Adblocking Online Technology

Adblock Plus’s 'misinterpreted' ad exchange launch is the next pillar in its ‘holistic solution’


By Seb Joseph, News editor

September 13, 2016 | 7 min read

An ad blocker selling ads might seem like a twisted joke but for Adblock Plus it is anything but and its decision to do so is part of its ongoing efforts to create a service it claims will benefit both people and publishers.

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Adblock Plus’ move into ad sales is the next pillar in its ‘holistic solution’.

Whether the industry believes the altruistic aim is irrelevant. The product that has managed to upset almost everyone and everything in advertising is sure that its latest curveball is anything but an opportunistic attempt to own the ad auction. Ben Williams, spokesman for Adblock Plus owner Eyeo, talks about how the business is trying to offer a “holistic solution” for users and publishers – just don't call its ad network a pivot.

Despite the clear revenue opportunities, Williams is reluctant to call what is arguably the formation of an advertising model a “pivot” into new areas. It’s “not something which changes what ‘Acceptable Ads’ is all about,” he argues. “Anytime we try to do something with nuance [it] is open to being easily misinterpreted…We’re not going to rename our product but if we did then we would call it something like ‘Web Customiser’ or something like that.”

Time will tell whether its ‘Accepted Ads Platform’ turns the business into the villain it set out to vanquish. However, it was inevitable that an ad blocker that doesn’t earn anything from consumers using its tech would create its own marketplace.

Adblock Plus first introduced its Acceptable Ads model five years ago but its new exchange aims to simplify the process of getting ads in-front of people. Previously, publishers would pay undisclosed sums to whitelist and ensure their ads pass through the blocking software, a time-consuming process Williams admits this made it a challenge for smaller publishers to commit. Instead, any publisher that signs up and plugs "some code" into their site can easily select whitelisted ads that they can drag and drop onto their sites. None of the ads are able to track people from site to site and they’ll be limited to certain sizes and page locations as defined by Adblock Plus.

“The bottom line for us is that this [Accepted Ads Platform] is going to make whitelisting a lot easier, especially for smaller-to-medium sized sites,” says Williams.

Building on this ethos, Adblock Plus has built a mechanism into its service whereby publishers can determine what ads get selected in the bidding based on feedback rather than targeting parameters. Using feedback and the highest bidder like this to surface ads could help the software firm win publishers around, particularly given that it knows the model can be profitable. Its ad tech partner for the exchange has a one tag solution “making CPMs that were much higher than the typical ads,” claims Williams of the inspiration for the company’s push into ad sales.

It would appear that publishers will take some convincing, with many wary of what they believe is the ad blocker wolf in sheep’s clothing. Richard Reeves, managing director at the AOP, said it would be easier to applaud Adblock Plus if this “were an independent initiative, with the aims to protect the user experience and support brand safety, as opposed to the motivation towards profiteering”.

Guy Phillipson, the Internet Advertising Bureau UK chief executive, is blunt in his assessment: "How ironic. Adblock Plus, who spent years as the consumer champion squashing adverts, now sell ads. We see the cynical move from Adblock Plus as a new string in their racket. Now they're saying to publishers ‘we took away some of your customers who didn't want ads, and now we are selling them back to you on commission’."

Much of the initial anger at the move stems from a belief that this isn't as a good a deal for publishers as is being purported by the ad blocker. While publishers get to keep 80 per cent of the revenue from the ads sold (Adblock Plus takes around 6 per cent), the ads are likely to be lower of value to what would be served otherwise, therefore limiting a site's earning potential.

“In this instance, the development of an ad exchange by Adblock Plus is opportunistic rather than an industry-wide move to safeguard the future of online advertising," argues Reeves. "Collaboration between publishers, advertisers, agencies and technology vendors remains essential to address the issues brought us here in the first place, especially when we are all inhabitants of the same ecosystem.”

On that point, Daniel Wilkinson, head of paid media at Jellyfish, says what Adblock Plus is doing “smacks of double standards”. “But as the article says they aren’t afraid to upset people. The real issues of privacy, ad fraud, brand safety and user experience still exist and need to be addressed by the industry as a whole solution and I think their credibility will be damaged if they start filling vacated space with their ‘approved ads’”.

Question marks also linger over the involvement of other ad tech specialists, which will all take a cut of the ads they help shift in exchange for powering the ad exchange with their tech. Can such a model truly be transparent when it comes to what ads are delivered if it's reliant on those companies that make a living from trying to get as many ads seen as possible? Regardless, both Google and AppNexus have both denied any knowledge of the partnership, despite Eyeo's insistence to Business Insider that “Acceptable Ads Platform will work with the demand infrastructures of Google AdX and AppNexus".

A Google spokeswoman adds: "We review the validity and quality of inventory made available on our platform, but have no knowledge of, or involvement in, ComboTag or Eyeo’s publisher monetization arrangements." For all his attempts to downplay the launch, Williams does shed light on Adblock Plus' broader commercial strategy. Look no further than its mooted micropayments offering as proof of its expansion and the inevitable pressures on digital businesses today to erect robust commercial models. Here, the business hopes to offer an algorithm capable of letting users automatically fund the content they want to view online.

Shine Technologies is another ad blocker owner hoping to broaden its horizons, having hired ad tech veteran James Collier as chief revenue officer earlier in the summer.

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