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The not so existential threat of ad-blocking

The not so existential threat of ad-blocking

As far back as  2013, many digital publishers were losing up to a third of their ad revenue to ad-blocking but most had not identified this as a significant threat as yet. By 2015, ad-blocking had become a strategic issue in publishers boardrooms around the world and was identified as a critical revenue threat. But what to do about it?

The history of the digital media industry is one of continuous crisis and today is no different as the industry giants endeavour to maintain control of their enormous revenues ultimately sourced from advertising.

The ad-blocking crisis was preceded by the shift to mobile, the emergence of video, and also coincided with an ad fraud crisis. During 2016, industry minds were focused on solving ad-blocking, but in 2017, priorities shifted to brand safety, the hegemony of the industry giants (Apple, Facebook, Google, etc.), and GDPR and other privacy regulations that threaten attribution and programmatic ad targeting.

With attention shifting from one crisis to another, ad-blocking continued to grow, its impact softened only by a continued shift to mobile, where ad-blocking was still nascent.

By 2020 mobile ad-blocking had matured effectively dwarfing desktop ad-blocking that had focussed so many minds just three years ago. It should be alarming to both advertisers and publishers that mobile ad-blocking is now a key differentiator used by brand-name technology companies to effectively compete for market share. Mobile ad-blocking is here to stay and is growing faster than desktop ad-blocking ever did.

Though desktop ad-blocking appears to have reached its zenith, mobile ad-blocking is growing rapidly. In 2020 527M people were using mobile browsers that block ads by default, a 64% increase over previous years.

While Google has taken measures to deter ad-blocking, its browser competitors are differentiating themselves by offering ad-blocking as a key feature/benefit.

Desktop ad-blocking

The number of active desktop ad-blocking installs is in a slight decline but remains relatively high. Key observations include:

  • The number of desktop computers in use in most countries has plateaued or is slowly falling.
  • The active installation rate remains relatively stable in the US and UK.
  • The active installation rate is falling faster in countries with higher historical rates (e.g. Germany, France, Poland, etc.) but remains high.
  • The percentage of traffic subject to ad-blocking tends to be higher than actual user adoption rates, as ad-blocking users generally consume more page views.
  • The slowing of active ad-blocking installations can be attributed to the decreasing usage of desktop computers rather than any other issue.

Mobile ad-blocking

Virtually all mobile web browsers except Google Chrome now support some form of ad-blocking. Key observations include:

  • A majority of mobile ad-blocking is due to UC-Browser, with over 400M installations.
  • According to Big Data Research, UC Browser held 35.9% of the Chinese browser market in 2018, with the highest user satisfaction rating of any web browser.
  • Evermore mobile browsers perform default ad-blocking, including UC Browser, Opera Mini, Brave, and Adblock Browser.
  • Most major browsers now provide opt-in ad-blocking, including Apple Safari and Microsoft Edge.
  • Ad-blocking is now a key differentiator for all browsers that compete against Google Chrome.


At the close of 2020 Google has taken extensive action to limit the ad-blocking impact on Chrome, but in so doing, has opened the door for competitors with default ad-blocking to seize mobile browser market share.

We expect the critical and complex issue of ad-blocking will continue into the next decade, and unless addressed systematically, the major losers will inevitably be advertisers and publishers.

It is not likely that technology will provide advertisers or publishers with short, medium, or long term sustainable solutions. It is far more likely that innovative publishers will re-focus on the value of their trusted brands, the visitor-centric content that underwrites it, and innovative direct monetisation techniques to complement programmatic techniques.

With thanks to Big Data Research, Blockthrough, and Pagefair.

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