Adblock software is a hot topic this month, spurred by the release of Apple's iOS 9. The Guardian is reporting that "less than a day after the launch of iOS 9, Apple’s latest operating system, content blocking software is at the top of the app charts worldwide." Owen Williams over at TheNextWeb hints we're in the middle of a sea change, noting that "content blocking will transform the mobile Web." And Jeffrey Zeldman, founder and publisher of A List Apart, goes cataclysmic, warning that "your site may soon be collateral damage in a war between Silicon Valley superpowers."
The bottom line is that if you're developing websites, adblock tech matters to you.
The rise in the use and availability of ad blocking software is going to affect you and the sites you build even if you don't run ads on the site. Here's why.
Adblock Point No. 1: Some websites or key features just don't work with ad blockers on
Fortune tested a number of websites, including those from Lululemon, Walmart and Sears. When they tested the sites from mobile using iOS 9 and the Crystal ad blocking app, in this case, there were some devastating issues. For example, Fortune couldn't get the Sears.com site to render on mobile with Crystal on. Oops.
I did a similar test on the Target site using AdBlock Plus on desktop. On the left is what I saw with the ad blocker turned off; on the right is what I saw with the ad blocker turned on.
Yup. The retail site just doesn't work the same with the adblock on. Customers can't buy some items from an e-commerce site. Going into the holiday season, this is a Bad Thing.
What to do: Test, test and test. In the same way we've all started to test across multiple screen sizes, resolutions and styles due to the proliferation of mobile, sites under development need to be tested with various desktop browser-based ad blockers and mobile adblock software installed to determine the effect, if any, on the end user experience.
Adblock Point No. 2: Ad blocking might block calls-to-action on your own site
Adblock tech might be crushing conversion on your site into dust. Here's an example: Head over to the Kissmetrics blog and go to any post on the site. Without an adblocker on, the post renders and there is a call-to-action to start a free trial for their service. With AdBlock Plus on, the entire call-to-action section of the page has gone missing. That'll leave a mark.
The clickthrough rate on the call-to-action on the right, when the adblock software is on, is going to be precisely zero percent. There's no actual unit being displayed on the page.
What to do: Make sure all critical assets in your conversion path still render correctly with ad blockers on across a variety of platforms and devices.
Adblock Point No. 3: Ad blockers might break analytics, even if your site doesn't contain ads
Many adblockers aggressively block scripts that run on sites. While many of these scripts serve ads and other visual units for the user, ad blockers can also prevent code for analytics tracking systems (like Google Analytics) from firing. Tracking codes for user funnel tracking and retargeting can get filtered out in some cases, which can muck-up campaigns and radically skew the data you or your customer are using to analyze and drive site and business decisions.
What to do: If the adblock software you're testing as a user against your site displays the rules it's matching, ensure that analytics code isn't being stripped out when someone visits the site. If the ad blocker doesn't easily expose that data, simply opening up the console may highlight the analytics calls that are failing. Additionally, there are techniques and even WordPress plugins to count visitors who are using ad blocking mechanisms or integrate that data into Google Analytics.
Adblock Point No. 4: Ad blocking means you need to think more about SEO
Most ad blockers strip not only display advertisements, but also ads in search — such as Google Adwords ads in search results. Using AdBlock Plus, for example, results for "Managed WordPress" change radically when the ad blocker is turned on. Note there are neither sidebar ads nor ads in positions 1 to 3 in the SERP.
With an adblocker turned on, it's critical to have the organic results nailed down if you want customers.
What to do: Write great content, use sensible onsite SEO techniques, and make it easy for visitors to share your content — driving up your organic Google-fu.
Adblocking is an arms race, with valid points of view on both sides of the table. Regardless of what side you're on, if you're a web designer or a developer, or you have your own website, you need to be thinking about how this accelerating trend is affecting how visitors interact with your sites.
Other good reads about ad blocking
- If you're looking for a primer on adblock technology, HubSpot explains how it works.
- Business2Community looks at if advertisers should be panicking.
- CSS-tricks digs deeper into the Google Analytics implications.
- Doc Searls, alumnus fellow of the Berkman Center at Harvard University, is an embedded reporter covering the adblock war.