Adblock Plus: the nuclear plug-in

Adblock Plus, the Firefox browser plug-in that erases advertisements from web pages, is a killer of a killer app – or at least it could be if it ever becomes widely popular. Right now, it sits like a coyote at the edge of the net, quietly eyeing all the businesses it would happily devour.

The plug-in, writes Noam Cohen in today’s New York Times, has the potential to be an “extreme menace to the online-advertising business model. After an installation that takes but a minute or two, Adblock usually makes all commercial communication disappear. No flashing whack-a-mole banners. No Google ads based on the search terms you have entered. From that perspective, the program is an unwelcome arrival after years of worry that there might never be an online advertising business model to support the expense of creating entertainment programming or journalism, or sophisticated search engines, for that matter.”

Some 2.5 million people currently use the open-source plug-in, estimates its inventor, Wladimir Palant, and the program is being freshly downloaded 300,000 to 400,000 times a month. The number of users is not yet high enough to spur a counterattack by the big guns in web advertising. “For now,” writes Cohen, they “have decided to ignore the phenomenon.” Google, which has by far the most to lose, refused Cohen’s request for comment. The company is in a particularly dicey position. The broad adoption of ad-blocking software could devastate its business, yet an outright attempt to block the use of such programs would run counter to its often-expressed commitment to give users what they want. If web users decide they don’t want to see ads, Google would face an extremely unpleasant dilemma. Either its business or its credibility would end up in tatters.

That’s why Google’s best course – maybe it’s only course – is to avoid any mention of Adblock (which would only serve to raise people’s awareness of it) and hope that it remains a niche product. The odds would seem, at this point, to be in Google’s favor. There’s no evidence that Adblock Plus or similar products are about to go viral. In fact, there’s no evidence that the masses view online ads as a nuisance.

Then again, you never know. Viral events are unpredictable.

The most interesting aspect of Cohen’s article is that one company with a big stake in the ad business, Microsoft, did choose to offer a comment – and it’s a fascinating one. While carefully avoiding any endorsement of ad-blocking plug-ins, Microsoft also carefully avoids any criticism of them. (Although Adblock Plus works only with Firefox and related browsers, other ad blockers are available for Microsoft’s Internet Explorer.) Indeed, it seems to be giving its tacit approval to the development and use of the plug-ins:

In a statement, Microsoft spoke of its success in permitting third-party developers to “add value to the browser experience through the creation of add-ons.” The statement continues: “The range of add-ons available does include ad blocking software. It would not be appropriate for Microsoft to comment on the merits or demerits of a specific add-on, or group of add-ons. Provided they have not been designed with malicious intent and do not compromise a user’s privacy or security, Microsoft is pleased to see new add-ons that add to the range of options that users have for customizing their browsing experience.”

Microsoft’s laissez-faire attitude may seem surprising, but it reflects a cold strategic calculation. Microsoft knows that ad blockers pose a far greater threat to Google than to itself. As they say: The enemy of my enemy is my friend.

31 thoughts on “Adblock Plus: the nuclear plug-in

  1. Leigh Hunt

    I wrote a blog post about this last year, arguing that Microsoft should simply add an ad blocker to Internet Explorer and enable it by default. Tacit approval of third-party blockers may be more sensible for now, but I suspect that Microsoft may begin to consider my genuinely nuclear option if they fail to win a greater share of the market now dominated by Google.

  2. Kendall Brookfeld

    In fact, there’s no evidence that the masses view online ads as a nuisance.

    Anecdotal experience with our high-end browser, iRider, suggests that there’s at least a hard core that’s passionate about blocking ads. One thing our browser does is make pop-up ads innocuous without blocking them (and without interfering with desirable non-ad pop-ups), but some folks find even this appalling and insist on blocking all ads. They see it as a violation of their rights to have to download any ad using their internet connection. One assumes that the magazine ads taking up space in their living rooms must drive them so batty that they cut them out and burn them.

