The battle between ad blockers and content engines has raged for years, with no end in sight — but Facebook’s decision to throw its own weight against ad blocking could have significant impacts on both the service and online journalism. The company plans to make changes to its desktop advertising platform that will make online ad blocking much more difficult, if not impossible.
Facebook announced a new program today that will give users more control over how they see ads on FB, while simultaneously attacking ad blocking itself. Here’s the site’s plans for ad control, in its own words:
With today’s announcement, we’re building on these efforts by making ad preferences easier to use, so you can stop seeing certain types of ads. If you don’t want to see ads about a certain interest like travel or cats, you can remove the interest from your ad preferences. We also heard that people want to be able to stop seeing ads from businesses or organizations who have added them to their customer lists, and so we are adding tools that allow people to do this. These improvements are designed to give people even more control over how their data informs the ads they see.
The goal is to give end-users the ability to control their own advertising and theoretically only see content that specifically interests them. This would be amazing, if FB could pull it off. Ultimately, they probably won’t.
The reason why is simple: If you fundamentally aren’t interested in being marketed to, then you aren’t very interested in seeing ads. There’s no way to create a system that “knows” when you’re in the market for a house, car, or laptop without turning over insane amounts of personal information that no one should share with a social network in the first place — and that means there’s no real way for FB to tailor its advertising to deliver enough customization to make the approach appealing for most people. Less annoying? Maybe. Genuinely appealing? Probably not. But by inviting users to customize their ad experience, Facebook is also inviting you to share more information with it, telling it more about you — not because you want to share the information publicly, but because you don’t want to be privately annoyed.
The post then moves on to address ad blocking. Facebook is convinced that the top reason people block ads is because said ads are annoying and disruptive. That’s generally what we hear as well — and believe me, we have heard complaints some of you have had about some of the advertising changes that have happened at ET. Facebook says: “As we offer people more powerful controls, we’ll also begin showing ads on Facebook desktop for people who currently use ad blocking software…Rather than paying ad blocking companies to unblock the ads we show — as some of these companies have invited us to do in the past — we’re putting control in people’s hands with our updated ad preferences and our other advertising controls.”
Over the past year, multiple websites have begun experimenting with blocking users who use adblock. Forbes, Wired, and even The New York Times have taken steps in this direction. Ad blockers have responded by coming up with ways to bypass these lockouts in at least some cases, though the specifics vary from website to website.
Here’s why FB might be able to pull off what other websites can’t. When you see ads on most sites, those ads are served by third-party ad networks. Since ad networks also implement ad tracking to monitor user engagement, ad blockers can watch for these types of code, and then use them to identify advertising.
Facebook can, at least in theory, short-circuit this approach by creating its own custom advertising that would embed ads in the same format it uses for stories. It’s not that ad blockers can’t block these posts — it’s that doing so would inevitably start locking down and blocking Facebook itself.
Facebook, however, may be counting on this. The company wants to be a social network where you share cat photos and personal stories, but it also wants to capture ad revenue driven by cutting-edge reporting and current events. If the company can stave off ad blockers by controlling its own network, as opposed to relying on third parties the way most websites do, that gives it even more wiggle room to push media sites to publish on Facebook. Granted, there would have to be revenue sharing arrangements in place to drive that, but FB has already said it intends to launch a revenue-sharing program around its video service, Facebook Live.