Just more than one-fifth of the world’s smartphone users now have an ad blocker.
For publishers and other websites that make their livelihoods off of online advertising, that’s perhaps the most disconcerting finding from a new report that offers no shortage of bleak news on the scope and spread of online ad blocking.
The yearly study, sponsored by Adobe and anti-ad blocking startup PageFair, is one of the most widely cited measures of the global ad blocking phenomenon.
This year, the report charted the migration of ad-blocking tools from desktops to smartphones, where they have nearly doubled in popularity in the last year, according to its analysis.
As smartphones replace desktop computers as the most common means of accessing the web, that’s an especially worrisome trend for the online media industry.
It may also come as a big surprise to those based in the United States and Europe. Here, the prevailing narrative in industry circles is that mobile ad blockers have yet to really catch on — though not for a lack of hand-wringing on the media’s part.
Not so in countries like China, India, Indonesia and Pakistan, where the vast majority of mobile ad block users — about 93% of those with designated browsers — are concentrated.
And it seems there is one real culprit behind their wildfire spread in the region: The Chinese online shopping juggernaut Alibaba. The company owns an ad-free web surfing app called UC Browser, which has more users than all other ad blocking tools combined, according to the report.
UC Browser has offices in China, India, Russia, Indonesia and other key mobile ad blocking countries, and it’s looking to expand.
Mobile phone ownership has skyrocketed in these countries and other emerging nations over the past few years.
People living in emerging countries are on the whole more likely to use mobile phones as their sole means of Internet access, particularly for browsing over lower bandwidth connections — which may help explain why they’re more eager to do away with bandwidth-hogging ads.
Meanwhile, Europeans and North Americans use mobile ad blocking browsers at only a fraction of the rate of the Asia-Pacific region — just 14 million mobile browser users — and there are only 2.3 million in the United States.
The disparity between mobile adoption in the United States and Europe mirrors that of desktop usage, which Europeans have also been much quicker to adopt.
That shouldn’t be seen as an American endorsement of mobile ads, however. A study last month from Optimal.com and Wells Fargo found that nearly half of U.S. smartphone users who haven’t downloaded ad blockers weren’t aware that they could. The vast majority also said they detest mobile ads even more than those on desktop.
Ad blocking has increasingly become a flashpoint in the digital media and online advertising industries in the past couple years as intrusive ads, personal security concerns and ease of access drive more and more people to download them.
In response, some publishers have resorted to teaming with firms help them lock out would-be ad blockers — or plea with them to whitelist their site or pay a subscription fee.
A wave of media coverage and debate reached a fever pitch of sorts last fall when Apple opened up the Safari browser on iPhone to content blockers for the first time. Despite a promising first couple weeks, Safari ad blockers don’t seem to have caught on.
Still, new, more pressing threats to the industry are now gathering steam. UK cell network Three will soon be conducting tests that will let its users opt out of ads. And South Africa-based carrier Digicell already offers a similar feature.
Built-in network-wide efforts like these have the potential to reach a far greater number of people than specially designed downloadable apps, in addition to raising concerns about net neutrality.
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