Content filtering and the Holy Grail of mobile advertising

By Michael Argentini
Managing Partner, Technology and Design

Presenting exactly what people are interested in when they're ready to buy has long been the Holy Grail of mobile advertising. And study after study has shown that people don't mind these types of ads (in fact they like them much of the time). The problem has been ad choice and timing.

When people are tracked in order to improve relevancy and timing, a vocal minority inevitably complain about privacy concerns and cite performance issues and excessive data usage. Something has to give.

Ideally, Ads Are Great

Shake it off. Seriously, in an ideal world, mobile ads can be great. Here are some reasons why.

  • They help us find products are services in which we're interested, at the right time (e.g. when we're mobile).
  • They allow us to get free content.
  • They introduce us to new companies, new products, and new services, we didn't know we'd like or need.

But They're Not Great

Here's where we can all vent, together, about the state of mobile advertising today. Hold my hand. It helps.

  • Many times, websites appear to have more advertising than content.
  • The ads are typically annoying, irrelevant, and outright invasive, interrupting the content we're trying to view.
  • Tactics like pop-overs obstruct the content and are hard to dismiss.
  • Content is spread across many pages to increase the number of ad impressions, making it hard to read.
  • Mobile ads often require large amounts of downloaded data, slowing down the page loads and eating through our mobile data plan.
  • Once the higher priced ads have been shown (their impressions have been used up), we start seeing the bottom of the barrel; ads of even poorer quality and of dubious origin.

For mobile users, performance impact is the most important issue at play. To illustrate the point, I ran a simple test using CNN in mobile browsing mode. Below shows the memory and exception state of the website when it loads normally.

You can see that it loads over 6mb of data, and throws 6 scripting errors that will likely cascade to break other scripts down the line.

Using uBlock in Safari to block ads and tracking code, you can see the difference below.

The website is about 4mb, almost 35% smaller in size, and no exceptions are thrown, increasing stability, reliability, and decreasing load time.

Shot Across the Bow: Mobile Content Blockers

This is a difficult problem to solve. We want free content, and we want the perfect ad experience. Simple, right?

Until now, advertisers and ad networks have taken the easy road, abusing users, and waiting for the backlash. So that's here now. And like desktop, the backlash is in the form of content blockers. But to make the biggest impact, this functionality had to be a first-class feature, either through the mobile operating system and its default web browser, or through extensions to that system.

Enter Apple and iOS 9. This year, Apple quietly introduced the ability to add content blockers to its native mobile web browser, Safari. Why would they do this? First, it wouldn't negatively affect their iAd advertising platform, which is app-based. Second, these apps can block malware and phishing sites, protecting users. And third, and most importantly, these mobile ads have really crapped up the user experience for their iPhone and iPad users. So they put a stake in the ground. And it doesn't hurt that this would reduce Google's profitability. Icing. At launch, some of the first content blocking apps included:

On the other hand, Google, being primarily an advertising company, disallowed these kinds of content blockers in the Android Play Store until recently. In September of 2015, Google finally allowed the AdBlock Plus browser into the Play Store, following Apple's lead, opening the flood gate for all to follow.

The world did not end.

At first, people flocked to these add-ons, and websites and advertisers panicked. They started to work around the blockers with code that detected them and denied access to the content entirely (or at least displayed a popup message intended to make visitors feel guilty for taking away their ad revenue). This is still the case today.

But in any war, the enemy will find ways to work around your defenses. And espionage is playing a role as well.

Take AdBlock Plus. Companies like Google, Microsoft and others reportedly pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to Adblock Plus to do the opposite of what they’re supposed to do — show their "acceptable" ads. iOS content blockers like Crystal does this too. In the case of Crystal, the developer Murphy Apps cites that acceptable ads:

  1. are not annoying,
  2. do not disrupt or distort the page content we're trying to read,
  3. are transparent with us about being an ad,
  4. are effective without shouting at us,
  5. and are appropriate to the site that we are on.

Doesn't sound too bad. So what we're seeing is an organic movement to intermediate the ad networks to control the quality of the ads that are served, in our best interest. In this new world, if our content blocker starts allowing crap through, we can remove the app and use a different one.

Capitalist Democracy!

Watching this play out has been (and will continue to be) interesting to follow.

Article last updated on 4/21/2018