No One Can Stop Ad Blocking. Not Even Facebook
Facebook has a new way of getting your eyes on its ads.
Starting today, Mark Zuckerberg and company are giving you a way of providing more information about what ads you do or don’t want to see on its social network, and they promise to adjust your News Feed accordingly. Which is nice. But that’s not all. More controversially, inside your web browser, the company will try to slip its ads past your ad blocker by digitally disguising them as organic content.
The move is part of a much larger effort to thwart ad blockers, which have become increasingly popular over the past several years. A recent study published by the Interactive Advertising Bureau found that about 26 percent of people surveyed use ad blockers on their desktop and laptop computers and about 15 percent use them on mobile devices. That can make it more difficult for many companies to sell ads on their sites, and they’re looking for ways around it. Full disclosure: WIRED is part of this movement.
Facebook is hardly hurting for revenue. Its mobile app—which brings in about 84 percent of its income, according to its most recent earnings report—is largely immune to ad blockers. But its new move on the web could be a bellwether for the rest of industry. Facebook’s approach differs from other attempts to stop ad blocking, such as the one from WIRED, which attempts to prevent people from viewing a page if they have an ad blocker installed. Instead, a Facebook spokesperson tells us, the company is changing the way it renders ads on the desktop version of its website. The idea is that ad-blockers won’t be able to tell the difference between ads and everything else on the page, and therefore won’t block the ads.
At the moment, it’s unclear how well this will work. There’s a fair amount that Facebook can do to make it harder for machines to tell which blocks of code on its website refer to ads and which refer to conventional content. But the company does plan to make it clear to users which content is paid advertising, and that could provide the clues ad blockers need to spot the ads.
Certainly, the makers of ad blockers are skeptical. Facebook’s plan is “a little adrift of reality,” says Ben Williams, of Eyeo GmbH, the company behind the popular Ad Block Plus plugin. “Circumvention tactics have been around for 10 years, and because ad blockers have the support of an open source community, the workarounds they develop just have to be that much better than the previous circumvention.” Indeed, the popular ad blocker uBlock Origin is already capable of filtering sponsored advertising from many websites.
We were unable to reach Raymond Hill, the developer of uBlock Origin. But he did leave a comment on Hacker News, a popular online hangout for programmers, indicating that he’s already looking at some of the possible ways that Facebook might try bypass ad blockers.
Nonetheless, says Steve Newcomb, the founder of web interface company Famous, Facebook could make life difficult for ad blocking companies. Battling Zuckerberg and company will require all sorts of trial and error. “That means that early attempts will potentially block out real content by mistake,” Newcomb says. “Thus affecting a user’s experience in unintended ways.”
Fundamentally, web browsers and their plugins, such as ad blockers, can alter the content they download before displaying it. They can change the font on a web page. They can re-format the entire page so that the blind can read it. Or they can remove ads. But if they overdo it, they may cause problems. It’s a balancing act, and Facebook is trying to shift the balance. It may or may not succeed.
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