What’s next for ad blockers? A brief history of greed
Emil Pawłowski, chief science officer at Gemius, about adblocks.
A subjective retrospection of currency in the advertising model
First there was chaos. The next moment the Internet was born. Its mother was the anarchy of the IT industry and the natural need for communication. Its father was the need for access to information (including entertainment). When our baby was weak, small and slow, the press took care of it. They saw that, in spite of its deficiencies, it was a good enough tool for the distribution of content, of which there was plenty.
Along with the creation of a new channel of communication, a new world of advertising was born. Supply and demand were created, along with a model of measurement and calculation across websites. And, as usually happens, there was a brief moment when supply could not keep up with demand. This situation eventually led to the application of the well-known rule that ‘bad money drives out good’. Advertising formats and broadcast locations emerged whose sole purpose was to optimise the final results of the campaign.
Worse money drives out better
Our currency, the View, was introduced to the Internet by those who saw in it a great opportunity for the worn-out press industry. Simple, intuitive, easy management and reporting. Unfortunately, it was also weak and prone to manipulation. Our currency started the process of degeneration. When the time came that the number of website views offered was insufficient or performance statistics were unsatisfactory for the end customer, advertising formats began to appear which after many years have been described in the IAB Code as ‘undesirable’. Clickable, transparent layers, fleeting ‘crosses’, returns plugged into links and other clickable elements on the page. Publishers also launched optimization processes for the purpose of reporting advertising potential as expressed in views. Pagination, articles in gallery form, indirect returns, and many other practices appeared, driving the end user to a nervous breakdown. I won’t be touching on the issues of tracking or processing data on users. Financial results came before the needs of the end customer. Tactics lost out to long-term strategy.
Thus a new need was born: cleansing the desired information of unwanted elements. The basis was established for ad blocker type solutions. There were also extensions available for browsers that replaced galleries with articles, etc. The consumers themselves decided to take control of the quality of delivery formats for content and services. Naturally not caring about the needs of the other party. Every action has its reaction.
Currently around 25 per cent of the population of Europe (IAB) uses ad blockers. This means that at least 25 per cent of a publisher’s surface is not for sale within the advertising model.
Is there a metric that can’t be fooled?
A view is a measure that can be optimised. The time a user spends online can be cut into smaller and smaller pieces and each piece reported as a view. In addition, each view can be assigned more than one advertising placement, sometimes reaching the absurd, where one website has more than 10 placements. In this situation, no one will ever install an ad blocker, because what is the point in getting something you don’t want that will also make it difficult for you to consume your desired content?
Time. The time a user actively spends on a website cannot be manipulated. The time a user spends on the website is primary in relation to the amount of marketing communication that can reach a person. The size of the advertising space is a derivative of the time spent, and not the activity performed (action, view, play), by the user.
The current standard for determining time is based on views and actions. It is defined as the sum of the distances between certain actions of the user. In extreme cases, this measure may underestimate time to an extent beyond the range of the measure.
Of course, there are simple models, such as ‘heartbeat’, which allow for detailed time measurement but involve a huge cost. The storage of events on analytic servers, and – as currently seems more important – the transmission of data from mobile devices, affects the user's financial costs and significantly accelerates battery consumption.
In tests conducted at Gemius, we assumed that the ‘heartbeat’ does not have to be transmitted at regular time intervals. Because of the left-oblique distribution of number of users in terms of duration of views, we assumed that the ‘heartbeat’ can be sent in intervals, the length of which increases exponentially in relation to the duration of views. As a result, we get a more accurate measurement with the same number of events. Unfortunately in this case, for real traffic it turned out that the number of events grew by more than 350% compared to the current model. The precision of the measurement, with less than 2% error (relative to the absolute, i.e. the ‘heartbeat’ sent every second), costs too much to implement such a solution.
