Ad Blockers and PPC

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Ad blockers. A 2-word phrase that can strike fear into the hearts of PPC professionals. After all, we make our living from online advertising. The advent of technology that blocks our lifeblood is concerning to say the least.

Ad blockers work by detecting advertising code on a website, leaving blank space. They can also speed up page load times, especially on mobile devices, where content is often painfully slow to load. This is one of the reasons ad blockers have been adopted at a high rate – Smashing Magazine claims that 75% of their readers use them, and the iOS ad blocker app has been downloaded hundreds of thousands of times.

From a user standpoint, it’s pretty easy to see the appeal of ad blockers. I’m so tired of interstitials and pop-overs interrupting me when I’m trying to read an article online. On mobile, it’s often impossible to close or move the interstitials – which leads me to abandon the site entirely. It’s frustrating as a user.

And the web has indeed slowed to a crawl with all the tracking scripts running on many sites. Ad blockers can strip many of these tracking codes, speeding up the user experience – and killing the advertiser’s ability to track user behavior.

As I was researching for this post, I started to think about the definition of an ad. It’s clear that ad blockers define ads as third parties running ads on a website using javascript for Adsense or other ad syndicators. But what about ads for your own content? Aren’t those ads just the same?

Earlier this week, Ad Age ran an article called Three Reasons Why Ad Blockers Are Good for Advertising. They talk about over-saturation of the market, poor targeting, and the need for a better experience – all valid points.

But they contradicted themselves with the experience on their own website! When I first landed on the article, I was served a huge interstitial:

ad age interstitial

Sorry Ad Age – I don’t want to sign up for your “free” full access that you’re going to start charging me for after my “free” 14 day trial. I just want to read one article.

Once I got rid of the interstitial, I was treated to one of the most unappealing visual presentations of a web article that I’ve seen in a long time:

ad age ads

Look at that awful page. I had to scroll every sentence or two just to keep reading. Why? Because it was full of ads FOR THEIR OWN STUFF. Small Agency Guide! Look Book! Sign me up for the email that I just rejected on your stupid popup!

Is this what we’ve replaced “ads” with? Ads for our own crap? Is this the answer to the ad blocker problem? Is this a better experience??

Clearly, both the advertisers and the publishers need to do better. As PPC advertisers, we need to use better targeting. Use frequency caps. Resist the temptation to keep people on remarketing lists forever. Insist that clients use tag managers and limit the number of scripts running on landing pages. Maybe consider reducing your investment in display and remarketing and beef up search and RLSA – but only if display and remarketing aren’t performing. Base decisions on data, not a few outliers.

And publishers, don’t substitute ads for ads. Don’t frustrate and annoy your readers with silly popovers and ads filling the margins of your content. A bad on-site experience is just as responsible for the increase in ad blocker adoption as bad ads are. We’re all in this together. And it’s all about the user.

What say you? Are ad blockers impacting your PPC performance? Do publishers need to do better? Are ad blockers a “sky is falling” non-issue? Share in the comments!

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  1. I agree that we play a roll in this. IMO, Ad blocking is far more complicated than nearly almost any single party seems to be treating it.
    My attempt:
    – Consumers need to realize that “content costs”.
    – Engines/networks need to grow in ad relevancy placement
    – Publishers need to limit ads
    – Advertisers need to grow in customer identification (affecting ad serving – in some ways though, we’re trying and limited by the platforms) & messaging

    I don’t think this will be resolved until all of these things happen. I firmly believe in good advertising as it has been done for generations. When done well, ads connect a person in need of something and a retailer who wants to sell that something to that person. Happiness! This is a good thing (when done well). So Ad Blockers are nothing more than addressing the symptom of the illness itself. IMO, the illness isn’t ads themselves, it is poor ad relevancy and too many ads per content piece.

    I don’t think we’re to the “sky is falling” part yet (hundreds of thousands is a drop in the bucket compared to all those who don’t use ABs), but if we keep serving up awful pages like you referenced, I think we could get there. Heck, one time I had an auto-play video happen on a site, and then a pop-up jumped out of nowhere playing another different auto-play video and the two played over each other. Gee, can’t figure out how that would be a poor UX.

    Thanks for your post! Important for us to discuss these things and fix what we can.

