Content blocking & the end of online ads

With iOS9, Apple will introduce the concept of content blocking. This is a concept that allows apps & plugins to Safari & other browsers to block certain types of content. Most savvy users of browsers on desktop platforms are probably used to this concept through AdBlock and similar services.

For myself and many other users, the only place we’re exposed to online advertising these days is on mobile. And this is, by far, the worst place to get ads. It’s why I lean into RSS readers so much, even if the web experience is more beautiful in a lot of cases.

The effect of content blocking is meant to stop nefarious javascript trying to gain unauthorised access to some part of your phone or iPad. However, this isn’t quite the full story. Content blocking will also be able to block cross-site tracking scripts provided by third parties. The most prominent third party here would be Google, who tracks user cookies across any site that has their Analytics tracking code installed; which, to be fair, is most sites. Other marketing products provide similar tracking, but not always across domains/sites.

This means you’re not being tracked as you browse, you’re less likely to see adverts and most importantly for most users: your online experience will be faster.

So, is this the end of online ads? Nope. Not by a long shot.

Advertising accounts for a huge amount of revenue driven in the online economy. And systems like Google Adwords account for most of that revenue share. Isolated services like Facebook or LinkedIn account for huge shares too, but they’re unlikely to have adverts posted on any other part of the web (though they do track your web usage on sites that contain a ‘share’ button).

The difference between today and a more mature web that’s more actively blocking ads is that the future, more mature, web will not rely on cookie-tracked adverts that try to subvert the rules of common browsing decency and start to get intelligent.

When advertising emerged on television, broadcaster networks would allow adverts that clearly attempted to subvert the human subconscious by allowing hidden messages to appear in adverts which would, in turn, attempt to make your subconscious buy products. That got banned and what emerged was a more modern, mature version of advertising. Americans will probably disagree with this sentiment thanks to the sheer volume of awful ads that appear on US television, but the rest of the world can rejoice. That said, modern advertising has to get even more intelligent as a more mature audience steps up to platforms like Netflix and YouTube rather than HBO and CNN.

A similar shift is likely with online advertising, in my mind. People will still spend money in Adwords, but instead of opting into tracking user behaviour to try to get the ad in front of the right eyeballs; the assumption is that the right eyeballs (20 and 30-somethings) are more savvy and aren’t even seeing the ad. So the ad, stripped of cookie tracking and placed on the right kind of site, will be more appealing and less intrusive to the browser.

Having javascript, flash or other technology drive an ad makes it go away with most adblock software. I don’t think I’ve seen an advert on a site in years. Yet I’m still a massive consumer and undoubtedly persuaded by ads. They just have to be more subtle. Just look at how services like Squarespace and Shopify rose to prominence in the tech scene simply by throwing a few thousand dollars at big podcasts. Even I bought a Shopify account for an old employer when we decided to have an eCommerce presence!

Those podcast ads are intrusive, but they’re not so intrusive that they’re subverting the rules of entertainment. The podcast host typically reads the copy in an entertaining way, and it doesn’t take too long to get back to the main content in the podcast. Similarly, ahead-of-the-curve advertising networks like Carbon are invite-only to publishers and advertisers, allowing only top quality content on sites & ads. These can, in many cases, skip the adblock craze by being more attuned to their audiences and less about phishing for user data. They also contain ads for products that I might be interested in by proxy of me being on a site that’s involved in a particular topic.

In short: online advertising is about to get a wakeup call. It matured from the era of flashing banners telling you that you won a prize for being the nth visitor to a page, and now it needs to mature from he era of dodgy scripts scraping browser history to hyper-target people in a digital Minority Report manner. Unlike Minority Report, the average internet denizen is growing up more cautious of advertising.