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The Evolution of Online Advertisement Blockers

People have been trying to avoid advertisements since advertising first began. With earlier forms of advertising — in-person, print, radio and television — ads were much easier to ignore and less likely to be too intrusive. However that all changed with the internet.
 With increasing internet usage among all demographics, higher demand for sales and lead generation, and new technologies that allow for more targeted and aggressive outreach, intrusive online ads are everywhere. Your favorite website probably has ads covering the top, bottom and sidebars. Try to Google a research topic or new recipe for something you’re working on will likely lead you to a website that will assail you with pop-up ads. The assertiveness of online advertising has gotten so bad, that many consumers almost feel like they’re under attack. And this has led to the rapid propagation of a new defense — ad-blocking software.

Today, ad blocking has become widely adopted with 615 million devices having such software installed. And this number will only continue to grow — a Deloitte survey in 2017 found that users of ad blocking nearly doubled over a year. But ad blockers have been in use for more than a decade now, providing a number of different approaches to protect consumers from “hostile” ads.

Where did this trend begin? And how have ad blockers evolved in such a way that made them so popular among today’s consumers?

The Beginnings: External Application

Ad blockers originated as external applications that required users to download and install software directly on their device. Some of the very first versions even required users to be constantly running the program for it to be effective. 
 One of the first popular ad blockers was Ad Muncher — which started almost 20 years ago as an experiment on ways to modify content downloaded from websites by exporting functions from Windows Sockets API. The program was known for being light, very easy to use and effective at removing advertisements on most applications.

But back then ad blocking tools were considered more of a luxury than a regularly available program. For example, Ad Muncher itself was available for only $29.95, plus an annual $19.95 subscription fee (though the v5 of the program is available for free today). And the program wasn’t effective at blocking ads for websites running in HTTPS. Many others also had high costs, strict installation requirements or similar downsides that made them hard to use for the average consumer. And this was at a time when computers were quite a bit more expensive than they are today.

As consumers became more internet-savvy and online advertising technology improved, there was a demand for more effective and simpler ad blockers, which led to even more forms and innovations in this space.

The Rise: Extensions

In 2002, a small browser extension for the Phoenix Browser (which later became known as Mozilla’s Firefox) was developed by a Danish college student. The extension could easily be added to the browser and ran automatically to hide all online ads from the view of the user, which quickly made it popular among the Mozilla community.

A few years later the project was picked up by a German software developer and updated to become one of the most popular ad blocking tools available today: Adblock Plus (ABP). The program was also improved to fully block requests from advertisements. This went beyond the simple advertisement hiding the original program performed, to completely prevent the ads from even loading for the user.

This made ABP capable of doing what some of its predecessors couldn’t, such as blocking ads on HTTPS websites, and blocking malicious ads and malware. The program also allowed users to white list certain advertisements or websites if they chose to do so. While ABP was initially only available for Google Chrome, the benefits and cost-free nature of the ABP extension quickly made it a popular choice among consumers. As the user base grew, ABP eventually expanded to other browsers, including Firefox and Safari. 
 The meteoric rise of ABP put it in the spotlight. And many began to realize that filtering or blocking intrusive online advertisements was a service in high demand — including the browser companies themselves.

Today: Internal Integration

With ABP gaining in mainstream adoption, consumer behavior in regard to blocking advertisements began to shift. Many online ads weren’t just intrusive, but they significantly impacted the performance and speed of websites. And users didn’t just want to block ads because they were annoying, but also because of severe privacy and security concerns. Recent studies showed that 30 percent of users utilized ad blockers for security reasons, and that 64 percent of users chose speed as the most important feature when browsing the internet.

With an increasing demand for a secure and fast web browsing experience that isn’t bogged down by bloated or harmful ads, the big browsers began taking action. In 2015, ABP entered into a partnership with Maxton to integrate its functionality directly into the web browser. This made the Maxton Browser the first one that had internal advertisement blocking integrated into the native browsing program. And companies like Google and Apple weren’t far behind.

Image from The Verge, Google’s Chrome ad blocking arrives today and this is how it works

Google recently announced that it would enable a built-in ad blocker for Chrome. Similar to ABP, this integrated ad blocker would filter advertisements and prevent them from loading. Google however, understands that the internet needs advertisements to remain a free service. Hence their integrated ad blocker will only block especially offensive advertisements such as pop-up ads, large sticky ads and video ads that automatically play sound. Our company takes a similar approach for the Puffin Browser — protecting our users from frustratingly intrusive or annoying ads.

In an online world currently dominated by advertisements, technology innovators continue to come up with different methods of blocking ads. 2018 seems to mark a year of innovation and development — both for better advertisements and ad blocking — but it’s far from the end. The next decade may mark the appearance of ad allowances, subscriptions, new delivery models and even more. The advertisement and ad blocking landscape continues to evolve, and we are excited to be a part of this transition.

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