It’s no secret that publishers despise ad blocker add-ons in web browsers. It is, after all, costing them revenue, and they have a right to make money. But there are different ways to skin a cat, so to speak, and one method isn’t working out very well.
Some sites, such as our sister site Computerworld.com, will pop up a window politely asking you to disable the ad blocker and then let you continue on to the content. Others, however, flat out lock you out of the content until the ad blocker is disabled. And those sites are losing traffic. The question is how much of that loss can be attributed to the ad blocker blockade.
The U.K. tech news site The Stack has looked at several sites that shut you out if an ad blocker is enabled, and it found virtually all of them are losing readers at a steady rate. It looked at both U.S. and European publishers, such as German publisher Axel Springer, publisher of the popular Bild newspaper and website, City AM financial news, Forbes and Wired. All of those sites denied users access to content until they whitelisted the site or disabled their ad blocker.
Of course, there could be other reasons for the changes in traffic. I’ve seen sites yo-yo, rise and drop for no reason, or take a nosedive for something completely unrelated. As The Stack noted, “It’s important to consider that these much-criticized measures are often likely prompted by traffic figures that may have been declining in any case, and that all we can conclude with any certainty from the (approximated) information is that the anti-ad-block measures failed to reverse the trend.”
Wired is a good example of that. It instituted anti-ad-blocking techniques in February of this year, but it had started a slow decline around October. As The Stack noted, “There is no evidence that Wired’s blocking policy made any difference to what appears to be a headlong traffic slump up to the present time.”
Axel Springer/Bild, on the other hand, took a major drop right when it began its anti-blocker crusade. It instituted the policy in October of last year, and it’s been a steady drop in traffic since then. Only in April did things bottom out.
Forbes did well last summer but began a slow decline in the fall. It instituted its blockade in December, and the nosedive began one month later. Also, that was when Forbes was found to have malware lurking in its banner ads, which pretty much proved an ad blocker is a good form of defense against drive-by malware. That’s when Forbes took a tumble. The malware combined with the blockade clearly did Forbes no favors.
City AM is the only site of the four that didn’t see an immediate drop in traffic, but it did happen eventually. Traffic to the site had been on the rise in the previous four months, and that momentum was lost. The publisher instituted a blockade in October, and traffic leveled off, then began to fall this year.
I also checked out Listverse, the site with a lot of amazing top 10 lists, which recently began denying content to anyone who has an ad blocker enabled. Alexa traffic showed it has been on a downward trend since last summer, and it only recently began its blockade. So, the anti-ad-blocker crusade cannot be blamed for its decline.
Yahoo learns a lesson
Last November, some people attempting to log into their Yahoo Mail accounts were greeted with a message that demanded they disable Ad Blocker to continue using Yahoo Mail. A Yahoo spokesman told Engadget a “small number” of Yahoo Mail users were prevented from accessing their email accounts because of an A/B test, a technique in which big websites push changes to a small number of people to test user reaction before deploying them widely. (Sites such as eBay, Amazon, Yahoo and Google do that every day.)
Not surprisingly, once news of this incident got around, several Yahoo Mail users declared on Twitter they planned to switch their email service. Was it just a few cranks or a real threat to the already struggling Yahoo? It’s hard to tell.
More time is needed, and I’m sure there will be a few more guinea pigs in the publishing world that block their content to people who use ad blockers. Time will bear things out, but I do think blockades will fail in the end. There are just too many alternatives. And if publishers get pushy, people will simply go elsewhere.