad experience across all channels. Serve creative and congruent messages across different touch points.

Are you interested to learn more about what this can mean for your online presence and your advertising? 

Our experts are on hand if you’d like an in-depth personal analysis of what’s affecting your paid media. Get in touch with the team here. We’d love to hear from you.

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