Online ad industry, battling ad blockers, admits it messed up

The Internet Advertising Bureau is calling for better practices to stop alienating Web users

adblock plus

Adblock Plus, one of the more popular free ad-blocking tools.

Credit: Screenshot

From one perspective, it could be argued that the online advertising industry is getting what it deserves. After years of having Web pages stuffed with ads, surfers are increasingly blocking them with free tools.

The other perspective is that ads, like them or not, pay people to create content, which other people like on the Web. Since finding paying subscribers is hard, ads are a key source of online revenue for publishers.

In a frank post on Thursday, a senior executive of the largest online advertising trade group admitted that the surge in online ads over the years -- and the accompanying performance issues -- have alienated many.

"We messed up," wrote Scott Cunningham, senior vice president of technology of the Internet Advertising Bureau and general manager of its Tech Lab. "As technologists tasked with delivering content and services to users, we lost track of the user experience."

The IAB is composed of 650 organizations that serve some 86 percent of online advertisements.

An effect of the ads has been the increasing use of tools such as Adblock Plus, which blocks advertisements from being served by known ad servers.

A report released in August forecasted that U.S. websites will lose US$21.8 billion in ad revenue this year due to ad blockers. Use of ad-blocking tools rose 48 percent in the U.S. in the last year to around 45 million users.

Across Europe, the report said 77 million people are using ad blockers, a 35 percent increase in the past year.

The report was written by PageFair, an Irish company which helps websites count users who block ads, and Adobe Systems.

Cunningham acknowledged that the industry's practices over the years have been in part responsible for the shift.

"We were so clever and so good at it that we over-engineered the capabilities of the plumbing laid down by, well, ourselves," Cunningham wrote. "This steamrolled the users, depleted their devices and tried their patience."

To encourage better practices, the IAB's Tech Lab is starting a new program called the L.E.A.N. Ads, which stands for Light, Encrypted, Ad choice supported and Non-invasive ads, Cunningham wrote.

The program is designed to guide future online advertising standards and best practices. Cunningham wrote it will address issues such as retargeting, a practice where a targeted ad is shown to people when they're on other websites. He wrote that people should not be retargeted after they've made a purchase.

Also, the online ad industry should address the volume of ads that are on a Web page and viewability, a term for determining if a person has actually seen an ad that was served to a web page.

The IAB has also been encouraging advertising companies to deliver ads using encryption, which can help reduce the problems of malicious ads popping up on web pages that try to attack users' computers, known as malvertising.

There is a sense of urgency to the IAB's plan as people increasingly use mobile devices to browse the Web. PageFair and Adobe's report said that ad blocking tools aren't widely used yet on mobiles, but that could become more common.

Apple, for example, now allows the use of ad blocking software in iOS 9. Within days of the new OS's release, several ad-blocking tools were widely downloaded.

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