iOS9: Ads, Content-Blockers, and the Mobile Web Economy

by | Sep 20, 2015 | Web/Tech | 0 comments

Apple released iOS9 this week for iPhone and iPad, and unlike their previous mobile OS releases this one was accompanied by a soundtrack: the collective woof of expelled air as tens of thousands of Internet advertisers and publishers took a hard punch to the solar plexus. The new mobile OS offers content-blocking and privacy control tools to developers, and — predictably — a day after iOS9 hit the airwaves new ad-blocking apps rocketed to the top of the App Store’s charts.

Advertisers are keenly aware of the sharp rise in the use of ad-blocking on the desktop — up 50% year over year according to a recent study by PageFair and Adobe to nearly 200 million monthly active users (MAU) worldwide. But desktop Internet use is flat. Mobile is where the growth is. Mary Meeker’s prediction of a 2015 mobile tipping point has  proved on point, with adults in the US now using mobile devices more than three hours per day — 300% more than just five years ago — accelerating the usage gap of mobile (51%) over the desktop (42%).

Which is to say that advertisers have their eyes on mobile, and have been increasing their ad spend on mobile to catch up with its ascendency. And now — boom! — content-blocked.

It’s about time. Ad networks are choking the mobile economy.

When connected to WiFi, smartphones and tablets enjoy network speeds similar to those of WiFi-connected desktop and notebook computers. But the advantage of a mobile device is, well… being mobile. Being able to go places that your WiFi signal can’t reach. A fast mobile connection — 4G LTE — may net you something like an actual broadband throughput experience. Or something less. Sometimes far less. There is the widely-advertised (and highly theoretical) peak rate, and then there is the actual subscriber experience, the result of traffic load, fading, attenuation loss, and wireless carrier signal to noise ratios (or C/N). In this world, even a built-expressly-for-mobile website can prove a bit sluggish. And a content-heavy website with a full complement of ads? That proves something else, altogether.

This week I’ve tested a number of mobile websites using the Peace content-blocking app. Peace was (briefly) the most popular of those just-minted iPhone ad-blocking apps, but its author, Marco Arment (yes, that Marco Arment), subsequently pulled it from the App Store (which is yet another very interesting story in this whole affair.)

Mobile page weight in MB.

Mobile page weight in MB. Capturing total time and latency introduced by ad networks is a little less cut and dried… another time.

My results suggest publishers and advertisers have a lot to answer for.

Using a mobile ad-blocker doesn’t just shave a few seconds off load times here and there. Instead it reveals that ads and ad networks comprise not only the larger share of data, but also the larger share of latency — the period of time you spend waiting for something, anything to happen — and by a large margin. How large? As much as 3:1, or more.

Let me put that more clearly. The larger share of the stuff you download when you browse the mobile web is ads and the scripts that serve them, often slowly, from overloaded ad networks. How much? As much as 75% of what you download. Sometimes more. Sometimes much more.



Image [cc] by Andrew Mager.


Think of the last time you sat down to watch an hour of broadcast television. That hour was comprised of roughly two-thirds of gripping entertainment (why else would you watch?) and one-third advertising. To depict the amount of advertising that’s being beamed at your mobile device, reverse that ratio.

How much TV would you watch if you got to view only 20 minutes of Walking Dead for each 40 minute block of ads for little blue pills and light beer?  Mind you, in this model the television you watch is pay-as-you-go,  and unless you have a truly unlimited data plan — one without artificial caps or limits — all those ads may incur you still greater fees. Welcome to the mobile ad economy.

But wait, there’s more!

Just when you thought that mobile ad bandwidth and latency was annoying, let’s take a closer look at typical mobile ad practices:

  • Mobile ads are conspicuously intrusive. They are large — frequently they block the viewport altogether, and just as frequently they are seemingly impossible to dismiss. There are any number of articles I’ve had to decide to not read because I couldn’t navigate past the ad that was blocking my view (and because the annoying delivery of the ad made me significantly less interested in the point of view of its publisher).
  • Mobile advertisers take advantage of the scale of mobile displays to cause “accidental” clickthroughs when you attempt to close the ad. Sometimes they just add a fake a close button on the ad, ‘cause hey, you might not even notice the difference.
  • Mobile ads networks are delivering malware posing as ads, some of which have the alarming capability to send and receive premium text messages which you’ll only discover on a close read of your phone bill.
  • The scripts that serve ads can lead to browser and app instability, and because they’re constantly sending and receiving data about you they keep your device’s CPU running, and nibble away at your battery life.

You might get the impression that  ad networks are vampires, sucking the life our of your mobile Internet. I don’t think you’d be wrong.

It’s not that I never want to see ads.

I don’t really care to block all ads, all the time. Honestly, I find ads useful when they’re relevant to what I’m reading about, or what I’m searching for just now. I whitelist sites on my desktop system’s ad-block to allow ads on websites that provide me useful and contextual ads. Context is *everything*.

Conversely, just like you I can find ads all big-brother-like when they pop up relative to something I’m not looking for now, but was looking for yesterday or last week. I understand well the operating principles of ad retargeting (and shoring up abandoned shopping carts) but retargeting unconstrained by frequency or immediacy is just… well, creepy and off-putting.

You might get the impression that  ad networks are vampires, sucking the life our of your mobile Internet. I don’t think you’d be wrong.

Now that I know what mobile ads are costing me — in mobile page load time, bandwidth, stability and battery life — there’s no question I’ll keep a mobile ad-block in place, and I’m pretty certain I’m not alone. Ad networks, just as certainly, are going to try to route-around ad-blockers, or bully their way through them. The real question is: what are publishers going to do?

Publishers have blindly accepted the terms and conditions of the ad networks providing their revenue stream. I found a larger share of websites leverage multiple ad networks, each of them adding their own overhead to the pile-on. I wonder, if those revenue streams slow to mere trickles, will publishers consider a model that works better for their consumers? Will more publishers consider selling ads directly, to contextually relevant advertisers? Will publishers serve ads locally, and, if they do, might they serve ads using methods that augment and enhance the content they’ve created for their consumers rather than obstruct it?

I think publishers are at a new and unique crossroads, one where they have the opportunity to break the deal they made with the devil long ago. I wonder what they’ll choose…

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