Ad blocking in iOS 9 won't kill the Web

Journalists have a hissy fit after Apple announces ad blocking in iOS 9

The news about Apple adding tools to iOS 9 to let developers create ad blockers has rattled the publishing world. There have been a number of articles critical of Apple for doing this, and some writers seemed like they were about to have an emotional meltdown about ad blockers coming to Safari in iOS 9.

But all of this worry is misplaced and I'll tell you why in this post. Before I do that, let's sample some of the coverage about ad blocking tools being included in Safari in iOS 9, and later I'll also include a look at how some readers reacted to the news.

Journalists freak out over ad blocking in iOS 9

Here's a quick sampling from three articles about ad blocking in iOS 9.

Julia Greenberg at Wired seems convinced that Apple is trying to manipulate publishers:

Apple is coming for ads. It’s coming for publishers. And, in the process, it may be gunning for the Web.

...buried in documentation released after the conference, the company revealed another update to iOS 9—app developers will be able to create ad blocking software for Safari’s mobile browser.

...Apple is trying to pull iPhone and iPad users off the Web. It wants you to read, watch, search, and listen in its Apple-certified walled gardens known as apps. It makes apps, it approves apps, and it profits from apps. But, for its plan to work, the company will need those entertainers and publishers to funnel their content to where Apple wants it to be. As the company makes strategic moves to devalue the web in favor of apps, those content creators dependent on ads to stay afloat may be forced to play along with Apple.

More at Wired

Philip Elmer-DeWitt at Fortune included a quote from an analyst that thought publishers might lash out against Safari users for blocking ads:

Then he goes further. This is the sentence that caught my eye:

“In a worst case scenario, this is Apple against the entire mobile publisher and advertiser ecosystem; not Criteo itself. If browsers start negatively impacting publishers’ abilities to monetize their mobile content, it may trigger a backlash where certain sites are “not optimized for use with Safari.”

It’s easy for Tim Cook to rail against the ad biz. That’s not where Apple’s bread is buttered. But if Cook pushes his campaign too far, these guys are saying, it could come back to bite him.

More at Fortune

Eric Griffith at PC Magazine worries about ad blocking in iOS 9 and notes that Apple will never allow developers to block its iAds advertising that appears within apps:

So why not use it? Blocking ads on our site, for example, directly impacts the bottom line—and puts our site, our staff, and our future at risk. The same goes for thousands of sites, including big names like The New York Times and Fox News. These large outlets have a huge audience, yet still make a pittance online, so imagine the outcome for a bunch of smaller, online-only venues.

Who won't get screwed by mobile Safari's content blocking? Apple's iAds. That's because Apple doesn't do ads for the browser—it does them in iOS apps. Those ads will never, ever be blockable. With the closed system that is iOS, any app that would try 1) wouldn't work because they wouldn't be targetable with JSON files or via protocols like HTTP, and 2) if it did work, Apple would ban it.

With this move, users will eventually wonder why their favorite website died before finding another set of content to plunder. But more specifically, it will help Apple get a complete and thorough stranglehold on the ads within iOS.

More at PC Magazine

What I've included here is just a small sample of the coverage about ad blocking in Safari for iOS 9, but it gives you an idea of the panic that has occurred among some publishers who are worried about losing revenue.

Why the journalists quoted above are wrong about ad blocking in iOS 9

Julia Greenberg at Wired may well be right that Apple would prefer that people get news and other information from within apps, but somehow I doubt that that's Apple's main reason for adding ad blocking tools to Safari. It implies that so many iOS 9 Safari users will block ads that Web publishers will have no choice but to dump their websites and put all of their content into iOS apps instead.

But that's just silly, even if 50 percent of iOS 9 users blocked ads there is no way publishers are going to suddenly move all their content from the Web into apps. They might consider using Apple's new iOS 9 News app in addition to publishing on their own sites, but no app is going to completely replace a website at this point.

Philip Elmer-DeWitt at Fortune used an analyst quote to speculate that publishers might blacklist Apple's mobile Safari browser. This is one of the stupidest things that any publisher could do. Any attempt to block Safari for iOS 9 or to provide a sub-par experience to "punish" users for blocking ads will blow up in the face of any publisher that tries it. Word will get around if anybody tries it and the publisher would get a huge black eye in terms of public relations among Apple's customers.

