Image: Screengrabs from various websites
“We noticed you’re using an ad blocker.”If you use a plugin that blocks online ads in your browser, you’re probably familiar with this phrase, which is part of a growing trend of sites serving popups to users with ad blockers, imploring them to turn it off. “But wait,” you may have asked yourself, “can’t my ad blocker just, y’know, block these?”
There’s an ongoing arms race between online publishers who rely on ads to keep the lights on and users, who are increasingly employing ad blocking tools to make their web browsing experience more secure and less annoying. This has spurred a trend of sites embedding code to detect ad blockers and serve users popup messages requesting that they whitelist the site or subscribe and, in some cases, preventing them from accessing the site until they do.
It turns out that ad blocker developers could easily disable these messages along with all the other popups, but many ad blockers have chosen to let them live.“Technically, it would be very easy to bypass the ad blocking walls, as we call them,” Laura Sophie Dornheim, head of communications for Eyeo, the company that makes the popular plugin Adblock Plus, told me over the phone. “But we have decided that we don’t do that because we know that websites need advertising to fund their team and development.”Adblock Plus isn’t the only ad blocker that doesn’t disable anti-ad blocker popups. I tested out a number of ad blocker plugins and, with the exception of uBlock Origin, popups imploring me to turn off my plugin appeared on sites with each of them. While it blocks many anti-adblocker popups, Raymond Hill, the creator of uBlock Origin, tweeted to clarify that it does not block all of them:
Hill added that “if the anti-blocker wall is dismissible but constantly reappear at every page load on a site, it will also be deemed anti-user.”On its website, AdBlock (which is a separate company from Adblock Plus) had a similar explanation to Adblock Plus for why it allows anti-ad blocker popups. According to the company, “many of our users would love it,” and “we have the technical ability,” but that a publisher should have a right to at least attempt to persuade users to whitelist.AdGuard, a popular ad blocking plugin, is another service that doesn’t block these messages.
“Our policy on this is simple—we do not specifically target ad block walls,” said Andrey Meshkov, AdGuard's co-founder and CTO, in an email. “Publishers have a right to communicate with the audience and offer alternatives.”Ghostery, a privacy plugin, monitors and detects your browser’s communication with different servers to allow you to block tracking and ads. But even it does not block many anti-ad blocker popups. Jeremy Tillman, director of product at Ghostery, told me via email that the company is philosophically “fine” with these walls.“They create a clear and transparent mechanism that forces the user to think about the cost of accessing that website,” Tillman said. “In other words, users can choose whether or not they want to pay for the content by viewing ads and giving tracking technologies access to their browsing session.”All of the people I spoke to emphasized that, while they don’t go out of their way to disable anti-ad blocker popups, they don’t necessarily think they’re an effective way to get users to allow ads on a page. A recent survey from PageFair, and advertising and ad-blocking analytics firm, showed that 74 percent of American ad blocker users said that if they encounter an ad block wall, they simply leave the site.This may explain why many sites have taken a more subtle approach to dissuading ad blocker users over time. For example, in 2016, Wired employed an anti-ad blocker wall that blocked all access to the site until the user whitelisted Wired or subscribed. Now, the site doesn’t have a popup at all and gives readers access to a limited number of free content a month. It also deploys ad-like sidebar messages that encourage the user to subscribe.
Now, a handful of ad blocker plugins have started working with publishers to try to find less intrusive and annoying ways of advertising to users, and some plugins even whitelist these ads. But if the trend of sites deploying anti-adblocker popups continues, it might not be long before ad blockers start more commonly disabling them.“Some [publishers] still opt to go this way, so there is a chance that ad blockers will soon have to do one more thing in addition to blocking ads: help people find alternative sources of the information that is hidden behind an adblock-wall," said AdGuard’s Meshkov.UPDATE: This post has been updated to include more information about when uBlock Origin blocks anti-ad blocker popups.