Mobile Ad Blocking

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At present ad block rates on mobile devices are only a few percent as of mid 2016. Although the data from the Adobe / PageFair report that is widely quoted in the advertising industry was obtained before Apple released its iOS content blocker feature that enables ad blocking on iPhones, data from leading publishers as of April 2016 indicates that iOS content blocking is still in the low single digits, if not less than 1% for some major publishers.

This is particularly surprising since we spend more time consuming digital media on mobile than on desktop, and the overall number of mobile Internet users exceeded the number of desktop users years ago. Consequently we would expect to see much higher ad block rates on mobile, especially since mobile users are limited by 3G/4G network quotas that are significantly impacted by advertising. Why don’t we we see higher ad block rates on mobile?

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There are a few reasons why we don’t currently see higher ad block rates on mobile, but these reasons are temporary and I expect the next battle ground for ad blocking will occur on mobile. The mobile battle will be significantly different from the desktop battle, but let’s start with the reasons why so few people block ads on mobile today.

The biggest reason people don’t use ad blockers on mobile is that they are too difficult to use, starting with installation. If you search for “Adblock” in the Android app store, you will find numerous alternate browsers you must download and use rather than use one of your standard browsers like Chrome or FireFox. This has all sorts of problems, starting with the fact that the user must learn a whole new browser. Also these new browsers will lag behind the mainstream browsers in terms of new features and bug fixes. And because ad blocking breaks the functionality of some sites, you have to be prepared to disable ad blocking.

On iOS, Apple introduced content blocking which lets you continue to use Safari, Firefox, and other browsers that support content blocking rather than install a different browser, so this is an improvement over the Android situation. Still, not many people take advantage of iOS content blocking. Why could that be?

Users spend a significant amount of their time – often the majority of their time – using their mobile applications rather than using their mobile web browser. Since ad blockers have no way to easily block advertising in mobile applications, users accept that ads will appear in their applications. Since they tend to use their applications more than their browser, and since content blocking breaks some web sites, the value proposition isn’t there for many users.

While there are no easy ways to block ads in mobile applications, there are hard ways. Essentially what you do is set up a proxy server / firewall running on your mobile device, and route all your network traffic through that firewall. The firewall is configured to block network connections to ad servers and related technology on the ad block filter list. Adblock Plus for Android is such a proxy server / firewall (not the Adblock Plus browser which is a dedicated ad blocking browser).

Unfortunately, this Android firewall solution is currently crippled with fatal problems. First, Google – not surprisingly – does not permit Adblock Plus to distribute its firewall application through the Google Play store, so you have to download it from a web site and install it manually.

The next problem is that users must manually configure their Android network connection to use a proxy server, and then perhaps reboot their phone. This is asking quite a bit of users for a mobile application installation, and if you mess up the configuration, you lose your WIFI connection.

Perhaps the biggest problem is that it just doesn’t work. I just installed Adblock Plus for Android (the proxy server version) and tested it with both CNN and Huffington Post, two Android applications that display advertising. In the case of Huffington Post, Adblock Plus was not able to block the ads on the bottom of the screen. In the case of CNN, it broke the functionality of the application and prevented me from viewing some new stories. Even worse, Adblock Plus did something to my CNN installation because I was not able to view news stories until I uninstalled Adblock Plus, reverted the changes I made to my network connection, and cleared all the cached data from CNN. What a pain in the ass, and certainly a clue to me that this technology is nowhere near ready for prime time.

Although mobile ad blocking has a long way to go, this will inevitably be the next battleground, once adblockers solve the current round of issues and get real traction on mobile. When this happens, application publishers will respond to protect their revenue, as would be expected. And so the battle rages on.

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One thought on “Mobile Ad Blocking

  1. This is enlightening. The ad blocking battle for most publishers is still in the early stages…some damage has been done but not enough to really impact their most premium inventory. But as awareness of ad blockers grows in the next 6-12 months, the horizon may bring more than storm clouds and limited damage…and the best prepared publishing teams will be able to execute faster and better.

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