Think back to 2012 -- a big year for Facebook
(NASDAQ:FB) and its users. Monetization was in the air; the social network rolled out news feed ads in January, promoted posts in the springtime, and sponsored search results that summer. CEO Mark Zuckerberg had long since made his peace
with advertising, but it wasn’t until Facebook’s IPO that users began to feel the full weight of this revenue stream, when ads began to displace status updates and photos.
This was also the year that ad blockers took off
. Around since the '90s, these browser extensions – which can remove all Web advertisements, or just those deemed offensive – had enjoyed a mild but stagnant success. In 2012, however, search interest in them nearly doubled. By November, “adblock” was a more popular Google
(NASDAQ:GOOG) query than “kittens.” Last year search interest doubled again. At this rate, searches for ad blockers will soon overtake those for Lady Gaga – although to be fair, the pop queen is in something of a bear market
PageFair says that the current ad-blocking rate – that is, the average percentage of Web ads being blocked – is around 23%, while ClarityRay pegs it closer to 10%. Both argue that this number is growing fast, but then, they’re also in the business of selling solutions to Web publishers. A lead investor in Adblock Plus suggests that
in the US, the percentage of ads blocked is more like 5%. But in 2009, it was 5% or 6% in Germany, and that figure has since tripled.
In any event, Adblock Plus is now the most popular plugin for Mozilla’s Firefox, while competitor AdBlock – notice the subtle difference in capitalization – claims top spot for Google’s Chrome browser and Apple’s
(NASDAQ:AAPL) Safari. So while the numbers may be a little wacky, there’s no denying that ad blockers have become a big deal.
Why the sudden explosion? Two reasons. First, advertisements have moved beyond the periphery of the Web experience and taken center stage. Sales pitches now pose as status updates. International conglomerates masquerade as friends. Older formats like banner ads provided a clear demarcation between content and promotion – we knew what to ignore – but these days it can be difficult to tell which is which. Now that sponsored ads have become the top priority
for marketers, it’s only natural that Web users would look for a way to cut the bull.
Then there are privacy concerns. In just a few years, we’ve progressed from Web cookies, to social data-mining, to all-encompassing Web IDs
. Empires are being built on the traffic in personal information, and unsurprisingly, polls show consumers growing wary
of Web royalty like Google and Facebook. Conversely, Snapchat rode to success last year on the back of a very simple promise: We’ll delete everything. This erosion of trust isn’t in itself a reason for blocking ads, but it does undercut the old argument that advertising supports the Internet, and so Web users should support it.
Which is not to say that ad blockers don’t have their own ethical problems. Adblock Plus has been accused of shaking down large corporations; last year, it was rumored that Google had paid them off
to protect its ads, and in October, Twitter
(NYSE:TWTR) was the target of an open letter
that asked, in what I imagine to be a Sicilian accent, “Why not work together?” Still, the company is clear about its definition of “acceptable” advertising, and it gives the user community final say when determining what Web pages get whitelisted.
Adblock Plus claims more than 200 million total downloads, and earlier this month it was released for Safari – making the plugin available for every major Web browser. It does face some headwinds in smartphones and tablets, as mobile browsers don’t always support extensions, the app environment poses challenges, and Google purged the Play Store of ad blockers last year. In many ways, PCs and mobile devices are converging
, but here we see a big difference: openness. Is it any coincidence that advertisers are growing bolder as closed platforms offer them more protection?
With Facebook dabbling in video ads
, Twitter searching for revenue and quarterly results, and marketers getting a little too clever for their own good, 2014 is likely to be a banner year for ad blockers. They’re a danger to the Web, there’s no doubt about that. Advertising supports publishers, bloggers, artists – everyone. However, they’re also consumer advocates at a time when free services have led many companies to approach their customers with the attitude that “beggars can’t be choosers.” Whether ad blockers are good, bad, or just necessary, the important point is probably the simple one: They’re here.
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