Apple’s Ad-Blocking Feature Is Sending Publishers Scrambling
Seth Weintraub has made a career of reporting on Apple. His website, 9to5Mac.com, is one of the go-to places for news about the company. But in an ironic twist, a feature tucked inside Apple’s latest software for the iPhone and iPad threatens to undermine the way his site makes money.
IOS 9, which is set for a Sept. 16 release, will allow owners of Apple’s newer mobile devices to download Web browser extensions that can block advertising from being shown while they browse the Web. The prospect has set off alarm bells at many media companies, but Apple extended an olive branch in the form of an app within the upcoming operating system called News, which will allow publishers to bypass blockers to serve their own ads or let Apple sell ads and share the revenue.
For Weintraub, whose blog gets about 60 percent of its traffic from people browsing on iPhones or iPads, Apple’s ad-blocking option has led him to consider new business models to make up for lost advertising revenue. His website is starting to focus on selling more sponsored content, a newer form of advertising popularized by Internet publishers, such as BuzzFeed, in which advertisers pay for articles. Weintraub is also exploring adding more links that steer people to buy products on websites such as Amazon.com, allowing 9to5Mac to collect a fee when somebody makes a purchase. “We're looking at steps to counter” ad blocking, Weintraub says. “There is a lot of indication that people are looking forward to using ad-blockers on mobile devices.”
Computer browsers have allowed the use of ad-blocking software for years, but it’s been growing in popularity recently. More than 198 million people worldwide actively use ad blockers, according to a study released in August by Adobe and PageFair, which makes ad-blocking software. At least 20 percent of 9to5Mac’s readers use an ad blocker when visiting the site from a PC, Weintraub says.
The trend is, of course, more pronounced for sites that cater to tech-savvy readers, but it’s becoming an issue that even the largest media companies are paying attention to. Walt Disney recently made a change to ESPN.com that rendered videos unwatchable for some users of a popular ad-blocking browser plug-in. Meredith Kopit Levien, the chief revenue officer at the New York Times, said on the company’s Aug. 6 earnings call that ad blocking is “a real issue for the ecosystem, and we, like everybody else, are trying to understand what impact it will have on our supply.” She said the effects haven’t been “material” but that the addition of mobile devices could make it “a bigger issue.”
Many publishers have been struggling to respond to a trend that undermines the central business model for much of the Internet. “You see a rapidly accelerating rate of adoption,” Jason Kint, the former head of CBS Interactive and head of the online publishing trade association Digital Content Next, said in an interview. “It’s a very big problem.”
AdBlock, one of the biggest makers of ad-blocking technology, says it’s working on software to release alongside iOS 9. “This is a very big deal for us,” says Gabriel Cubbage, the president of AdBlock. The software, which has about 40 million active users, works by identifying advertising content and preventing it from ever reaching the browser. Most Web ads come from a relatively small pool of servers owned by Google and other major online advertisers. “Ad servers are centralized, so it’s very easy to block them,” Cubbage says.
Eyeo, a German company that makes a similar plug-in called Adblock Plus, released a browser on the App Store on Tuesday that lets users of iPhones and iPads surf the Web ad-free without needing to update the operating system. Eyeo also said it will release a plug-in for Apple’s Safari browser after iOS 9 comes out, which is expected to operate similarly to its PC tool, which racks up about 3 million downloads a week, according to the company.
AdBlock and Eyeo have both said they aren’t against all types of online advertising but want new standards created. The companies say they are giving people a way to fight back against online marketers, which are using increasingly intrusive practices that violate people’s privacy. “We are being disruptive, but that’s what the industry needs,” says Till Faida, the co-founder of Eyeo.
Eyeo allows advertisers to bypass the blocking if their ads meet certain specifications, such as ensuring their content is clearly marked as advertising and doesn’t run preroll ads before a video. This program, which has allowed Facebook and Google to serve ads after paying a fee to Eyeo, is not universally loved. Meanwhile, AdBlock works with the Electronic Frontier Foundation to permit advertisers to avoid being blocked if they join the Do Not Track list, which aims to limit what tools advertisers use to keep tabs on people’s online activities.
Apple hasn’t publicly articulated why it will start allowing ad blockers on iOS, but Tim Cook has criticized Internet companies in the past for violating people’s privacy to boost ad revenue. “They’re gobbling up everything they can learn about you and trying to monetize it,” the Apple chief executive officer said in June during a speech at the Electronic Privacy Information Center. “We think that’s wrong.”
For publishers such as Weintraub’s 9to5Mac, the morals of today’s online ads are not as black and white. He said some websites will go out of business if they can’t sustain themselves through advertising. “If you go to a site, and you’re blocking their ads, then you’re not giving that site any reason to be in existence,” Weintraub says. “I don't hate the companies that are doing it or the users that do, but people are hurting the sites they are enjoying.”