AdBlock Plus is the most popular ad blocking service on the internet right now, and it’s about to become even more popular as the company behind AdBlock Plus has revealed that a new product is on the way and it aims at the mobile internet users’ demographic. While we’re not sure what AdBlock Plus and co. are planning, it sounds like an interesting addition to the world of mobile internet browsing. AdBlock Plus has been receiving a lot of criticism from users, advertisers and publishers recently about their new Acceptable Ads program. That’s because many don’t really know or haven’t taken the time to read about the acceptable ads program and follow misconceptions that have been propagated by various media sources all around the internet. Because we are all in favor of transparency and knowledge, we though that you guys would be interested in hearing the real story behind acceptable ads, AdBlock Plus and learning about how this affects you, the internet browser and you, the advertiser and publisher. All is explained straight from the source in an interview I conducted with AdBlock Plus CTO Till Faida and Media Representative Ben Williams, who were nice enough to enter a discussion with me this week.
First off, many people are mad about ads dominating their internet experience. Many are mad about the whitelisting policy that AdBlock Plus has launched in correlation with the acceptable ads program. But many of you might not know that over 70% of internet users that AdBlock Plus has surveyed are actually ok with ads, as long as they comply with a set of criteria. Think about it, would ads bother you if they’d be unobtrusive, minimal, interesting and non-animated? I bet most of you wouldn’t. If you’re wondering why would someone ever want ads on the internet, someone might ask you if you had been living under a rock until now. The fact of the matter is that you have access to a lot of free services on the internet thanks to ads. Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, Instagram, Twitch, WordPress, Google, Bing, MSN, Gmail, Google Drive, Google Maps, Periscope, Snapchat, WhatsApp, Meerkat, Hangouts and many more are examples of free services that you’re benefiting from. You also benefit from free content on hundreds of millions of websites.
Key here is that this content and these services are free of charge for you. If your argument is that you pay for internet, it’s not a solid one. You don’t pay for services and information, but the companies that provide you with these services and information do need revenue in order to provide that content, to provide support, to let you benefit from all that’s good and great on the internet. These companies, small or big, can do that for you thanks to advertising. You might be wondering: how does AdBlock Plus factor into that if it’s blocking ads? With the acceptable ads program and the whitelist. In the interview which you can find at the end of this piece, Till and Ben explain why AdBlock Plus is trying to create a balanced ecosystem on the internet, which is crucial to have if we want to continue having tons and tons of free services and free access to information. Until we get to that interview, you might be wondering what AdBlock Plus actually is, in case you haven’t heard about it or wondering why you haven’t heard about acceptable ads. You’ll find out the answers and learn why this service is crucial to the development of our personal and public space on the internet in the future.
To start from the beginning, AdBlock Plus was first released in 2006 as an extension and ad blocking tool for browsers. Since then, AdBlock Plus, thanks to its developers, its founders and its users have contributed in order to make AdBlock Plus more than just an ad blocking piece of software. Since the extension and software is open source, the community that has formed around it over the years have contributed to it in various ways. In the past few years, AdBlock Plus added to its ad blocking features privacy features, do not track features, malware features and the acceptable ads program.
One mistake many people make that leads to them thinking that AdBlock Plus is not what they actually need is downloading and installing extensions or apps that resemble AdBlock Plus. You might have known this, but if not, you should be aware that there are many developers and publishers out there who release copycat apps or software that attempt to mimic AdBlock Plus, without offering the same type of ad blocking nor features like the original extensions from Eyeo. You should be aware that AdBlock Plus is the only way to spell the ad blocker considered to be the best in the business (I’ll get back on that) and it’s made by Eyeo, developed by Vladimir Palant. One such copycat is AdBlock, which is inherently different in how it works. Read: while AdBlock Plus does not collect your data, AdBlock does.
