Adblocking: down the track in travel

I’m not going to go to deep into the pros and cons of actually using an adblocker, other than to say I don’t agree with their use — especially if a publisher makes it clear they don’t want you to use one. Instead I wanted to write about what the results of adblocker use by a large majority of readers might look like down the track, within the travel writing sphere.

There are three main aspects to this. How advertisers and ad networks will respond, how publishers will be affected and how readers will be affected. What will happen to the reader’s experience is the most important to my mind, but I’m treating it last as the other two are inter-related and contribute (obviously) to the reader experience.

How advertisers and ad networks will respond
Two primary arguments are raised by the pro-adblocker camp: Ads are annoying and detract from the reading experience and adtracking is loathsome. Currently, most adblockers block third party Javascript, which is used to load both ads and tracking cookies, removing both issues.

The most straightforward way to address the first part of this (the ugly annoying ads) is to load them server side. Plenty of sites already do this, so those ads are (generally) not blocked; expect to see more of this. Adblockers can block on creative size — for example, they can block all images that are IAB unit sizes — but there will be a considerable amount of collateral damage to this approach (as not all 300*250 images are ads, for instance).

Getting around the tracking block is more difficult but not impossible. Assigning unique IDs to readers and then identifying characteristics like referrer (where available!) and other user-agent/platform stuff, plus plenty of site specific stuff (such as time on site and pages viewed) is relatively straightforward. This information could then be baked into the querystring and passed to an adserver on click (because the ads are now being served server-side). Some publishers would probably agree to bake that into their entire site navigation for enough $$. Sure, it’s not as comprehensive as current tracking, but it is a start. Take a look at ANY Online Travel Agent querystring once you’ve surfed around a bit to see what I’m talking about.

Content-wise, what should we expect to see? A massive growth in native content — this is basically advertorial, renamed to make is remotely more socially acceptable. Brands pay the publisher to have their editorial staff prepare stuff related (sometimes vaguely, sometimes very specifically) to the brand, whittling down the editorial/advertising Chinese wall. As Medium founder Evan Williams says, “Native ads are the only thing that can work. Other stuff hasn’t been a win-win especially for users. It’s on its last legs.” I’d never categorise native advertising as a win-win, but Williams’ sentiment is a common one.

Responsible publishers clearly disclose native content — phrases like “Partner content”, “In conjunction with” and “Sponsored by” are all code for advertorial. Of course, clearly disclosing native content to your readers means you’re also clearly disclosing it to adblockers. So expect adblockers to increasingly block this material as well.

Therefore the next step will be for brands to require undisclosed native content blended in as closely as possible to editorial content. This will be far more difficult for adblockers to detect correctly and remove. It will also be extremely difficult for readers to realise what they are reading is actually an ad.

This last step is a double win for the advertiser — unblocked content that readers don’t realise is advertorial. It isn’t so much a great thing for publisher trust because when readers realise they’ve been tricked into reading an ad, they’re generally not very happy.

So the ads and much of the tracking are gone — yay! They’ve been replaced by material that is advertorial and indistinguishable from editorial — not so much yay!

What will happen to small-scale publishers?
At, say, a 75% percent block rate, many independent smaller scale publishers (ie too small to have dedicated ad and tech teams) will stop publishing. Aside from lawyers, bankers, cocaine dealers and politicians I can’t think of many occupations who work with a 75% profit margin; take away three-quarters of any business’s income and it will struggle. Non-professional hobby sites will undoubtably continue, but maybe they’ll just pull in enough for a slab of beer annually rather than monthly.

Obviously a wise approach as a professional publisher is to not have all your eggs in one basket — being totally reliant on advertising has never been the best idea. Travel-themed affiliate marketing and ebooks are two obvious and relatively easy candidates to help in this regard. But these revenue streams too may well be blocked in the future by adblockers because of the zeal of people who simply think information should be free (never mind the cost of compiling the information).

In travel publishing, we’ll see a vast growth in advertorial (sorry, I mean native content) — not that it wasn’t already a massive reader problem in travel. Expect more luxury hotel insider pieces paid for by luxury hotels, adventure travel experiences paid for by adventure travel companies, local food pieces written by local food tour providers, PR companies paying for guidebook writers to visit certain properties and so on. The travel vertical is already awash in native stuff. Expect to see plenty more from publishers willing to do it and less and less of it to be disclosed to the reader.

The reader experience
As an adblocking reader, you’ll be tracked less and see fewer ads. You’ll also be presented with far more content that, well, is probably actually an ad. You didn’t realise? That’s the idea. And if you don’t use an adblocker? Well, you’ll still face reading crappier content online as well as some publishers bend to the new regime.

For some readers, this is a reasonable trade off. But it is worth considering that the most likely result to your “hating ads” and so blocking them, will be getting to read ads without realising they’re actually ads.

And whatever you do, don’t worry about all the tracking that is going on while you browse the web logged in to Facebook. (That was sarcasm.)

On Travelfish
Advertising is a minor but important part of our revenue stream. If 75% of our readers blocked ads, we wouldn’t be very happy about it, but we wouldn’t go out of business. You’ll never read native content on Travelfish. We’d shut the site down before it came to that.

We will continue to run ads, as we currently do, primarily through Google Adsense which remains, by far, the most cost-effective way for a small publisher to monetise their website. To the full extent that the Adsense platform permits, we disallow advertiser practices that present a poor user experience or enable excessive tracking. For example, we block third party and interest-based ads as well as more than 2,000 “Google-certified ad networks”. There is definitely a revenue cost for us associated with blocking these “services”. Does this matter to adblocking software? No. An ad is an ad is an ad.

If the adblock rate gets high enough, we’ll paywall adblockers. Don’t want to pay and don’t want to turn your adblocker off? Take your entitlement over to Wikivoyage please. (This is not meant as a slight to Wikivoyage – they’re a solid site – but rather highlighting a non-commercial site providing similar information to Travelfish.)

We don’t think we’ll be the only publisher to do this — others who get that icky feeling about native content may well do the same. If you buy an adblocker, consider that down the track you may also have to buy access to a site in lieu of seeing their ads. Some people are cool with that; if so, everyone is happy.

One thing I’ll give adblockers: blocking comments on blogposts was a great idea. But what about the perfect adblocker?