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Business of Law, Legal Marketing

The Death of Online Advertising: How Ad Blockers Will Change Law Firm Marketing

Will most online ads soon go the way of the Yellow Pages?

By William Peacock  |  March 9, 2016
Art: Ad Blockers and Yellow Pages

nito/Shutterstock

There was once a time where, if you wanted clients, you would put an ad in the phone book. Some businesses would add an “a” to their name, or go with something generic like “AAA” in order to appear first in the phone book. But few businesses advertise in the phone book because no one sees those ads anymore. Instead, many businesses—especially lawyers—have turned to online advertising with Google’s AdWords supplanting the Yellow Pages as the most popular medium. AdWords is simple in theory: bid on a search query (such as “divorce lawyer”) and if your ad is relevant and your bid is high, your ad will appear above search terms.

As of September 2015, the most expensive AdWords were for “ambulance-chasing lawyers,” reports Quartz. Quartz based their statement on a study by WebpageFX and SEMrush, which listed the ten most expensive Google Adwords keywords: “San Antonio car wreck attorney” was at the top of the list at $670.44 per click, while nine of the top ten keywords were lawyer-related.

Online advertising, especially via Google, is the new phone book. But online ads may soon become as endangered as those cumbersome yellow tomes.

The Rise of Ad Blockers: From Geeks to iPhone’s Most Popular App

Legend has it that the modern Ad Blocker was first invented by a procrastinating student in Copenhagen, Denmark. Henrick Aasted Sorensen told Business Insider that he wrote the code to try out the new Phoenix browser (now known as Firefox) in 2002 and was shocked at how popular it became overnight.

Since then, the code, which he released to the open source community, has taken on a life of its own. The most popular ad blocker, Adblock Plus, was originally inspired by Sorensen’s code, though it was almost entirely rewritten by Wladimir Palant, the co-founder of AdBlock Plus, who wanted the blocker to not just keep the ads from displaying, but to keep them from downloading in the background at all.

Ad blockers were initially popular amongst the truly tech-savvy—the exact folks who would be trying an experimental browser from Mozilla. And there was good reason for the popularity: these were the days of widespread pop-up ads, auto-playing banners that blared music from your computer at work, or full-screen pop-over ads that blocked entire webpages until the ad finished playing. Obtrusive ads were on the rise and worse, malware was spreading via these ads.

While geeks were the early adopters, that’s far from the case today. Ad blockers are increasing in popularity amongst all Internet users, though more so with younger and male demographics, reports Page Fair. And despite ad blockers being a desktop or laptop-only solution (until recently), their popularity grew rapidly, despite the wider trend of more users turning to tablets and smartphones for their daily browsing habits—an indication that there is pent up demand for mobile ad blockers as well.

In June 2015, Page Fair and Adobe released their annual report on ad blockers. Among their more interesting findings were:

  • Ad blocking grew by 48% from June 2014 to June 2015;
  • There are now 198 million active ad block users around the world.
  • Ad blocking is estimated to have cost publishers nearly $22 billion in 2015.

And that was before the age of ad blocking on mobile devices—users could dodge ads on their desktop or laptop devices, but on a smartphone or tablet, ad blockers were rare, glitchy, and experimental at best.

In September 2015, Apple released iOS 9, which allows ad-blocking at the operating system level. (Ad blockers have been the most popular apps on the Apple App Store since the feature was introduced). Other manufacturers of mobile devices have followed suit as well. Samsung, the largest manufacturer of Android-based devices, announced just this morning that they would integrate an ad blocker into the browser that ships with their phones as well, reports Engadget.

Why We Use Ad Blockers

It was never just ordinary ads. It was the video ads that slowed down page loading times. Or auto-playing ads that alerted your co-workers or professor to the fact that you were checking sports news instead of paying attention to the finer points of psychobiology. Or worse, the malware spreaders:

“WARNING: YOUR COMPUTER IS INFECTED!”

“YOUR FLASH PLAYER IS OUT OF DATE!”

“42 INFECTIONS FOUND”

As the family geek, and the geekiest person at every law firm I interned or worked at, I can’t tell you how many people fell for those ads and downloaded malware disguised as security software. (And how many hours I spent cleaning out that malware.)

And while I never fell for those tricks, as an early adopter of the technology, I was motivated by obtrusive ads—the pop-overs that covered pages, the pop-unders that played music in a new window hidden behind the one I was in (necessitating clicking through every open application to find the culprit or stabbing the mute button in panic). With one browser extension, the noise was gone. I could enjoy sports news or tech blogs without panic attacks or disapproving looks from professors.

