For news publishers the world is constantly ending – not only in over-caffeinated headlines but behind the scenes too. It’s always been so, from Gutenberg to Wapping riots to the internet and the painful conversion from print to digital.
Some news publishers have formed a small vanguard with what many business-folks might consider the ‘obvious’ response: to ban or attempt to ban users who consume their content without seeing their ads. In October of last year German publisher Axel Springer banned adblocking users from the popular Bild news website; in December Forbes put in mechanisms to impede content access to adblocking users; in February of this year Wired instituted adblock ban techniques; and in October of 2015 the City AM financial news website likewise ‘scrambled’ content for adblockers.
In all cases the warnings presented to the user instructed them to whitelist the site in their adblocker – or go away. In all cases there are various tricks, including the use of ‘reading’ mode and private browsing, which allow users to get round the blocks; but I thought it might be interesting to see how the sites in question are faring in the wake of their adblock ‘blockades’, according to internet monitoring service Alexa.
Assessing a site’s performance in relation to its efforts to block adblockers, it’s important to consider that these much-criticised measures are often likely prompted by traffic figures that may have been declining in any case, and that all we can conclude with any certainty from the (approximated) information is that the anti-adblock measures failed to reverse the trend. Furthermore one can doubtless see similar declines in sites which have either taken no action against adblocking or which have only experimented with such measures – such as GQ and the Washington Post.
In any case, this is Alexa’s view of those publishers who have not yet abandoned their anti-adblocking measures.
Wired’s anti-blocking techniques kicked in the first half of February this year, but in this case it seems to be reactive to a longer-term fall in traffic. The slow decline towards Christmas after expo season in September and October would normally be expected, with a rally from mid-January. Instead there is no evidence that Wired’s blocking policy made any difference to what appears to be a headlong traffic slump up to the present time.
Wired’s global rank fell by 174 points to 853rd (hardly shabby) in the period covered, with its bounce rate rising (that’s bad) 3% to 69.60%, daily pageviews down 4.85% to 1.57 and daily time on site down 1% to 2.53 (effectively no change).
Axel Springer / Bild
In the case of Axel Springer’s flagship news vessel, the blockade appears either to have had a disastrous direct effect on a traffic-stream that was fairly healthy, or to have coincided with massively declining website visits for other reasons. The descent begins at the moment the anti-adblock measures are put in place and describes a 45-degree plunge until relative stabilisation in the last two weeks.
Bild maintains its position as the 14th most popular site in Germany, though its global rank fell by 48 to 413 in the year covered. Bild’s bounce rate rose 2% to 38.9%, with daily pageviews little-changed at 3.54, but daily time spent on site per visitor down 6% to 7:07 – the latter figure being an impressive sustain, despite the fall.
Unlike Forbes (below) the adblocking initiative at Bild does not seem to be an exercise in anything but greed; figures were rising steadily from a healthy baseline in the time leading up to the move – declining thereafter.
Forbes started out at the same strong baseline a year ago as most of the other graphs, with the blockade apparently initiated to mitigate the effects of a persistent decline since early autumn – usually a turbulent and fruitful time for news. As with Bild, related or not, a drastic and enduring decline (aside from a brief rally in January) seems to be associated with the institution of the blockade in December, with Forbes’ traffic baseline now dramatically lowered.
Forbes’ bounce rate is up 27% to 27.9 (though this is still an extremely good score), with daily pageviews down nearly 9% to 3.16 and daily time on site per visitor reduced 9% to just under three minutes.
City AM was not starting from the same brash baseline as the other players here, and is the only site of the four whose traffic did not drop at or shortly after the time of the putting in place of anti-adblock measures. However the gentle rise in figures was arrested at the same time the blockade was initiated, and led to a four-month decline from the beginning of 2016, with the site’s baseline struggling to restore position.
City AM’s bounce rate rose 2% to 72.9%, but the domain retained its average daily pageviews of 1.46 and rose its dwell time to two minutes, a rise of 5%.
Those that retreated from blocking adblock
In early September of 2015 The Washington Post ran a ‘test’ of anti-adblock measures, of which there appears to be no trace for the adblock-enabled user in this period (though it can sometimes take a number of specific actions in order to trigger a blockade, depending on the level of initial indulgence for adblockers). The Post retains its paywalled structure, which allows 10 free articles per month, apparently meted out via a combination of HTML5 storage, IP-logging, cookies and other factors, before content is restricted.
The Post’s blockade experiment does not seem to register on what appears to be a generally upward trend over the last six months, with the usual caveat of ‘peace at the holidays’ (‘no news’ being bad news):
If anything the Washington Post’s baseline seems to have risen despite its ultimate unwillingness to repel those who are adblocking. The site’s global rank is up 27 to 187, and it retains its place as the 49th most popular site in the U.S., with page views and dwell time both slightly up. Its high bounce rate of 70% likely reflects the sheer number of ‘lightning strikes’ from outward referrers that the site attracts.
In looking round for websites that have instituted blockades, I found many which seem to have repented of their hatred of adblockers – for instance, of all the news sites that The Guardian rounded up for this article about French publications blocking adblock a mere month ago, I can currently find no evidence of any adblock-block at any of the sites mentioned (though L’Equipe retains its paywall block at certain points).
All this is relatively circumstantial fare by way of arguing that deterring adblocking users deters traffic in general, but there are some unusual coincidences in the graphs.
If one was willing to read the trends with a more paranoid eye, it might seem that instituting these deterrents is financially suicidal, since the remnant audience, though fully monetised and ad-enabled, is so much smaller than the one prior to it.