AdBlock Plus is essentially an extension that you can install on your browser, regardless of what kind of browser you are using. Once you have it installed, the default settings will be loaded, which means that you’ll be subscribed to the EasyList and you won’t have ads on most of the websites you visit, as long as their obtrusive. You can then subscribe to other filter lists, mostly regional ones that will restrict the ads that are relevant to your location. Then, you can disable or enable acceptable ads within your options menu and we will find out later why enabling acceptable ads would be the better things to do. You can also enable different features like Disable Tracking, Disable Malware Domains and Typo Protection.
I will be providing a separate article about tips on how to use AdBlock Plus and how to benefit from all the features that it offers, so that we can keep a boundary between the means and the motive. This piece is to show you guys that ads are not all bad and that they do have a purpose. As we all know, companies, publishers and advertisers use ads to monetize on their views and the studies done by AdBlock Plus reveal that most people would not be bothered by ads if they were unobtrusive and would not make their online experience annoying. AdBlock Plus tries to promote this ecosystem which they call healthy and balanced, and I tend to agree with that. Geek Reply also gets its revenue from ads so you can whitelist us if you feel like it, as we keep our ads to the minimum. Many small companies rely completely on ads for their revenue and AdBlock Plus accepts these companies and more on their whitelist, as long as the ads that they use ads that comply with the criteria set by AdBlock Plus and its users.
On this topic, I’m sure that many of you have read the news about Google, Amazon and others paying AdBlock Plus to be whitelisted and many people have become outraged by that. That’s because many thought that by paying AdBlock Plus a premium, these companies would go crazy with all the ads that they show even though the users who have installed AdBlock Plus have ads disabled. That’s a misconception, which is why I’m talking about it. AdBlock Plus keeps you completely ad free if you want it to. Google, Amazon and the other companies that pay the service still have to comply with the criteria set for acceptable ads and they still won’t be able to push ads to you if you have disabled acceptable ads. AdBlock Plus charges only bigger companies in order to whitelist them, because these are dominant in the advertising network and can afford it. But smaller companies and publishers do not have to pay to be whitelisted and participate in the acceptable ads program, they just need to apply and show ads that comply with the unobtrusive criteria set.
Since we’ve got all the necessary info that I feel like all of you should know, let’s move on to the interview so that you can read through all the things that I’ve learned while talking to the people behind an extension I’ve been using for the past 5 years at least. Before you read through the interview itself, check out these useful links that will help you access certain features of AdBlock Plus and learn more about what it means to be part of a healthy ecosystem on the internet.
All the AdBlock Plus features that you can access in one place are on their official website. but if you already use AdBlock Plus (if you’re not, you should get it from here , then you can add the Disable Tracking subscription by accessing this dialogue, which should open up your feed settings and you can click Add to add the subscription. If you want to disable malware domains, you can access this dialogue and do the same steps as before, adding the filter subscription. Facebook tracks you by using handles like the Like buttons, and so do other social media networks out there. If you don’t want to be tracked by such websites, you can access this dialogue and activate the disable share buttons feature of AdBlock Plus. If you want to learn more about AdBlock Plus and how the community contributes into making it the service it is today, you can go check out the forums. AdBlock Plus relies a lot on its community, and most extra features that I’ve told you about were actually suggested and created by the community, and the upkeep of certain filter subscriptions is also supported by the community. If you’re an AdBlock Plus user and are enjoying your experience, you can contribute to the service by spreading the word, reporting bugs, contributing code, helping out with support, translating, suggesting things, adding and improving filters, evaluating acceptable ads or actually donating dough, all of which you can do here. Without further ado, let’s hear it from the professionals, Till Faida, COO of Eyeo and Ben Williams!
Q: How did AdBlock Plus turn into what it is today?