    • Melissa Mackey says

      Thanks Kirk for your thoughtful reply. I agree, the sky is not falling, but this is a warning shot to advertisers and publishers alike. As advertisers, we need to use best practices; as publishers, we need to provide quality content and not annoy our users. In the end, we’ll all benefit.

  2. Let me narrate a short story before I answer the question in your last paragraph. I used to work in Oracle until 2009. JavaScript was banned on our browsers, so we couldn’t see Google Ads or any other ads. Since I was heading the company’s business development function, keeping a track of who advertises what and where was a part of my job description. I could apply for and get a special dispensation to enable JS on my browser so that I could view ads. But the rest of the employees – tens of thousands of them all over the world – could not. I’m sure the same security policy is in effect in thousands of companies worldwide. Surprisingly, I’ve never come across anything about this topic on the blogosphere. But I digress. My point is, vast swathes of target audience have been ad blind for decades. PPC has survived that. It will survive ad blockers. Like I tweeted once, “TV survived DVR. Web will survive Ad Blockers”. Despite the rise of ad blockers, U.S. Internet ad revenue rose 19% to $27.5 billion in the first six months of 2015 (

    • Melissa Mackey says

      Very good point. People have predicted the demise of TV ads ever since digital ads arrived many years ago. Super Bowl ads still sell for millions of dollars. TV ads haven’t gone away. And yes, many companies block ads and even entire sites due to security, and we’ve survived that for years. We will survive ad blockers too!

  3. In some ways I feel this is more of a publisher problem than an advertiser problem.

    Publishers need to monetize their content.

    Advertiser’s can go wherever the users are.

    Advertisers will find ways to get messages to users. There will always be free ad sponsored content (publishers); email/push/SMS type marketing for discounts, engagement via social, search based information retrieval, etc. Most ad blockers don’t block search ads; they generally block display ads since search based ads are generally relevant.

    I think we’re going to see an evolution from the publisher side about thinking of ad formats, sponsoring content in better ways (which can be non-intrusive, useful, ads), some micro transactions for content engagement, a return to more subscriptions, etc.

    The rise of ad blockers is much more disruptive to publishers than advertisers. Those two groups often work together, but you can be much more nimble as an advertiser than as a publisher. It’s the publishers who should be a lot more worried about this than the advertisers.

    • Melissa Mackey says

      Great points as always, Brad, and I agree. As an advertiser, I haven’t seen much impact that I can directly attribute to ad blockers, strictly because we don’t use a ton of display as compared to search. But the publishers have to be very concerned that the gravy train is about to be shut off. There are better ways to monetize content while still providing a good user experience.

      • I also think part of the question is this:
        Are ad blockers publisher extortion or a useful user feature?

        While in reality, its a bit of both; but you can pay many ad blockers to let your ads through (Google has paid ad block plus for years). So while the usage has risen due to user adoption; there are business models around ad blockers from selling data to being paid by publishers, etc. Ad Blocking companies (for the most part, EFF and such are exceptions) aren’t in this for the users – they have a business model as well 🙂

        • Brad, great point. I read an article recently on this (it escapes me where it was). Basically it was telling people not to be deceived into thinking Ad Blockers were all about altruism!

        • Is “Acceptable Extortion” a thing? I think it is in this case. I feel like the people that get pissed off enough about ads to download and use an ad blocker are probably the kinds of people who would get to the end of a grocery checkout and decide not to buy the box of Cheerios because the store won’t accept their expired $0.50 off coupon.

          Hopefully none reading this use ad blockers… 😉

      • @MelissaMackey:

        I know I’m digressing from the central theme of your post but your line “There are better ways to monetize content while still providing a good user experience” merits a separate post, if not book!

        There has been a raging debate over at Digiday for the past six months exactly on this topic. People have been predicting a revival of micropayments. Some have implemented lead collection forms in return for content. Native ad has also been mooted as another alternative for monetization. But some leading publishers have said, after trying out pilots of other approaches, that ads are the only viable business model and taking a hardline approach against ad-blockers is the only way to go. More at

    • Absolutely. Thank you for pointing this out – I totally forgot the entity perspective in my comment. That said, advertisers are invisible to target audience members that use ad-blockers. That can be a big problem, with the small consolation that they won’t have to pay for those (unserved) impressions / clicks.

