What The Block? An Exploration of the Future of Digital Advertising in an Ad Block Climate

Why the fuss over ad blocking?

Ad blocking is one of the topics Distilled covered in Searchscape (which showcases our predictions for the future of search) late last year, defining it as one of the most poignant topics in search for 2016. At their simplest, ad blockers are apps, plugins or browser extensions that alter or block ad content on a page.


Although ad blockers have been in use for over a decade, numerous lawsuits involving ad blocker companies vs. publishers, the mobile network Three’s bid to introduce ad blockers to its consumers and Apple’s release of IOS 9 opening the door to ad blocking apps like Purify, the idea of reading ad-free content while surfing the net has been thrust into the public eye.

While there is a general understanding that ad blockers just block intrusive ads, their capabilities vary greatly. The following table shows some ad blocker features available*:

Ad Blocker

Show Non-Intrusive ads

Block Ads

Block Social


Block Youtube Ads

Block Tracking


Adblock Plus








Ublock Origin











*Note - Where the (-) symbol appears, this is either not an option or official documentation did not specify

Other benefits to users with an ad blocker enabled include improving page speed and dodging data collection from trackers on mobile, desktop and tablet. This is great for internet users, but naturally ad blockers are causing a problem for publishers and advertisers, and are set to cost the advertising industry 41 billion dollars in revenue in 2016.

What does ad blocking mean for advertisers?

In life, putting all your eggs in one basket has never been advised, and the same is true for digital marketing strategy. When it comes to ad blocking, if the majority of your budget, time and effort is spent on paid advertising, as is the case for 70% of respondents in the annual state of PPC report, your marketing model could be in jeopardy.

For the search term ‘London to Amsterdam’ there is a stark difference between SERPs when an ad blocker is enabled and disabled:

With the ad blocker disabled, four PPC ads are prominently shown above the fold, followed by Google’s own flight comparison table and maps, before organic links follow. As soon as the ad blocker is enabled PPC ads and the Google comparison table disappear. It must be noted that with the most popular ad blockers (such as Adblock Plus, which has a 51% market share), Google ads are whitelisted. However, their eligibility to show relies heavily on whether a user decides to allow these ‘non-intrusive ads’ to show by checking a box in their ad blocker settings. If Google ads are not whitelisted, this can lead to:

  • A decrease in clicks: as ad blockers are stopping advertisers’ ads showing in SERPs and web pages.

  • A decreased user base: with a decrease in visibility, and in turn impressions, the number of potential new users acquired through paid advertising will inevitably fall.

What does ad blocking mean for publishers?

The obvious downside to users blocking content for publishers is a loss in ad revenue due to blank inventory space on their sites. This is an undesirable situation as their business models often rests heavily on ad revenue to fund content development that can be released to users free-of-charge.

Another disadvantage for publishers relates to how an ad blocker can interfere with a site’s design and user experience. For users that visit a site that serves ads with an ad blocker enabled; as the page loads the ad blocker blocks content based on predefined sites and scripts it was built to block. However at times blockers can end up doing ‘too good of a job’, resulting in the blocking of social comments, a site’s own calls-to-action, and even non-ad content; often leaving a site looking broken or misaligned:

Buzzfeed.com with ad blocker disabled

Buzzfeed.com with an ad blocker enabled

Luxury hotel chain Mrandmrssmith.com’s own calls-to-action disappear when an ad blocker is enabled

Marks & spencers’ most probably costly page takeover on Dailymail.co.uk is reduced to nothing but white space after an ad blocker is enabled.

Where do we go from here? - The brave new world

As we enter the field of the unknown, with policy and features for ad blockers changing weekly it is difficult to know what moves to make. Below are a few options available for both publishers and advertisers.

For publishers

Think carefully about a playwall/first click

A ‘playwall’ strategy can be put in place to persuade users into disabling their ad blocker, which involves withholding content and asking a visitor to disable their blocker to see it. This is seen quite often across the web, which can be quite effective for major sites (like the message overlaid on Channel Four video content below).

Despite this method being used frequently, it can often lead to a backlash, with some site visitors feeling that their choice to avoid seeing ads has been revoked. As a result of this, some site visitors may choose to use competitor sites where they can view the same content without these restrictions, while others are using extensions, tools and coming together to develop scripts such as Adblock Killer to regain control. Adblock Killer helps users with an ad blocker installed to continue viewing content without the need to disable it, by convincing sites that use anti-adblock technology into believing that you don’t have an ad blocker installed.

With some companies standing on the defiant side (French publications Le Monde, L’Equipe, Le Parisien) collectively blocking all content to users until they disable their ad blocker, Forbes have taken a hybrid approach to ad blocking by asking site visitors to disable their ad blocker, and rewarding them for doing so with a version of the site for 30 days that is less ad heavy:

Screenshot of Forbes.com when my ad blocker is enabled

Screenshot of view once ad blocker is disabled

Understanding whether to respect visitors wishes by allowing ads on your site to be blocked or forcing users to disable ad blockers is a difficult decision which is costly in terms of revenue on both sides. In one instance limiting or removing ads on your site can lead to a significant loss in revenue, while forcing visitors to see ads they are not interested in can make it far harder to market to them in the future.

As always, the best way to decide what is right for your business is with cold, hard data. Tapping into your analytics data can reveal some interesting insights about your customers, that you can measure against the key insights identified for ad blocking to date (a great source of data is available in the 2015 Adobe/Pagefair Ad Blocking Report). In making your decision it’s important to think about the age, location and ‘browser personality’ of your audience.

Considering these factors, according to the Adobe/Pagefair study, if your target audience is predominantly male, use Chrome, are between 18-29, they are far less forgiving towards a site forcing ad compliance.


