LION Webinar 8: How Independent Publishers Can Survive Ad Blocking

Travis Smith of Hop Studios says the best way to fight ad blockers is to reduce the friction between your

November 11, 2015 by Wendy Cohen


Travis Smith of Hop Studios in Vancouver says the best way news publishers can deal with ad blockers cutting into their advertising revenue is to reduce the friction by making sure advertisements load quickly and effectively.

Smith, a journalist and former web editor for both Variety and the Los Angeles Times, is president of Hop Studios and was the guest speaker Tuesday for a LION Publishers webinar titled, "How Independent Publishers Can Survive Ad Blocking." Tuesday's was the eighth webinar in a monthly series launched by LION this year.

Smith suggested that the problem for publishers isn't that their readers don't want them to make money on their websites. Rather, he said readers have been burned generally by websites that take forever to load or otherwise lock up mobile devices because of poorly designed technology. Usually, he said, that's driven by advertisers who want a bigger impact.

As a result, many visitors install an ad blocker in an effort to smooth or speed up their experience, and those ad blockers tend to block other publisher's less obtrusive advertising as well.

As an example, Smith cited a New York Times chart titled "The Cost of Mobile Ads on 50 News Websites," which highlighted the load speeds of major news sites with and without ad blockers.

The worst offender on the New York Times list was, with an advertising load time of 30.8 seconds and an editorial content load time of 8.1 seconds. This was attributed to video ads that automatically played on arrival.

According to the New York Times, "’s mobile website ads averaged 30 seconds to load on a typical 4G connection, mostly because of large video ads. That’s the equivalent of 32 cents of cell data in ads every time the home page is loaded."

Among other tools, Smith suggested that using a typical browser's "inspect element" function will allow publishers to figure out how fast specific items are loading. He also said using the "Save As" function under the Chrome browser's "File" menu will allow publishers to see how much data each section of a site uses. 

Smith said ad blockers can be recognized in three ways: by size, by name — such as a class title or ID — or by source, such as the name of an ad server or the server's IP address.

The blocking itself can happen in three stages, Smith said, blocking ad scripts at the network level, on a specific computer, or through a browser.

At the network level, Smith said corporations and educational institutions often block ad networks within their buildings or campuses.

How big of a problem is it? Smith cited data posted on Quora by Ido Yablonka, CEO of ClarityRay, a company that was launched to protect publishers from ad-blockers and which Quora suggests was later acquired by Yahoo.

Yablonka's report suggested that, on average, 9.26 percent of impressions were found to be ad-blocked, with some sites reaching as high as 50 percent.

Further, Yablonka said the data showed tech sites average at 17.79 percent were blocking ads, followed by news (15.58 percent) and culture (9.94 percent). 

By browser, Yablonka said blocking rates were found to be highest among Firefox users (17.81 percent), followed by Safari (11.30 percent) and Chrome (10.06 percent). Explorer averaged 3.86 percent.

In some good news for publishers pushing to optimize for mobile, Yablonka said their study showed mobile blocking is gaining popularity, but the numbers were still low, with Android showing a 2.24 percent blocking rate and iOS at 1.33 percent.

Smith suggested that it might be less effective for publishers to attempt a software arms race with ad blockers, in which publishers would attempt to scramble or switch their code identifying their ad servers or ad content. He likened it to a game of "whack a mole," and suggested publishers should try other approaches.

Smith suggested that publishers can find javascript tools to use on their sites in order to track how many ad impressions are being blocked, and then use that data to open a conversation with visitors about possibly supporting their work with a donation, instead of the ads, or to ask the visitor to consider whitelisting their specific site on the basis of a promise to avoid serving slow or obtrusive advertising.

Smith said his company, HopStudios, can install a javascript tracker and has done so for publishers already.

Aside from tracking, Smith said some of the best practices for making sure ads load quickly are to make sure ad file sizes don't exceed 100kb, and he also suggested that publishers should consider requiring ads to load under a time limit.

Smith said one method of news delivery that has yet to face any ad blocking is podcasting. He suggested that an audio file that contains an audio read of ad copy is out of the reach of ad blockers at this point.

Smith can be reached by email here or at @nep on Twitter.

EDITOR'S NOTE: We are sorry to report that the recording of this webinar is not available because of technical difficulties.

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