At this point, we were assisted by statistics, the development of browsers, and what we now call data science. When we combined the diverse statistical methods, new browser events of the ‘OnUnload’ type, and our experience in data modelling, we were able to prepare a script that, with a 10% increase in the number of measured events, achieved an accuracy with less than 3% error. A detailed description of this solution is the subject for a separate article. The important thing is that, within the same budget, we can offer a method of measurement which achieves sufficient accuracy to enable us to start thinking about how to use Time rather than Views as the basis for calculation.
What does this mean for the industry?
With the implementation of precise time measurement, we can use this indicator to define a publisher’s advertising potential. Calculation models can also rely on this indicator. For example, we define contact with an ad (Impression) as unbroken contact with the ad for X seconds. We can rely here on TrueView models (video formats). Let’s say, for example: an Impression is 5 seconds of contact with a double billboard. Let us also define the maximum length of broadcast of a display type ad as 15 seconds. Then, for a publisher to determine their potential, we simply divide the total time by 15 seconds and we get the number of broadcast slots that the publisher could potentially sell. As a result, regardless of the UX of a given service, the publisher will only get the potential from the time spent by the user (ATS). This will mean the publisher can think about user comfort without paying attention to the number of views that the user will generate.
At this point, we can refine the IAB document, leaving only advertising formats that are predictable for the user. As an industry we can move towards the TV-style regulations, where there is a statutory limit on ad length. The user receives a predictable offer for how their time can be exchanged for content. If this model is supplemented with a paid option to turn off ads (Germany), the offer becomes both clear and fair.
Any law or good practices that are adopted will be worthless unless there are appropriate controls. For online ads, this control can be performed by ad blockers. Imagine a situation where the owner of an ad blocker is an organization like the IAB. Their ad blocker accepts all formats and placements which have obtained positive industry certification. However, it blocks everything that does not meet the requirements. If this solution is also supported by a system of reporting violations by the end user, we can build around it a community of conscious internet users, who will help us in promoting solutions that are beneficial to all parties. With this tool in hand, it will also be easier to negotiate with the authorities responsible for legislation, both in Poland and at the European level. Only the self-regulation of our industry can prove that we are ready for a win-win solution, not a fight for every penny.
What about those users who won’t accept compromise?
The carrot is nothing without the stick. Anyone who believes in the voluntary uninstalling of ad blockers, or the addition of just their service, is in my view falsely optimistic (from Stalin’s point of view they would be useful...).
There is only one stick: blocking access to content, i.e. you don’t pay, you don’t get. Only this can force that 25 per cent of the population to uninstall ad blockers. It would also discourage the remaining users from installing them.
These stipulations coincide with the new D.E.A.L. proposal recently published by the IAB. Detect abuse, explain the consequences, ask for a change in behaviour, and either lift restrictions or limit access in response to customer choice. This is the surprising voice of reason resulting from all the workgroups I have taken part in, in Poland and other European countries. However, this model does not change the basis for calculation in the advertising model. Without such regulations we will never reach a win-win situation. Better quality of service for a well-defined payment – which is sometimes what the user has to spend to watch ads. Without this it will be difficult to limit access to content, which may be perceived by the end user as unfair action.
Let’s learn from others' mistakes
Over six years ago I was eating lunch with a colleague from the TV industry, who was responsible for research at one of the major TV stations in Poland. He told me about the struggle that occurred in the course of regulating the TV advertising market, when broadcasters were fighting to maximise the amount of time they could allocate to advertising. The result of their efforts was 12 minutes per hour (currently 15 minutes, including auto-promotional blocks). According to my colleague, they were in fact ‘shooting themselves in the foot’ – they ended up struggling to keep viewers on the channel during overly long commercial breaks. Artificially inflating the initial and final position figures in the ad block by interrupting it with auto-promotional material. All this resulted in the immense weariness of the users and a decrease in the effectiveness of the marketing message being received. The actions aimed to maximise revenue, which, according to my colleague, would have been at the same level if the last block of advertising had lasted e.g. 6 minutes rather than 12. In his opinion, reducing the supply would have had a linear effect on prices.
We will never know how it would have been in reality. But this does not mean that we have to repeat the same mistakes without looking for new solutions that are suitable for the Internet. Even those which at first glance may seem crazy.