Op-Ed: Online ad blocking — A much better way of advertising? Yes

Posted Feb 19, 2016 by Paul Wallis
Ad blocking is being portrayed as the worst threat to advertising in history, or a way of saving phone users and others a lot of costly bandwidth. Major European carrier Three has raised the stakes severely with new ad blocking tech.
Online ad blocking is a hit and miss.
Online ad blocking is a hit and miss.
Flickr user comedy_nose
The theory of ad blocking as applied by Three is to KO those endless useless ads your phone or computer runs all the time. People pay for this bandwidth, remember. In theory, it’s a good idea for users. In practice, it’s a multi-layered issue.
There are a lot of bottom lines built in to this fracas, and ad blocking hits them all, hard. Advertisers, bless their furry souls, pay for ads which are supposed to generate revenue. Publishers earn revenue from ad clicks, and many are to a large degree dependent on that revenue. YouTube is one of the great all-time ad vehicles, and many channels earn significant revenue from their ads.
Three’s idea is simple enough — block annoying ads, and free up mobile screen space. Reasonable enough, from a user perspective. The idea comes with added filters, which are designed to give users more control over the ads they see. The new approach also blocks the curse of online users, tracking.
The basic reasonableness of this idea hasn’t exactly calmed publishers or advertisers’ nerves. The new tech was developed by Israeli company Shine, which has a few things to say about its achievements in Europe:
"We are changing [the online advertising industry] whether it likes it or not. Shine now has boots on the ground in Europe," the company said in a statement. "Network-level ad blocking in Europe is now a fact. Three is Shine's European beachhead -- expect more European carriers to roll out Shine this year."
Those are the basic positions of players in this situation. The facts are a mixed bag, and send very different messages. This is newish tech, and network-level ad blocking is a big deal. If a major carrier like Three picks up Shine, it’s a game changer to a degree. U.S. networks are wary, understandably, about anything which hits their bottom line revenue models.
Nobody, however, has quite got around the idea that ads are some sort of fix-all for revenue. If you remember the paywall disputes, the arrival of Adblock, and other historical hits to online ads, you’ll also remember that the predictions and outcomes were pretty out of whack. The mainstream thinking, understandably, is linear — "Ads generate revenue; therefore, anything which blocks ads must be bad."
Wrong. The reality is a very different ball game. I have very strong feelings about this debate. I do a lot of SEO writing (around 8 million words online) in Sydney and New York, including major brands. The real issue is ad performance. Forget the damn theories and focus on that as a major part of the problem. The theory that ad revenue naturally generates sales is like saying entering Powerball naturally makes you a multi-zillionaire. Why isn’t anyone mentioning actual ad-generated sales metrics in context with ad blocking?
A few basic facts at this point:
1. Irrelevant ads achieve nothing. They’re just clutter, expensive clutter for advertisers in many cases.
2. Online ad targeting is abysmal. As basic market positioning, it's appalling. I wrote a very badly received/ignored article recently, “YouTube couldn’t hit a demographic with a dictionary – Useless online advertising”, to point out that it’s pretty damn pointless to put MBA ads on heavy metal videos, and similar anomalies. Why are users being hit with anything and everything, with a 99 percent certainty of irrelevance, at all?
For example:
*Irrelevance is 100 percent avoidable. Good SEO, in fact, is based entirely on relevance, metrics, and search values. How has anyone managed to lose track of that in this debate?
*Google searches are based on relevance. Again, not part of the debate.
*Annoying users isn’t a good idea. The online audience votes with clicks. It can and will turn off anything it doesn’t want to see.
Ad blocking isn’t the enemy. It could be the best thing to happen to the internet since the internet. Quality controls on web content and better user experience add up to more effective ads and less backlash from users.
All the mechanisms for intelligent ad content control are already in place and ready to go:
* Google search rules, which are painstakingly basic and getting a lot of traction among advertising and SEO hardheads for their useful quality values.
* SEO best practice analysis.
* Good targeting, not this slopfest we have now.
* User discretion to weed out useless ads at source.
* Sales metrics — if ads don’t work, kill them off. Why ignore a perfectly good, built-in range of must-have numbers “on principle”, in the name of a theoretical crusade against ad blocking? These metrics are easy to put in place, and can deliver meaningful, trustworthy data on ad values throughout ad life cycles.
* Publishers have a lot to gain from better ad performance, too. It could build extra revenue simply by weeding out the non-performers. Why is this very basic fact being ignored?
* From a purely Pay Per Click viewpoint, useless unwanted ads are death. They consume time, money and deliver nothing for publishers, advertisers or users. Blocking these classified corpses makes good business sense.
There is absolutely nothing to be said in favor of allowing a messy, pernickety, mass of pointless, underperforming ads to continue to fester online. Let’s get real about improving the situation, not lugging around outdated ideas about online advertising like some old teddy bear.