Facebook Inc. is attempting to address an industry-wide problem by neutralizing the software that a growing number of people are using to block out ads online.
On Tuesday, the social-networking giant announced that users of ad blockers will now begin to see ads on Facebook's desktop website. At the same time, Facebook offered up what it hopes will be a partial solution to the annoyance that cause users to block ads in the first place: The company is beefing up its ad-preferences tool to give users more choice in the types of ads they see.
This represents the biggest strike yet in the fight between ad blockers and the digital media companies that rely on ads for the vast majority of their revenues. While publishers such as Forbes, The Washington Post and The Guardian have experimented with pop-ups requesting that visitors to their sites turn off ad blockers, none have Facebook's massive global reach, with 1.7 billion monthly active users. For such an Internet behemoth to enter the fray is a sign of just how big a concern ad blocking has become.
In Canada, 17 per cent of people have installed ad blockers on their desktop computers, according to a study released in May by the Interactive Advertising Bureau of Canada (IAB) and comScore. The growth in blockers has been swift: A study last year from Pagefair and Adobe found that roughly 200 million people globally use ad blockers, up from just 54 million in 2013.
"Ads are an important part of the Facebook experience," Rob Sherman, Facebook's deputy chief privacy officer, said in an interview Tuesday.
The changes will roll out gradually over the next couple of weeks. Mr. Sherman would not go into detail about the technology Facebook is using to circumvent ad blockers, but said the desktop site will change the coding around ads that blocking software uses to detect which parts of a page are advertising and then to strip out that content.
Meanwhile, Facebook users will be seeing more messages promoting new controls over the ads they see. For example, the "ad preferences" page in every Facebook account will now show users which companies have them on customer lists they use to deliver ads, and to remove themselves from seeing ads from those companies on Facebook if they wish. (Customer lists are built when people give their e-mails or phone numbers to companies to join loyalty programs, for example, or to enter contests or receive discount offers. Facebook then cross-references those e-mails or phone numbers with those related to Facebook accounts to build "custom audiences" for advertisers to speak to their customers.) It will also provide sample ads to show the kinds of messages targeted to people on those lists, to help users choose whether they want to eliminate those ads or not.
The ad preferences page already allows people to see what Facebook has determined to be their interests, based on conversations they have on the site, pages they click on, and other web-browsing behaviour. People can use that tool to erase interests that are incorrect, so that they are less likely to see irrelevant ads from advertisers targeting people with those interests. By offering more controls, Facebook is hoping to minimize the irrelevant ads that can annoy people – and lead them to consider ad blocking.
While the move to block ad blockers is focused on Facebook's desktop site, any changes made to a user's ad preferences apply on mobile devices as well.
"That's the kind of transparency people have been looking for," said IAB president Sonia Carreno. "That has been the ad blockers' biggest argument – that they are protecting consumers – so it's nice to see Facebook … providing customers with what they asked for, with choice and control."
However, one popular ad-blocking company shot back at Facebook Tuesday, calling its move to bypass blockers "anti-user."
"This is an unfortunate move, because it takes a dark path against user choice," Adblock Plus spokesperson Ben Williams wrote in a blog post.