Mobile ad blocking is real, but new data suggests it might not matter

When Apple first opened the door to ad blockers on iPhones last fall, it came amid lots of hand-wringing over how the move could strike a blow to the free Internet as we know it.

Those fears didn’t ease much when ad blocking apps instantly rocketed to the top of most-downloaded charts in the App Store ?” a clear sign of just how tired people were of clunky, bandwidth-intensive ads intruding on their phone screens.

But at least one ad tech firm says that the number of ads being shown to mobile Safari surfers has actually climbed steadily after a precipitous drop that followed that initial rush.

AdRoll, a platform that helps businesses place targeted ads on websites, has been tracking the amount of online ad space available online for the last year.

“This ad blocking story had been hot in the press for a while, and it comes with so much vitriol and emotion surrounding it with so little actual data,” Adam Berke, AdRoll’s president and chief marketing officer, told Mashable.

The firm has done so by measuring numbers of bid requests, or signals that an advertising space is available to be auctioned through one of the many automated ad exchanges in which much of the Internet’s advertising is bought and sold. Tens of billions of these transactions happen daily.

Since those signals aren’t sent when someone visits a site using an ad blocker, AdRoll figured that would make a decent proxy to look at the rough contours of the ad blocking revolution.

And because of its vantage point as a platform for these sales, AdRoll claims that its measurements are a good representation of the programmatic ad industry as a whole.

Of course, there are blindspots; data on the huge numbers of programmatic ads sold through APIs, like those offered by Facebook and Instagram, were not available to the company.

So with ad blocking at the top of mind in the industry last spring, the company decided it might be useful to log away this data.

What AdRoll’s researchers found was that the amount of mobile advertising being served to mobile Safari users took a dip right after Apple started allowing ad blockers in September. This change was not mirrored in desktop data.

That finding seemed to at least slightly validate the thinking behind their study, Berke said. Ad blockers could constrain ad supply enough to have a noticeable impact.

But the initial drop-off ?” which doesn’t look too out of place among the turbulent ups and downs of the above graph of advertising supply ?” quickly subsided. A steady upwards trend took its place.

Berke thinks that means that the hype that led mobile ad-hating iPhone users to flock to ad blocking apps at first was fleeting. Eventually, the bother of installing and enabling them was not worth it to the average user, he guessed.

It could also mean that while more people did install ad blockers, enough new Safari users cancelled them out. After all, the supply has been growing at a relatively even clip for the past year and the study has no way of knowing what can be attributed to ad blockers.

Still, AdRoll isn’t ready to completely dismiss the threat.

“As an industry we need to take a lesson from this dialogue, which is to not lose sight ?” that we need to be solving for publisher revenues ?” to make sure this content stays free; we also need to be solving for user experience,” Berke said.

Another recent report painted a different picture from the one AdRoll gleaned from its data. In January, a survey found that the number of people who said they used a mobile ad blocker had jumped in the last three months of 2015 ?” even approaching the same portion as desktop.

However, a report by eMarketer this week showed that mobile ad blocker rates in the UK were still relatively small compared to those on desktop.

The specter of more widespread mobile ad blocking still looms, though ?” as evidenced by the contentious feud between business interests on either side that regularly boils over out at industry conferences.

And with ad blockers looking to push into more mobile territory through deals like the one Israeli ad blocking startup Shine signed with European mobile service provider Three, the fight isn’t ending anytime soon.

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