Eric Griffith at PC Magazine had an interesting point about iAds vs. Web ads in iOS 9. However, one thing he hasn't taken into consideration is that ads that appear in iOS apps are usually far less annoying than the ones that appear on some websites. So who's fault is it really if users prefer using an iOS app for their news and information instead of a website? And nobody is stopping PC Magazine or any other publisher from making their content available via Apple's upcoming News app in iOS 9 or even via their own iOS app.

Ad blocking in iOS 9 might encourage better behavior by publishers

One thing that has not gotten much attention is the idea that ad blocking in Safari for iOS 9 might help encourage better ad practices by publishers. Once users have the ability to block ads, it forces publishers to rethink what kinds of ads they run, how many are on each page, and how they are placed and displayed for readers. Basically ad blocking in Safari empowers users to hit back if publishers annoy them with poor ad practices.

And let's not forget that ad blockers also include the ability for readers to whitelist sites that they value and want to keep visiting. With just a tap or two a user can easily allow ads to load on their favorite sites, and encouraging whitelisting is something that publishers should already be doing instead of wringing their hands and having an emotional meltdown about ad blocking.

You'd be amazed at how many readers are willing to whitelist a site if the publisher takes the time to ask them to do it. The popular tech site Ghacks turned to its readers for support, including asking them to whitelist the site in their ad blockers, and the response from readers was overwhelmingly positive.

Many readers not only whitelisted the site, but they also made direct donations to support the site. And Ghacks also added something to its pages that detected ad blockers and then included a link on how readers could support the site.

The folks at Ghacks were clearly thinking outside of the box when it comes to ad blockers. They knew they had a problem and they were direct and honest in approaching their readers about it. The readers, appreciating the content of the site, were quite happy to support Ghacks by whitelisting and by making direct financial contributions. Ghacks did a great job in dealing with the issue of ad blocking and then took it to another level by offering additional options for readers to support the site.

Mac Daily News is a great Apple news blog that is also reconsidering the ads it runs based on the news about ad blocking coming to iOS 9. The site has already posted a message to its readers about changes to its advertising:

Somewhere there’s a happy medium in the land of free-to-visit websites, where the ads support the publishers’ operating costs (and even – gasp! – some profit) and actually work for the users (you find a good deal on an SSD drive, for example), yet don’t bombard the user with too many ads, ads that are too intrusive, offensive, or annoying. At MacDailyNews, we’re working diligently to get there (more info here) and we thank you for your support!

MacDailyNews is a independent website. We’re not owned by a large corporation. Without our advertisers, we wouldn’t be here. As always, thank you so much for visiting and for your support! We really appreciate it!

More at Mac Daily News

So publishers that are worried about ad blocking in iOS 9 need to pause and rethink how they do things. This includes a hard look at the kind of ads running on their sites, the placement of the ads and the number of ads that appear on each page.

And publishers also need to offer readers additional ways to financially support their site, and also make it easy for readers to find that information and then act on it.

Ghacks is a great example of what a publisher - even a small publisher - can do to deal with ad blocking and the overall financial viability of a site.

How do readers feel about ad blocking in iOS 9?

I've shared the reactions of a few journalists to the news about ad blocking in Safari for iOS 9, but what about readers of websites? How do they feel about it? Well, as you might imagine, most of them are very happy that Apple is doing this.

Here's a sampling of comments from the article by Eric Griffith at PC Magazine:

Worleyeoe: "You do realize that most consumers are going to disagree with you, right? IMO, the amount of advertisements, especially flash based ones, is rapidly getting out of control. Personally, I would use it just to keep ads from auto playing that I have no interest in seeing. It's up to the content providers to adapt and create information that's in demand, even if that means there's some sort of micro-subscription model that needs to evolve. And I for one am all for doing something that puts Google on notice that their monopolistic ways are wrong and at risk. Google without question has become what MS was in the late 90's."

Jurassic: "It sounds to me like you are just trying to justify the billions of dollars of ad revenues that Google makes from selling all of those intrusive Web ads (a small portion of the money does go to the website owners).

If you truly enjoy loading and looking at Web ads, and if you use iOS 9, there is a simple solution... Just use the Chrome app for iOS instead of Safari.

For everyone else (myself included) who is tired of seeing ads (including animated ads, auto start video ads, pop-up ads, etc.) slowing the loading of web pages, and using up precious cellular data, we will be using Safari with the ads blocked."

