By Guy Tonkin

AdBlock Plus - the most popular browser extension in the world - could be blocking your online ads! Find out what, why & where right here.

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AdBlock Plus, with over 200,000,000 downloads so far, is the most popular browser extension in the world. That's 200 million users who are potentially blocked from seeing your ads. Find out how this could affect your online advertising strategy here.

The implications of ad blocking for paid search advertising

Advertisers are people too. And this means that when it comes to adblocking we exist in a dangerous swampland of mixed emotions.

On the one hand we want our ads to show to as many people as possible. We think our ads are great. We also think they could help you get what you want. Otherwise we wouldn't do it. We'd open a roller disco instead. If the Rolling Stones had what we are offering, they'd have at least one less hit to take to the retirement home Christmas talent contest.

On the other hand, we, as people, are as annoyed as you are with pop ups – if not more so. Nothing is worse than when we are trying to watch Breaking Bad, and ad after ad gets in the way, all up in our grill. It ruins the tension. We are taken out of the dream-like desert of New Mexico and back into our grotty rooms full of dirty washing and Star Trek posters.

Adblock Plus is the solution

Adblock Plus advertises itself as the most popular browser extension worldwide. With 200 million downloads so far (roughly 8% of people who use the internet) the assertion seems reasonable. This number is impressive, but, with my advertiser's hat back on, it is also scary. These are 200 million people who could want to buy what we are selling, who could be actively searching us out, but who, try as we might, we may not be able to serve ads to.

But first, a bit more on Adblock Plus

It blocks ads all across the internet, on both the display network (which contains advertising space on websites, where your standard banner ads appear) as well as adverts on search engines (ads which show up to the top and side of organic search results in Google, Bing & so on). The display network is massive and diffuse, full of big and small ad exchanges all in charge of providing adverts for different websites – so it is very difficult to find, on a case by case basis, which exchange's ads are blocked and which aren't.

Search ads, on the other hand, are a lot easier to test. They are also the golden ticket for advertisers: one of the best ways to appear to an audience directly interested in what you want to sell them. People are already searching for your products and services. Fish, barrel etc.

So, each provider has their search engine page, be it Google or Bing/Yahoo, which you can navigate to. Search for anything – with Adblock Plus turned on – and you can instantly see if ads are blocked or not. Go on, give it a go. By flicking the program on and off you can also watch ads disappear as if by magic. Or hold their ground, firm and resolute.

It's pretty fun:

Bing search

But ad blocking software should block all ads right?

Nope, luckily for us advertisers that is not the case.

Adblock Plus was developed to hide the most annoying and pesky of online ads – the noisy videos that automatically begin as soon as you load a page, the banners that flash, buzz, hum and distract you while you are reading about serious things like the economy or looking at cats. But the program (for some, unknown, reason) is incapable of detecting which ads fall into this category of annoyance and only blocking them. Instead – if you are a reliable (not annoying) advertiser you apply to Adblock Plus to be put on a whitelist, at which point your ads will not be blocked by the program's default settings.

Now for the interesting bit

Google's search ads are not blocked by default in Adblock Plus's settings. Ads in Bing, Yahoo, Linkedin & Facebook, however, are. Now, the potential for these ads to be annoying or distracting is essentially equal across all of these platforms. On Google you can link images to your ads through image ad extensions, you can also link videos if you are in on the media ads beta (introduced by Louise on this blog in July), just as you can link images to your ads on Facebook or use Rich Ads In Search to show videos in Bing. It's not like Google inherently hosts less annoying ads.

But look how hard it is to block them:

Google image ad extensions

Of the 2373 advertising portals automatically allowed by Adblock Plus's default settings, at least 1680 are owned, run or managed by Google. Over 70%. While ads on Bing, Facebook, & Linkedin disappear into the abyss. You can check for yourself. Click on your little Adblock Plus logo, click filter preferences, then, at the bottom of the preferences window where the “allow some non-intrusive advertising" is (automatically) ticked, click “view list". Then just look at how many times Google appears.

Let's focus on Bing, as it's the platform in most direct competition with Google. Do they not know what's happening? Why aren't they frantically trying to get the same whitelist deal that Google have (apparently) paid handsomely for? To have all your search ads blocked by the biggest browser extension in the world does not seem like something to ignore like an unreturned library book or odd rash.

As PPC advertisers we are constantly trying to find areas to expand into for our clients – adding value to their accounts, and sometimes (albeit rarely) this means looking elsewhere, beyond Google products, to try and give our clients the most for their money. But with Adblock Plus allowing Google's ads to slip through the net, while essentially targeting one by one all of their competitors, such expansion can come at a price. It's almost like Adblock Plus are just another small iron or dog in Google's ongoing game of digital monopoly. Perhaps they are not the selfless pioneers of internet privacy and anti-capitalist values that their website implies, who fight against the “hundreds of ad agencies tracking your every move" online. The agency is fine, as long as they have the right boss.

Maybe not. Maybe I'm wrong and as I write Bing are just sending over the last of their portals to be put on the whitelist, and Adblock Plus will accept them (and their hefty service fee) with open arms. Only time will tell.

But for the moment Adblock Plus – for all its protestation to the contrary - seems to be another very successful tool in Google's belt for undermining its competitor's efficiency.

The king's not dead. Long live the king.