For my less tech-savvy relatives and co-workers, I installed ad blockers for them as a prophylactic measure—none of them fell for a malware scam once the extensions were added to their desktop browsers.

Finally, there is an additional incentive for phone and tablet users: mobile data is rarely unlimited, and ads (especially obnoxious video ads) use up data allowances while slowing down load times.

Hope in the Form of the Whitelist and Native Ads

In the wider world, there has been some backlash. Some users and bloggers have expressed guilt over blocking ads and costing publishers revenue. Publishers, like Forbes.com, have taken to blocking users with ad blockers from reading their content, and bribing them with an “ad lite” experience if they simply disable their blocker. (Ironically, shortly after introducing those new measures, Forbes served malware via a pop-under.)

Time will tell whether guilt or counter-measures will stem the rising tide of ad blockers, but it seems unlikely to defeat ad blockers all together. The most likely outcome is a compromise in the form of non-obtrusive “acceptable” ads or native ads that are too tied into content to be easily blocked.

Adblock Plus is the most popular ad blocker for desktop browsers. And if you are an advertiser, they do provide hope via their whitelist, that is, for a fee.

In 2012, the company announced that it would allow “non-intrusive” ads that passed their screening to appear. It was later announced that they would charge larger publishers to display their ads—a move some might argue amounts to extortion. The “acceptable ads” feature is turned on by default, which means most people see the non-intrusive (or paid for) ads, though the feature is easily disabled. Google is rumored to pay for such whitelisting, and indeed, here is what I see on my desktop:

Adblock Plus With Whitelist

riverside SERPs ABP_allow_non-obtrusive

Adblock Plus, Whitelist Disabled

riverside SERPs ABP

As for mobile devices, since mobile ad blocking is a new trend, and the features vary by device, it is unknown whether whitelists for paid-for or less obnoxious ads will make the jump to iPhones, iPads, and Androids. There are indications to the contrary, in fact, as the iOS ad blocking can be so aggressive that it blocks simple web traffic analytics (the invisible tracking that tells website owners who is visiting and how often).

The other hope for advertisers and publishers is native advertising: ads that integrate with a site’s content so well that not only are the ads less annoying to readers, but ad blockers have a more difficult time distinguishing the ads from regular content, explains the Wall Street Journal. Examples include advertorials, sponsored blog posts, and ads that mix in to users’ social network feeds (sponsored tweets or Instagram image ads).

 Will Any Online Ads Still Work in Five Years?

It’s almost certain that online advertising will still exist in five years. The question is, how rare (and expensive) will “acceptable” ads be?

As a longtime ad-block user, I have seen how some sites have evolved to face the challenge. Forbes isn’t the first site to disable itself for visitors using ad blockers. I recall a few years ago having to regularly turn off my ad blocker to watch content on CBS and ABC’s websites. The key for those sites was to make valuable content that users would willingly watch annoying commercials to see. In my case, I may have suffered through the same Internet Explorer commercial a few hundred times while binge-watching Grey’s Anatomy. This is a parallel to live sports content on television, which is the most sought-after content by both networks and advertisers because few consumers want to DVR (and skip commercials) for a live sporting event.

For the next few years, expect an ongoing battle between ad blockers and publishers: native content advertising will rise, ad blockers will evolve to block that content, and eventually only the sites with the best content that people cannot live without will be able to run ads without interruption via a Forbes-like “ad wall.” Other sites may even switch to a subscription model and eliminate ads altogether, further restricting the supply of online ads.

Whitelists seem like a dead end. As Adblock Plus and others continue to sell exceptions for “acceptable ads,” and users realize that they are seeing more and more ads, they will eventually look up how to disable the whitelist (it takes one click) or switch to an alternate blocker (the original ad blocker was open source, as are many of the present day blockers).

As for lawyers seeking new clients online, I suspect they’ll survive. In the short term, the restricted supply of users seeing ads should cause the cost of ads to rise. And in the long term, one would expect that other advertising mediums that are harder to block will emerge, such as “radio” ads on online streaming services.


William Peacock is an attorney and marketing director at Holstrom, Block and Parke, APLC, a family law and estate planning firm with offices in Orange, Riverside, and San Bernardino counties.

Reader Comments

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