Till: AdBlock Plus was started in 2006 as a hobby by one developer, Vladimir as an open source product. By accident, it became very popular and a community formed around it that helped with further development. I had had an online marketing background before joining AdBlock Plus, where I worked with startups doing SEO marketing and I met Vladimir in 2010 when I was working on a study that analyzed the impact of ad blocking software. That is when we discovered a common interest and goal, that ad blocking does not become destructive. We started brainstorming about sustainable solutions for the problem of ad blocking, which turned into the idea of acceptable ads. Acceptable ads facilitate a compromise between websites that need to monetize and users that are annoyed by traditional banner ads. Our common goal since then was to make sure that ad blocking does not become destructive, even though Vladimir and I were from completely opposite backgrounds. We realized that we were not so different after all, because we saw that the quality and acceptance of online advertising became a problem with more and more users, which is hurting the revenues of publishers and threatening free content on the web. We agreed that the reason why publishers are struggling is the ads that don’t perform well, because many of them just don’t have the acceptance of the consumers. We wanted to use the popularity of AdBlock Plus to have a positive impact and create some change in the industry – help it move towards a more user friendly approach. We wanted to incentivize publishers and ad networks to create user friendly ads that even users of an ad blocker won’t mind seeing.
Q: How did the Acceptable Ads program turn into what it is now?
Till: The main challenge that we face is to find the right balance between a great user experience and on the other hand, enough monetization opportunities for publishers to provide free content. To find that balance we are continuously conducting studies to make sure that we learn more about the preferences of users, especially those that have installed an ad blocker. By learning more about their preferences, we can make sure that the acceptable ads program reflects user preference. The acceptable ads program was born through the feedback that we got from users who were positive about non-obtrusive ads. Since AdBlock Plus empowers users to make their own decisions for free content, they are fully in control of how many ads they see, if at all and they can choose their own settings in AdBlock Plus to customize their web experiences. The users who don’t mind the smaller ads within the acceptable ads program don’t hurt the ecosystem on the internet but still have a clean user experience on the web. The default choices in AdBlock Plus are also based on user feedback and are smart choices based off of their preferences, which means that the default settings should already be pretty acceptable to most users. If not, these settings can be changed at any time and in any way our users want to. Even though many people are annoyed by video ads, they don’t mind seeing unobtrusive ads.
Q: In what way does AdBlock Plus handle transparency when it comes to advertising towards their users and towards the advertising companies?
Till: The most important aspect is that we want to make sure that nobody is getting preferential treatment and everybody who is part of the acceptable ads whitelist comply with exactly the same criteria without exception. In order to prove that to our users and our community, we announce every website that is being added to the whitelist in our forums so that everybody can see what websites and what kind of ads are added to the whitelist and find out what kind of filters were added to facilitate this whitelisting. This way, the open source community that supports AdBlock Plus can do a follow-up on the latest additions to the whitelist and double check whether they are complying with all criteria.
Q: What kind of filter lists does AdBlock Plus have besides the usual EasyList and regional lists?
Till: EasyList is the most important filter subscription that one can subscribe to, after which come regional lists, but all of the features that we offer are based on these types of lists. That means that there are lists for known malware domains created by the open source community, then there are the Facebook button-blocking lists, the tracking blocking lists and all of them are maintained and created by the open source community, according to AdBlock Plus standards.
Q: How can we report ads that we find obtrusive?
Till: There are multiple ways in which you can do that. In the Firefox version of AdBlock Plus, there’s a built-in functionality with which you can report obtrusive ads but we also have a very active community in our forums. We have a very global product with users from all around the world, and the engaged users help AdBlock Plus spot ads that we might have missed and help us be on top of all of that. Filter lists are being updated multiple times each day to make sure that everything works perfectly for all our users.
Q: What happened with the lawsuits against AdBlock Plus in Germany?
Till: The German courts have not reached a decision as of yet. We are expecting a few in the next couple of weeks. In general, the courts and even some law professors who had looked into what we do gave a clear indication that ad blocking is a right that can not be taken away. The browser you use is yours and you as a user will always be able to decide what content you view and how you configure your browser. We are extremely optimistic.
Q: What kind of complaints do you get from companies whose ads are blocked and they don’t apply to be whitelisted or don’t comply with the criteria and how do you handle those complaints?
