Is the Adpocalypse upon us?

To save the Web, should you stop using ad blockers?

The Internet crisis du jour concerns ad-blocking technologies. Although these tools have been available for years, their popularity has now reached a level to make them controversial, a situation that was magnified when Apple recently announced that for the first time it would allow ad blockers into the App Store.

What is it that makes a technology that suppresses ads on websites controversial? For its users, ad-blocking technology is a bulwark against a flood of annoying, privacy-invading ads. For some people, though, the widespread adoption of ad blockers sounds the death knell of the Web as we know it. That’s because making ads invisible will destroy the Web’s economic underpinnings. It’s a scenario that some people call the Adpocalypse.

But is the problem real? And are there any solutions?

There is indeed evidence that ad blockers are growing in popularity. A report from Adobe and PageFair claims that ad-blocking software this year will lead to nearly $22 billion in lost advertising, a 41% increase over last year. More than a third of users in some European countries use them, the report says. It claims that 200 million people around the world use ad blockers, 45 million of them in the U.S. Your trust in those numbers depends on what you make of the fact that PageFair sells a service that helps websites deal with ad-blocking software by analyzing how many site visitors block ads and showing how to design nonintrusive ads targeted at people who use ad blockers. But others have made similar claims. Interactive Advertising Bureau president and CEO Randall Rothenberg says some websites now lose up to 40% of potential revenue because of ad blockers.

And the App Store development is important because the world is moving to the mobile Web. It’s already tough for sites to monetize mobile traffic. iOS ad blockers will only make things more difficult.

So, clearly, the problem is real. But does it deserve a name as dire as “Adpocalypse”?

As you might expect, Ad Age, the bible of the advertising industry, claims that the problem is very serious. Ad Age has done research into the advertising economics of various websites and calculated what they would have to do to survive if all ads were blocked on them.

The New York Times, it claims, would have to increase the price of its digital subscriptions from $195 a year to $334. Facebook would have to charge $12 per year per person. BuzzFeed simply wouldn’t be able to survive.

Journalism can live without BuzzFeed, but there’s only so much adversity that a beleaguered profession can take. This worries a lot of people, not just journalists, including, surprisingly enough, the developer of the most popular ad blocker on iOS. Marco Armen developed the Peace iOS ad blocker, which for a time was the most popular paid app on iOS — the most popular app of all, not just most popular ad blocker — until Armen had a change of heart. He wrote on his blog, “Achieving this much success with Peace just doesn’t feel good, which I didn’t anticipate, but probably should have. Ad blockers come with an important asterisk: while they do benefit a ton of people in major ways, they also hurt some, including many who don’t deserve the hit.”

Armen is seriously remorseful about the whole thing (which unfurled in the brief window since Apple started allowing ad blockers in its App Store), going so far as to ask Apple to refund money to people who had downloaded Peace. The problem, he said, is that Peace, like most ad blockers, takes an all-or-nothing approach to blocking ads. It blocks the reasonable ones as well as the obnoxious ones.

He’s absolutely right. There are far too many obnoxious, privacy-invading ads and ad technologies on the Internet. They should be blocked. But well-behaved ads shouldn’t. They support the Web.

New York Times technology writer Farhad Manjoo argues that ad blockers are a good thing — they’ll force the ad industry to clean up its act, and then we’ll be left with only good ads. Perhaps in the very long run that might be true. But in the interim, there will be a tremendous amount of collateral damage to the Web because of massive ad losses. Bigger sites will survive. Smaller ones, operating close to the margins, won’t.

I’ve found my own answer to the conundrum. For the past month, I’ve been using Ghostery, which lets you turn off individual ad networks, beacons and similar technologies on a one-by-one basis. I’ve turned off those I consider the worst privacy invaders and allowed the rest through. Armen recommends doing the same thing.

I’ve also noticed that as of Version 2.0, the popular Adblock Plus does something similar — it lets users choose to allow what Adblock Plus considers acceptable ads, while blocking the rest.

So maybe things are better than they seem. If even ad blockers recognize the damage that blocking all ads can cause, the Adpocalypse might never be upon us.

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