Can Facebook Defeat AdBlock Plus?

Contributor, August 18, 2016

Blocking the Ad Blockers

In an effort to confront ad blocking software that prevents digital ads from loading, Facebook announced on August 9, 2016, that it would begin preventing third-party software from blocking advertisements from loading into its desktop news feed. 

Facebook’s pushback against ad blocking is directed primarily at AdBlock Plus, a browser extension downloaded over 300 million times globally, which completely removes tracking, malware domains, banners, pop-ups and video ads from a user’s web browser.

After posting $6.24 billion in advertising revenue in Q2 ’16, ad revenue continues to be Facebook’s largest revenue stream and potential outlet for immediate financial growth.

“Facebook is ad-supported. Ads are a part of the Facebook experience; they’re not a tack on,” said Andrew “Boz” Bosworth, vice president of Facebook’s ads and business platform, said to the Wall Street Journal on Aug. 9.

In combating ad-blockers, Facebook made their posts and advertisements virtually indistinguishable from each other.

Ad blockers work by viewing HTML code that instructs your browser how to display a website and where to gather the necessary images and files. 

In its move against ad blockers, Facebook removed clues in its code that prevents ad blockers from identifying ads within the newsfeed.

By Thursday, August 11, Facebook’s move to change its HTML was defeated by AdBlock Plus due to a new filter being added to their settings.

And over the next few days, both companies continued to counter punch back and forth, with Facebook and AdBlock Plus each rolling out reactive solutions against each other’s newest workaround.

By Aug 12, Facebook broke the new workaround from Adblock Plus. Presumably you can guess what the response will be.

Representatives of AdBlock Plus believe that the negativity aimed at ad blockers is misguided and that the company is simply enforcing “the will of the people” in blocking ads from web browsers via the open-sourced filter lists.

The continued motivation to reverse Facebook’s HTML modifications is rooted in Adblock Plus’ belief that Facebook’s continued “Trampling on users’ free will is not sustainable”…it’s disheartening that a company like Facebook would abuse everyone’s experience of their site by forcing that experience into a one-size-fits-all, see-the-ads-or-else tube. The internet just doesn’t work that way. At least it shouldn’t.”

Is Ad Blocking a Fight Facebook Can Win?

In order to run advertising on its website, Facebook is required by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), a US agency of the American government armed to ensure consumer protection, and by other regional commissions such as the European Union (i.e., European Commission), to clearly label its ads in order to remain compliant of rules and regulations on transparency and adheranse to respecting legal commitments to protecting its users.

By doing so, Facebook openly displays the words sponsored, promoted, suggested, recommended to signify that a piece of content is an ad within the news feed. 

This transparency makes it incredibly easy for users and ad blocking software alike to identify the different types of ads being shown.

To test how easily ads can be identified without investigating the HTML code or using an ad-blocking application, Princeton assistant professor Arvind Narayanan and undergraduate Grant Storey created an experimental ad “highlighter” for the Chrome browser.

After the Facebook Ad Highlighter has been installed, ads in the Facebook News Feed are ghosted out and written over with a bold “THIS IS AN AD.”

The point of this exercise was to demonstrate that despite Facebook’s HTML being modified, it still is incredibly easy to detect and nullify the appearance of an ad in the Facebook news feed algorithm.  What the authors of this study conclude is that Facebook cannot succeed in its anti-ad blocking campaign without taking on a new strategy, perhaps a completely new perspective on the issue at large.

“Disruptive ads are an industry problem, and the rise of ad blockers is a strong signal that people just don’t want to see them,” Andrew Bosworth, vice president for Facebook’s ads and business platform, recently said in an interview with the NY Times. “But ad blockers are a really bad solution to that.”


Conclusions and Solutions

In 2015, Facebook passed one billion, active users, on mobile. Despite this enormous user base, the company only generated 16% of its overall revenue from the desktop as compared to 84% on mobile, a realm in which it is much more difficult to block ads.  It’s clear that mobile is the foundation in which the company is built upon. Though if Facebook wants to win against ad-blocking software, then it needs to present new and innovative ways to stop ads from being blocked on desktop, were CPMs are much higher and more engaged upon.

It’s unclear what the company really hoped to accomplish by opening up a front against AdBlock Plus and then becoming embroiled in a technological back-and-forth arms-race. The fact that the world’s largest social network is being made to appear weak with each new workaround only impedes upon its progress in solving this issue.

Clearly, ad blocking will continue to be Facebook’s financial Achilles heel going forward. In order to overcome the technological and financial challenge that ad blocking is currently posing, Facebook will need to utilize its exceptional resources on hand to maintain its ability to present its advertisements within the newsfeed.

If Facebook is serious about stopping ad-blocking, then it needs to either begin offering a premium ad-free subscription for its users or to begin denying users entrance into Facebook until they white-label the website in their ad-blocking software.  Users should be educated and be made to appreciate the negative impact ad-blocking has on the platform.  Otherwise, the company will continue to lose revenue due to its lack of effective messaging with its users in empathizing the importance of advertising on the platform.

For more information about ad blocking and solutions publishers can take to respond to visitors using ad blocking software, you can refer to the following:

  • 5 Strategies for Combating Ad Blocking on Websites LINK
  • Yakov Bart in the D’Amore McKim School of Business and Christo Wilson in the College of Computer and Information Science looking into how new strategies and technologies are changing the digital landscape for users, content providers, and advertisers – LINK
  • IAB Tech Lab Publisher Ad Blocking PrimerLINK