Realist : "Internet Ads are the penny stocks of Wall Street. I'm sorry this invasive and annoying process will be eliminated in the future... Not really. Who clicks on these things anyways? Legitimate advertisements need to be embedded into the website in a non invasive, flashless style. If the Ad-pocalypse was handled correctly from the beginning, you wouldn't have to worry about precious revenue being lost."

Dan Phillips : "PCMag has been quite unsympathetic to the affects of "disruptive technology" on the music industry, including the notable "LimeWire is Dead: What Are the Alternatives?" article guiding users to new piracy -- oops, sorry, peer-to-peer -- applications. It sounds like you're suddenly more concerned about disruptive tech when it might be hitting your own wallet. Well, just figure out another way to make money; if what you're doing is worthwhile, then surely people will be glad to support you! How about selling t-shirts, or touring more?"

Eric H. Peterson : "I had to get past 2 very annoying pop ups just to read your article. The ads on the side of the article are "ok" for most consumers and readers. The pop ups make me close 99 percent of articles I go to read. In this case I waited them out just to comment on how much every single person hates them. Please get rid of them now..."

Nick : "Fudge your bottom line. If your business is staying afloat solely because of junk ads on your website, you deserve to fail. Ad-block FOR LIFE. You don't get to show ads on MY device I paid for on MY bandwidth I pay for. YOU don't get to make that decision. I do."

Freediverx : "Targeted advertising is a cruel joke. It's trumpeted as a way to connect advertisers with consumers who are interested in their products. In reality it's a way to push garbage products on disinterested consumers."

Hikingmike : "What about ad-supported websites that don't have a separate business? Small websites? I'm sure you've gone to a few. Just fudge them? I think that would be bad for everyone. It would reduce the democratization of the web. Now if you're talking about just the really annoying ads, then I'm with you.

I think you make the decisions on your device for which websites you visit (along with a search engine probably). Also, I'm pretty sure PC Magazine pays for some of the bandwidth to get their content to you."

M97402 : "The thing is it is my computer and my Internet connection and my eyeballs and ears. It is therefore my privilege to block content and tracking as I see fit. On the flip side of things, web sites that don't like their ads blocked are free to deny my access, ask me nicely to turn off my ad-blocker, or the site can put up a pay-wall and make it members only. Freedom is a great thing.

I actually donate money for good shareware and I do try websites that I frequent without ad blocking. Some of them have gotten the message and cleaned up and I leave the blocking turned off. Some web sites also ask me nicely to turn off my ad blocker and I do if I find them not to be objectionable. One site even turned off their ads as I participated quite a bit in their forums."

Anonymous : "The real answer, free content without extremely obnoxious ads is the only long term solution. If providers can't figure out how to do that then they will die. They made no effort to go in that direction after several decades so Apple intervened. For anyone who actually seen their iAds they know they are much less intrusive than the vast majority of Web ads."

More at PC Magazine

As you can tell, there wasn't much sympathy for publishers in that PC Magazine comments thread. Oh sure, there were a few people taking the side of publishers here and there, but most people were quite critical about the ads that appear on so many sites.

And publishers should take note that some readers seemed willing to whitelist sites that included ads in a reasonable way that didn't disrupt their reading experience.

Publishers need to do some soul searching about ad blocking in iOS 9

Rather than fret or rage about ad blocking coming to iOS 9, I think publishers need to do some real soul searching right now. They need to start seeing their sites from the point of view of readers, and they need to adjust their ad practices accordingly. Many readers have a sense of loyalty to their favorite sites and publishers need to take that into account and let their readers know that they really do care about their overall experience.

And, as I noted above, publishers need to be direct in asking readers to whitelist them as well as offering other options to financially support their sites. Some readers hate advertising, and will never allow it. But they may be open to other options to financially support their favorite sites. So why not offer it to them? It surely won't hurt if a reader is able to easily make a direct financial contribution to a site.

Unlike some other writers, I'm hopeful that ad blocking in iOS 9 might end up being a very positive thing for publishers and readers alike. It's a chance for publishers to step back and rethink how they do things, and it's an opportunity for readers to pause and consider the value of the sites they visit.

Hopefully both parties will do right by each other and everybody will be eventually be happy.

Update: For more information about WebKit Content Blockers, be sure to read Benjamin Poulain's terrific post on the Surfin' Safari blog.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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