Clean up your act

French publication Le Figaro has culled irritating, intrusive ads from its site in favour of user satisfaction, which has come at a cost of 2.3 million dollars. Alexis Martin, COO at Le Figaro stated “We have unplugged every single intrusive ad format and external sales house...but that’s necessary if you want to continue building a sustainable business. We see it as our duty to do it,”.

According to the Adobe/Pagefair study, the majority of users that enable ad blockers do so to avoid annoying ads. The refreshing response to ad blocking from Le Figaro suggests that it is not necessarily the use of ad blocking that should be addressed as the problem, but rather the quality and quantity of ads being served. Considering this and making changes to the ads you serve on a platform by platform basis, may be what is needed to persuade users to disable ad blockers and start trusting publications again.

Flattr plus

Standing behind their Acceptable Ads program, which removes intrusive ads from pages, Adblock Plus helps users surf the web without being bombarded with intrusive ads. However, this comes at a cost to many publishers opening the door to lawsuits, publisher ‘content cartels’ and ad blocker-blocker tracking; which may be violating users’ rights.

Since this initiative was established in 2011, Adblock Plus have understood both publisher and user frustrations and have been looking for a way for publishers to fund the production of their content that doesn’t involve ads; and they may have found the solution.

Adblock Plus have teamed up with Flattr, a microdonations service that allows its users to financially support their favourite content creators. Using Flattr, a user set a monthly budget for all the content they watch and read online. This touches on the idea that users get what you pay for, and can feel good about themselves as they browse through their favourite content on the internet.

Beta sign-up is available on at Flattrplus.com. However, the full version won’t be released until the end of the year.

For advertisers

Get social

With recent updates to their branded content policy, Facebook has made it easy for brands and advertisers to share branded content with help from verified Pages. This initiative is a nod to native advertising, as brands can seamlessly post content into user feeds in partnership with a person/group/brand that promoted their brand. An example of this content in action is Lady Gaga promoting Intel:

Example Brand Ad Intel x Lady Gaga

Sponsored ads can use text, article and link formats with Facebook live capabilities coming shortly. Despite the many formats available, not all types of branded content will be accepted (pre-roll ads, profile pictures and sponsored cover photos are forbidden).

Be organic

With ad blockers making text and shopping ads virtually invisible in SERPs, those users are being steered towards natural search results. Inevitably, with organic links reaching the top spot in SERPs for users with ad blockers enabled, the organic search space will become more competitive; so making sure you have optimised your pages for search is paramount. This extends beyond keyword rich title and H1 tags and meta descriptions, to optimising your content for other sections of Google search such as Image Search, to increase the chances of generating clicks to your site.

The images below show a search for ‘Pogo Sticks’, firstly with ad blocker disabled, and ad blocker enabled. When an ad blocker is enabled, shopping ads that feature prominently on the page disappear in favour of organic links. However, between these links Google images appear to take position three on the page. 

Last year’s Searchmetrics universal search review revealed that 80% of all search results are enriched with at least an image, video, map or news; with 40% of all search results containing images. With these figures up from results in previous years, we can only expect a further increase going forward.

Joint effort (publishers + advertisers)

Try native advertising

Also known as sponsored content, native advertising is brand content produced in partnership with a publisher that matches their style and voice; with the hopes of leading users to your brand. This content can be seen as an ad. However, the message is a lot more subtle. One company that deserves your attention when it comes to native advertising is Netflix. Some brilliant content examples include:

  • Their Cocaineomics piece where they teamed up with the Wall Street Journal to promote their new show Narcos

Netflix’s native advertising is successful because the content blends seamlessly with the tone of the each publication’s existing content, while providing the type of content it’s users both expect to see and want to read, thus respecting their target audience.

When you disrespect your target audience the impact can be very counterproductive. This is infamously presented by the Church of Scientology’s native advert in partnership with The Atlantic in 2013 (unfortunately, I can’t provide a link because the article was pulled shortly after posting due to backlash, and the cached version is no longer available):

Screenshot of the Scientology article on The Atlantic

Despite noting that the content is sponsored like Netflix did for their native ads, and the level of credibility The Atlantic has, like Netflix; this Scientology/ Atlantic partnership failed. The article had quite a biased stance, didn’t share information that their audience would value and didn’t match the publishers tone of voice.

Ad blockers like Adblock Plus have noted that they have the functionality to block this type of content. However, truly engaging content from well thought out brand/publication partnerships could make users think twice about hiding content.

Get whitelisted

There is still the possibility to serve your ads to your target audience, however in some cases there’s a catch: payment. Ad blockers such as Adblock Plus allow whitelisting for advertisers and publishers whose ads adhere to their Acceptable Ads Initiative, which can be beneficial. This whitelisting process is free for small-medium size companies, however larger sized companies like Google and Amazon that have been through the process, have had to pay a fee as “managing this list requires significant effort on our [Adblock Plus’] side”. Once a company has been through the process and have been approved, ads will begin to show to users that have the ‘allow some non-intrusive ads’ option box checked in their ad blocker settings.

Although it sounds like after all the effort taken to create non-intrusive ads, a user can simply decide not to see these ads, a survey performed by Adblock Plus revealed that 75% of its users would check the ‘allow some non-intrusive advertising’ box. 


With the use of ad blocking software rising year-on-year with browsers like Apple and Chrome advocating the movement, it is clear that it is something that is not going away anytime soon. Advertisers and publishers need to think about evolving and future-proofing their marketing strategy to advertise in an ad block world. 

Time, money and effort should be spent on marketing that remains steadfast in the face of ad blocking such as SEO; while leveraging existing data and new marketing techniques to create and serve content that is truly engaging, targeted and as non-intrusive to the desired target audience as possible.  

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