Questionable strategy: Mobile sites that thwart ad blockers

In the world of online publishing, two enemies must be respected: the unsubscribe button and the ad blocker. Both can be circumvented or ignored, but that's not wise.

Questionable strategy: Mobile sites that thwart ad blockers
Derek Walter
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In the world of online publishing, there are two enemies that must be respected: the unsubscribe button and the ad blocker. Although both can be circumvented or ignored, how wise is it to thwart the stated intentions and desires of your visitors?

On the other hand, is it bad if visitors don't notice or seem to care? It's a tricky question, and one company is getting clever in how it deploys what amount to mobile site ad-blocker countermeasures.

The company, Instart Logic, last week touted some $30 million in new funding, some of it directed toward supporting its ad-blocker blocker. To Instart Logic, it's all about delivering what it would argue is the optimal visitor experience — which means ads even for those who say they don’t want them.

First, let's explore how the countermeasures work on mobile devices. According to Instart Logic's chief marketing officer, Daniel Druker, its application uses "a small piece of JavaScript we call the Nanovisor that gets automatically injected in every web page served up by our customers. This JavaScript code is one of the first things that downloads into the consumer’s web browser, and it acts as a virtual machine or hypervisor. Because it is JavaScript, it’s never installed on the consumer’s device — it just executes in the web browser, then goes away when the reader leaves to visit another website."

Druker said that beyond allowing ads (including video ads) to be displayed, the ad-blocker countermeasures also feature some anti-fraud potential.

"If the Nanovisor detects it is running in a botnet instead of on a real consumer’s phone, then it does not allow that session to log in to the customer’s account on the website to try to steal credit card information," he said.

How Instart Logic's Nanoviser gets around ad blockers

Back to the ad-blocking countermeasures. Druker said:

"If an ad blocker is detected, then instead of assembling the web page on the reader’s device, the Nanovisor triggers our cloud-based servers to assemble the web page, including all third-party calls to marketing and advertising services. Then our servers encrypt the completed webpage and send the encrypted page down to the consumer’s device. This means the ad-blocking software only sees an encrypted blob coming across the network — so the ad blocker does not see any advertising or marketing services being called, and also it cannot tell what is an ad and what is content.

"The Nanovisor then decrypts the page within the web browser so it looks and functions exactly like the publisher intended. This process also restores functionality like personalization and analytics that the ad blockers also break. I want to make sure I am being super clear that Instart Logic is not defeating or disabling or otherwise touching ad-blocking software in any way. We are simply changing the content of a website in a way that means the ad blocker doesn’t know what to do with it — so the ad blocker becomes ineffective."

Instart Logic argues that this isn't really thwarting the will and intent of site visitors in that visitors don't want annoying and disruptive ads, and the ads that get through Instart Logic's approach blend seamlessly into the site.

Not so sure that is what ad-block users have in mind. But Druker's team says readers at mobile sites using this service — note that no publishers are willing to publicly fess up to using it (wise publishers) — are not pushing back.

Assuming that's true — and I have no information now to disprove it — there's a more likely explanation. Ad blockers are far from perfect. I use several, and they block most ads, but certainly not all ads. It might be that ad-blocker users are simply attributing the few ads they see to ad-blocker imperfections rather than a deliberate attempt by the site to thwart their intent.

The anti-fraud element is probably the far better way to position this offering.

But as for the ad-blocking issue, the only way it works is if mobile site visitors don't realize it's happening. On the one hand, if visitors don't realize it, how bad can it be?

That said, if you detect ad blockers, you know that those visitors don't want to see ads. How can forcing ads on visitors who don't want to see ads be a good long-term strategy? When an executive is in a position to say, "This will work fine as long as we don't get caught," then that is probably not the most customer-friendly strategy.

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