‘We’re Not Selling Ads’: Adblock Plus Responds to Backlash About Its Acceptable Ads Platform

Yesterday, Adblock Plus announced it was launching an ad network called the Acceptable Ad Exchange. The Wall Street Journal reported that Adblock Plus had partnered with Google, AppNexus, and ComboTag on the network, and that they’d all split the revenue.

The response from some in the publishing world was swift, angry, and confused. How was the world’s largest ad blocker launching an ad network—and why were advertising giants like Google and AppNexus working with it?

The story only got weirder as Google and AppNexus denied any involvement. AppNexus went as far as to say that it would absolutely not be working with Adblock Plus.

As the dmexco conference kicked off in Cologne, Germany, I snagged an interview with Tim Schumacher, co-founder and chairman of Adblock Plus and its parent company, Eyeo. During our conversation, he explained the move, shared his thoughts on the backlash, and told me that “hundreds of publishers” have already reached out with interest.

It’s been a crazy 24 hours.

Yeah, we’ve been surprised. Both in a good way that we got a lot of attention, but also in a bad way in that our announcement was actually smaller than what it looked like.

A lot of people interpreted it as, “Hey, we’re now selling ads,” which is not true. We’re not selling ads. Our new platform is actually an SSP—a supply-side platform that allows ad exchanges to connect into our inventory of publishers. So it’s a tool to help publishers monetize ad-blocker users.

We’ve had that model of acceptable ads for five years, so it’s nothing new. We’ve been surprised that people are like, “So, now you’re selling ads? Has Adblock Plus sold out?” For five years, we’ve been trying to hammer into people’s minds that Adblock Plus is not an all-or-nothing ad blocker.

A lot of people interpreted this as you stealing impressions from the publishers and reselling them.

That is not true. That’s the Brave [browser] model, for example. What we do is block ads. But we’re the only ad blocker that tries to mediate between users and publishers. And we let the publishers choose—okay, we let certain ads through, but it’s the publishers’ own ads. It’s not any third-party ads from us or anything. The publisher just whitelists ads it otherwise shows. It only whitelists the ads that meet certain criteria

What is that criteria?

It’s non-animated. Only a certain amount. The page can’t be full of ads. Preferably text or small image only. It can’t obscure the content. It’s can’t be a pop-up. It can’t be video. So, essentially, it’s usually a small text–image combination adjacent to the content. That’s what we call acceptable.

It’s identical to the whitelisting model, and it’s just a tool to connect ad exchanges directly without bringing the manual whitelisting process into it. It’s actually less news than was interpreted. The good news is we got publicity, but we would have liked to do without that, because it was interpreted negatively.

Are you worried users will react negatively and see it as: “Adblock Plus is selling out and selling ads, so now I’m going to use a different ad blocker”?

Exactly. Which is sad because, for one, we have the option to opt out. With one click you can select the option to block ads. And secondly, we wish people would get that websites have to live from something.

We are totally on board that all the annoying ads have to go. They have to be purged off the internet. We need to give websites an incentive to make good ads. If we just say, “All ads are bad, they need to go,” it’s not going to work.

But what would you recommend then? Is there any way for publishers to avoid the impact of ad blockers?

Yes! For publishers, the recommendation is: Make good ads. Make ads that don’t annoy the users. And test the impact of advertising with their user base. See it as the overall product. That means reducing advertising. That means reducing short-term revenue for long-term gains. And we see that in the stats.

Publishers that are really strict and disciplined about usability, they win in the long run. Those that do shitty ads. Shitty ads pay more—that’s the problem. The more space you take, the more you can command for them. But it’s short-term revenue.

Our advice besides that is to distinguish [between users]. There’s not just this one user. If someone has downloaded an ad blocker, he or she cares. He or she cares about the online experience and about getting less ads. So give them less ads. Give them more acceptable ads. This can pay off.

What would you say to people who liken the whitelisting program to extorting publishers?

The problem has not been created by us. The problem has been created by the publishers. There are dozens of ad blockers out there. We’re the only ad blocker that gives the ability to recoup that revenue. If there was no whitelisting program, then essentially there’s no incentive for websites. There’s no revenue at all.

And the whitelisting program is, if you’re a small website—and small means below 10 million ad impressions—you get whitelisting for free. So only the big companies pay. And someone has to pay. It’s a manual process. It’s a lot of work for us. We have teams of dozens of people checking advertising, making it compliant. Interacting with publishers to see what’s compliant and what’s not. The company would be less than half the size if we had no whitelisting.

Someone has to pay for us. Our approach is: The big companies pay, and they pay the tab for everyone. We don’t see what’s wrong with that.

I also still have yet to see any critics telling us the better alternative. The alternative is not “You shouldn’t be there in the first place.” There’s a clear user demand for ad blocking. People have to get over that. Ad blocking is here to stay. Whether it’s Adblock Plus or Adblock or YouBlock or Adguard, or you name it—there are dozens out there. Go into the App Store and you’ll find 100 ad blockers. Go into the Chrome extensions store and you find 50. The user demand is just insane.

But once people get over that in their head, the other question is, “Okay, how do I recoup that revenue?” And then we think that this is the lesser evil compared to some of the other approaches out there, which are either completely anti-user or completely anti-publisher.

Image by Getty
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