This month will see the release of Apple’s latest mobile operating system update, iOS9. The update brings with it a controversial new feature: a “content blocking” extension for Apple’s mobile browser Safari. What will this mean for advertisers and publishers?
What is content blocking?
Content blocking is not simply adblocking by another name. Rather than merely screening out advertising, content blocking enables users to block all extraneous or unwanted content when loading a webpage. Beyond advertising content, this may consist of tracking scripts, images, pop-ups and other miscellaneous code.
With the introduction of the “Content Blocking Safari Extension”, developers can create downloadable extensions to filter browsing and prevent certain types of content from being displayed, in accordance with user preference. Essentially, a content blocker can be used to strip away anything a user has not specifically requested, doesn’t really need or probably isn’t interested in seeing.
Why has Apple done this?
At face value, Apple’s motivation appears to be twofold. The removal of any unnecessary code is likely to improve the mobile browsing experience for Safari users. Additional behind-the-scenes content slows down the loading of webpages, leaving users waiting for all the extra information to load in the browser. This has a knock-on effect on the cost of browsing where mobile users are paying for a limited data allowance. Using a content blocker extension ought to provide a faster, cleaner and cheaper browsing experience, without the slowing effect of advertising and tracking technology.
Beyond this, the blocking of tracking scripts could be interpreted as a response by Apple to increasing consumer concern about data privacy. Data privacy is a perennial hot topic in the tech industry and Apple CEO Tim Cook has certainly been vocal about the company’s intention to avoid unnecessary collection of data. In conjunction with the other new features introduced in the iOS9 update, such as the new and improved interface for iCloud authentication, could content blocking be part of Apple’s general focus on privacy issues? A more cynical interpretation might consider the impact on the company’s competitors. What will a rise in content blocking on mobile devices mean for companies like Google, who, unlike Apple, relies on advertising revenues?
What does this mean for advertising?
Clearly this is not good news for publishers and advertisers. Whilst content blocking does not equate to adblocking, the vast majority of content blocked is likely to be advertising content. Although users may recognise that the article they wish to read is funded by the surrounding advertising, given the opportunity, many would choose an ad-free online experience. So, unwanted content will often mean advertising.
This is really nothing new. Adblockers for desktop browsers have been in existence for some time. In fact, now almost 5% of the online population uses adblocking technology. As ADTEKR has reported, a number of German publishers have tried and failed to challenge the practice through the courts. Arguably, an increase in adblocking on mobile devices is simply inevitable.
It is difficult to comment on the extent of the problem for advertisers and publishers at this stage, given that iOS9 is only in beta at present. Much will depend on user awareness of the feature: if most users do not know about the content blocking capability, it may not make a significant difference to mobile ad revenues at all. However, consumers, especially younger audiences, are becoming savvier about streamlining their online experience. At the very least, marketers can expect this to have an impact on the already hard-to-reach “millennial” audience.
What’s the answer?
Some commentators have suggested that the answer lies in an increased focus on native advertising, which is less likely to be screened out by content blocking technology. Others within the industry have promoted a general reframing of blocking as an opportunity for progress, rather than a threat. They have claimed these developments will force advertisers and publishers to innovate, moving away from traditional banner ads and towards content that will positively engage the user – value-adding content that the target audience actively wants to see – rather than material they must tolerate as a necessary means of accessing desired content.
Perhaps Apple’s content blocking play is just the latest sign that advertising practices need to continue moving with the times.