Till: It is important for everyone in the advertising industry to understand that users are in control. It’s up to the user to determine what kind of ads they want to see, this is just how the internet works. The only sustainable approach to this is to create ads that users are willing to see. If users are blocking the ads, the message is that the ads themselves are not user friendly. All a company can do is improve their ads by listening to user feedback and that’s exactly what the AdBlock Plus acceptable ads program is incentivizing and encouraging.
It’s always controversial. We have to explain to the advertising industry that this is how the internet works and that we want to help and facilitate a middle ground. On the other hand we have to educate our users and help them understand that ads are necessary and important to keep content free. Overall, we are getting more and more positive responses which can be seen in the small number of users that opt out of the acceptable ads program. There’s a very small opt-out rate. That demonstrates that we can actually set a standard for user friendly ads that are of high quality. The users support our program.
Ben: In my time here, since 2013, the approach from advertisers has changed. At first, they didn’t really know what to make of the whitelist, thinking that there might have been a catch. But as we’ve gone out and took part in ad conferences and debates and went straight into the belly of the beast, and went to advertisers to get their attention and got a lot more people on board the whitelist. When we go to such conferences, I notice that more people understand what this is about and understand that we are trying to have a positive impact. On the user side, it is always easier, because they can always opt out if they think it is a stupid idea.
Q: What would happen if more people opted out of the acceptable ads program because they’re not getting tailored ads well?
Till: We have much more support than that 76 % the survey showed, as less than 10 % of our users opt out of the acceptable ads program. Users who have actually experienced the program support it and keep it enabled. That’s encouraging, even though we may not get the preferences right for every single user, the large majority is on board with the program and those who don’t like it, can customize it.
Ben: I personally have it and I take part in acceptable ads, but I also whitelist certain sites. AdBlock Plus is a customizer, that helps you see the web in a way that you want to see it. It’s a user determined internet. It should be and it is. We help people get the internet back into their own hands. This was our idea back then and we are a bit proud that we managed to make it okay. But we can’t always get it perfect, which is why feedback from users, journalists, advertisers and publishers is very important. The criteria are a good start, but we have to and we will adapt to the times, because it’s a learning process for us as well.
Till: The acceptable ads standards will have to evolve just as technologies will evolve in the future.
Q: Does AdBlock Plus handle the way in which advertisers track my activity when acceptable ads are enabled or do the websites tailor the ads for me?
Q: What are the most important criteria for acceptable ads and what could make AdBlock Plus change any of these criteria?
Till: The number 1 reason why people are annoyed by ads is their format, not so much their content. That is why we focused on the format first and went out to find the formats that are not obtrusive. So far, we’ve identified that ads that are static are best, because users don’t like animations. Ads have to be clearly labeled for transparency, so that users know when they’re looking at an ad or at organic content. Also, ads should be separated from the content so that they don’t obscure reading: the ad should be placed below or next to it, but not right within the article. Those are the key criteria that we’ve identified as representative of what users are willing to accept. There are a lot of bad examples of ads that pop up over your content, which will never be whitelisted.
Q: So even if Google or Amazon pay for whitelisting, they still have to comply with the criteria? What do they pay for?
Till: Regardless of size, everybody has to comply with the same criteria. It is crucial for us in order to maintain the integrity of AdBlock Plus, to maintain trust of our users and of our community. The reason why we charge larger companies and why they want to support us is so that we can further develop and invest into the program and have a vested interest in facilitating the middle ground between users and publishers. We provide a very significant, measurable increase in revenues for all our publishers. The acceptable ads program really helps smaller websites because they don’t have to pay to participate, but larger companies get a lot more profit out of it, so they have to pay so that the program becomes sustainable for us.
Ben: It’s important to remember that 90 % of whitelist members do not pay, but the criteria are the same for 100 %. The payment factor comes in to make the whole thing sustainable, but it makes sense for all involved. For larger companies, it creates measurable value and there’s also a lot of service involved from us, 90 % of which we do for free. There’s a bit of a misunderstanding in the press about the process, even though it’s actually a bit boring. You just go through the application process and find out how to make your ads so that they can fit our criteria.
