UPDATED: Facebook Starts Blocking Ad Blockers on Desktop Computers
Image: Pexels

UPDATED: Facebook Starts Blocking Ad Blockers on Desktop Computers

The company is trying to increase revenue by showing users ads more relevant to them

August 9, 2016
Updated: August 11, 2016

In a move sure to engender controversy among users, Facebook has found and implemented a method of circumventing users' ad blocking software, forcing them to allow ads to show on its desktop site even if the software is running.

"We are making it harder for ad blockers to be effective on Facebook for desktop,"said Andrew Bosworth, Vice President of Ads and Business Platform at Facebook, when he spoke with USA Today.

How did the company do it?

According to The New York Times (NYT), the site "is taking aim at the signifiers in digital ads that blockers use to detect whether something is an ad. Facebook's desktop sitewide changes will then make ad content indistinguishable from non-advertising content. For blockers to get around these changes, Facebook said they would have to begin analyzing the content of the ads themselves, a costly and laborious process."

And why the change in the first place? "Disruptive ads are an industry problem, and the rise of ad blockers is a strong signal that people just don't want to see them," Bosworth explained when interviewed by NYT. "But ad blockers are a really bad solution to that."

People who actually use ad-blocking software may not agree, and there are a lot of them—an estimated 200 million desktop users at least. Ads slow down the time it takes for pages to load, hide content, use up data, and are often just plain annoying to users who are not interested in the product or service being advertised. And the latter, says Bosworth, is the focus of Facebook's strategy.

"For the past few years at Facebook we've worked to better understand people's concerns with online ads. What we've heard is that people don't like to see ads that are irrelevant to them or that disrupt or break their experience. People also want to have control over the kinds of ads they see," he explained.

"As a result of what we've learned, we've introduced tools to help people control their experience, improved how we decide which ads to show and created new ad formats that complement, rather than detract from, people's experience online…. When they're relevant and well-made, ads can be useful, helping us find new products and services and introducing us to new experiences."

As irritating as ads can be to users, they remain a large source of revenue for many companies, including Facebook, which generated $6.44 billion in revenue according to USA Today. And publishers are another good example. The rise of digitalization has forced publishers to rethink their advertising strategies in light of falling sales of print editions of their books, newspapers, and magazines. Many digital publishers, such as Wired and Forbes, have begun trying to find ways to get around ad blockers. Neither of those sites will allow visitors using ad blockers to read articles published on their site unless they "whitelist" the site as an exception with the blocker so that ads are allowed to appear.

For the moment, the change will affect only those users who access Facebook on the desktop site rather than on a mobile browser or through one of the its mobile apps. However, the company is keeping an eye on the growing use of ad blockers on mobile devices and, given that the apps are where it makes the most revenue in advertising, it seems likely that the blocking of ad blockers will eventually extend there as well.

Update: Open-source ad blocker Adblock Plus has developed a workaround filter that will enable users to continue blocking ads on Facebook, though it remains a "cat-and-mouse game" as to when Facebook will circumvent the workaround.