  4. Just to clarify, my last comment was in reply to the comment from @BradGeddes: “In some ways I feel this is more of a publisher problem than an advertiser problem.” Although I hit reply to that comment, my comment didn’t get nested below it.

  5. 🙂

    Correct to previous poster – books could be written on this subject.

    There’s not too much I can add to the comments other than…

    As PPC managers do we need to worry just yet – I don’t think so.

    As a user – I have resisted using an ad blocker up until a few weeks ago, when one of my favourite sites became *completely* unusable. We are talking full screen (like near 1920×1080 type of full screen) pop up video ads, and so many other ads on the page that well, let’s just say that I had 2 choices. Stop using that site or install an ad blocker on one of my browsers. I’ve just timed loading the home page with and without an ad blocker running on desktop.

    With ad blocker = 5 seconds.
    Without ad blocker = 45 seconds!

    The sad thing is that if they asked me to pay a few dollars a month for ad free access to the site I definitely would (and I said as much to them on twitter but no reply).

    I personally think that easy to use micro-payments for content are well overdue, and something like though it onyl seems to cater at present for big newspaper type publishers.

    • Melissa Mackey says

      A sad example of exactly what many publisher sites have devolved to.

    • When I viewed my comment on mobile the “5 seconds” and “45 seconds” were replaced by inline video! Not sure what’s going on there… Just so you know.

      • Melissa Mackey says

        That’s so weird Jordan – I just checked on mobile and it’s fine here. Not sure what’s happening! Maybe you have an April Fools bugaboo!

  6. Display advertising has steadily been less of a focus for us over the past 4 years. The quality of the publisher has gone from poor to bad, to downright mobile app in game terrible. Weeding out the good from the bad publishers has become a fruitless effort. But then again we don’t market magic hand picks for Minecraft players.

    From an advertisers perspective; Is it all that bad that the people who don’t want to see ads don’t see our ads?
    Kind of acts like auto exclusion targeting?

    Does this form of blocking ultimately help bring focus to good ads and quality publishers with great user experiences?

    PPC ads will adjust, content publishers will adjust and other means of advertising like sponsored content will expand. Collectively, advertising will still happen and be highly effective. As far as I can tell consumers have not stopped buying, they simply want more say in what they are exposed to.

  7. Does anyone really WANT to see advertising? If you asked most people, I think the answer would be “no” or “only if it doesn’t bug me”. That is the first part of the problem. Advertising in and of itself is designed to stuff an advertiser’s message into something else, so there will always be a rub at the core of it.

    That being said though, publishers have gone off the deep end with tags that make their sites unusable. I also never thought I would think about any kind of ad blocking, but when I try to read an article and a site has 50+ tags running, it makes me seriously think about doing it. If it is on my phone? Even worse.

    I hope we have reached a tipping point where a better balance for what publishers need and what people want can happen.

    • Melissa Mackey says

      As usual, I agree with you, Julie! People’s kneejerk reaction to ads is “I hate them.” We need to match ads to customer needs, something many publishers do well and others do very poorly, putting money above all else.

  8. At the beginning of the year, I wrote a piece called, “Why I don’t fear ad blockers.”

    You can see it here:

    Just this week, I read a number of French news sites are either asking, or insisting, that users disable ad blockers if they want to see the content.

    Exactly as predicted.

    The issue for sites is now going to be whether they offer enough value that visitors will agree to disable blockers.

    And, of course, sites could make it easier to get compliance by having less intrusive ads, and avoiding poorly coded/slow loading/spammy ad networks.

    • Melissa Mackey says

      Couldn’t agree more, Steve. Thanks for your comment!

    • That’s a great post, Steve. I told a client the same thing, but it’s nice to have your numbers and theory. Big G’s definitely not going to sit idly by and lose that money if ABs continue to grow.

  9. Wonderful post, Melissa.
    I’m no expert at PPC but I do recall having read – and agreed to – that one of the roles ads play is keeping people informed and offering them choices. To that extent, ad blocking isn’t exactly a God’s gift.

    At least one person i know says ads are, sort of, non-money she pays for reading great content for free on the web.
    As long as ads don’t troll me to death, I’m fine.

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