Q: How did AdBlock Plus get from ad blocking to this multiple feature platform it is today? How about Facebook tracking?
Till: We’re not sure when we added blocking tracking to AdBlock Plus, because it was created by our open course community a couple of years ago and these community members are still maintaining this feature. So it was a contribution from the open source community. They have created and maintained the filters that block tracking and it has been made into an optional feature. The same story applies to malware blocking, which was also created by members of the community. Members of the community have come up with these features, the privacy features as well. You can also block Facebook Like buttons if you’re not comfortable with Facebook following you around the web.
Legislation always come in too late, and this is where AdBlock Plus comes in. Users can control and are empowered by tools like ours to make these decisions about tracking years before legislation actually picks up on those issues. The Like button sends a signal to the Facebook server, so whenever you visit a site which has the Facebook Like button there, that’s how the servers track you. When blocking the Like button, the Facebook code is never loaded into your browser, so it can’t signal back to the servers about your web activity and that’s what AdBlock Plus can do.
Q: What is Eyeo and does Eyeo have other services besides AdBlock Plus?
Till: Eyeo is just a legal entity that runs AdBlock Plus. From the start, we only had AdBlock Plus and we haven’t developed anything else because we have a lot of work right now and a lot of work ahead of us so that we can have an impact on the online advertising industry. We chose to have a company name to be different from the product so that in the future, we might be able to develop other products. AdBlock Plus is our only focus right now.
Ben: We don’t want to stop with AdBlock Plus, and we’re a collective of 38 people and we have a lot of work as ad blocking rates are on the rise. We do have ambitions to develop similar solutions to help people control their internet and make it a user determined internet. We actually have pretty exciting news coming up in a few weeks. [I asked for a hint there]. It’s going to be awesome.
Till: We can disclose that it’s going to be a mobile product.
Q: How does AdBlock Plus handle criticism and rumors when people and companies take offense if their application to be whitelisted is not accepted?
Till: We are aware that not everybody shares our vision of a user determined internet and a user friendly ad ecosystem. In the long run, people will realize that it’s just not profitable and it does not makes sense from a business perspective not to listen to user feedback. The companies that don’t listen to users will have a competitive disadvantage because more and more users are installing AdBlock Plus. They will thus reach fewer and fewer people if they don’t take user feedback into consideration when designing their ads.
Q: How do you see AdBlock Plus in the next five years?
Till: I think it’s important that we help users to be protected with their privacy or from intrusive and potentially malicious ads wherever they are, so being present on other platforms is key. We have reached a point where we are no longer a niche product, we have now got into the mainstream so for us the next upcoming updates will make it easier for the average users to control their browsing experiences better. Those should be the next couple of improvements. In the long run, we want to make sure that there’s a healthy ecosystem for publishers to monetize. We will be very involved with that, on one hand empowering users to make decisions on their own about what kind of ads they’re willing to see, but on the other hand we also want to help publishers monetize in an efficient way.
Q: What do you think would happen to the internet if there were no ads?
Till: I think there would be fewer services and less information available because it would be harder for publishers to monetize, especially for smaller companies. Larger companies will find a different way to monetize, but for small companies, ads are crucial to monetize. That is why we want to find a way to make advertising work.
Q: If I would be new to the internet, how would you recommend AdBlock Plus?
Till: We are the original and the only really professional ad blocker and more importantly, we are the only ad blocker that cares about a healthy ecosystem. Ad blockers that block all the ads will have a bad impact on content on the web in the long run. That’s why I think that users who understand how the internet works will choose AdBlock Plus. Demonstrating that they care about the publishers and the content that they get for free. There are a lot of copycats of AdBlock Plus which imitate the AdBlock Plus logo and name, but they don’t work in the same way and don’t behave in a reputable way. AdBlock Plus has maintained a high level of integrity compared to these copycats.