    One reason I wouldn’t underestimate this trend is the general freebie mentality that prevails on the web: P2P piracy of content and software, free services, free downloads and all the rest are training users to expect everything to be free, and ad blocking could be the ironic coup de gras that kills the golden goose. Our browser software isn’t free, and fortunately many people pay for it, but many refuse on principle to pay money for any web browser.

    The NY Times article failed to mention the ultimate irony: Google has invested a lot of money and good faith in Firefox while disadvantaging other browsers — Firefox is their Internet Explorer. Mozilla receives a cut of ad revenue generated by Firefox users, so Google and Mozilla are literally screwing themselves.

  3. Mark Evans

    Why people want to eat their cake and have it too is beyond me. No one wants to pay for an online service even if it’s terrific, which forces these companies to rely on advertising to generate revenue.

    Anyone who uses AdBlock has completely lost touch with the big picture – and a key element of what make the Web so interesting these days (aka all those free Web 2.0 services).

  4. Jedi Kevin

    If advertisers would stop using techniques like popups, overlays and auto-play sound then we wouldn’t need adblock. These aggressive techniques are counter productive to everyone’s interests, including the advertisers.

  5. Tom

    Ad blockers exists for years now and ad technology is getting smarter. People doing creating the ads technology usually know more about the Internet than normal users. And how does somebody block ads on an all-flash site etc. I think there will be a race ad providers here, ad blockers there with the result that the web will be more colorful but less use(ful|able).

    Besides, people who don’t want to see the ads would probably never click on one. But those who would actually click on ads also refuse to use ad blockers because it reduces the Internet experience they are looking for. So these 2.5 mio probably aren’t the target population.

  6. dubdub

    I’m with Leigh above: I can’t believe microsoft has not rolled out a default-on ad blocker. It would even be a good move by the cable/phone/broadband operators — roll the plug in into the browser which “comes with” the service. Most noobs won’t change it.

    And I can’t believe these web 2.0 tools who think nothing of pirating content, using tivo, but turn on the waterworks when you talk about adblocking their pathetic blogs/lame services.

    Next article: expose the click/ and impression bot networks generating revenue for google and spam blogs, domains, etc. The most underreported business story this half-decade is that Google is a giant spam monetization platform.

  7. jôô;

    I’m willing to keep the ads which are related to the subjects or the site I’m reading. When I think the Ad is not wanted, either by content or design (i.e. too flashy, too big, …) I use AdBlock. The problem is (not mine usually), once it is set, you just forget about it, and the filter is here to stay, even when the Ad provider or site owner ‘improves’ its ads.

    In the end this could be in favor of ‘well chosen ads’.

    Another great and less ‘radical’ plug in is FlashBlock which prevents Flash content to play (even display) unless you activate (click) it.

    It Let you choose each time whether you whish to look or not.

  8. Cloetus

    I was driven to employ AdBlocker by those heinous hover key word ads. I don’t mind sites using advertising, but those are SO intrusive, I had to do something.

  9. bbotz

    Well, here’s the rub… I realize content providers need ad revenue to keep their sites free. BUT, many of them totally violate tasteful web site design rules by placing myriad flashing, moving, attention-grabbing ads above, below, next to, inside, outside their content. There’s absolute NO control over how many ads they try to shove on a pager.

    Theres not way for users to turn off the distractions in order to read the content. I have some visual handicaps and find it too hard to navigate around all the crud on the page in order to get to the content. SO, I’ve been a very happy AdBlock subscriber for quite some time. Its a pity the websites who follow the rules won’t get their ad content displayed to me because of the sins of the others.

    I wonder if visitors can file ADA lawsuits against the content providers of these overly flashing page websites if the content providers don’t provide a work-around for the visually impared? One also has to wonder about those users who rely on speech software to assist them in reading webpages on how schizophrenic their speeh machines sound when trying to read content off a web page.

  10. CaffeineAddiction

    In response to Tom, Microsoft couldn’t really do that. The difference between adblock which is Open Source and a Microsoft patch to IE is that Microsoft actually has something to loose.

    When Tivo started blocking Advertisements there was a huge red flag thrown up by various TV networks, while Myth TV has and continues to do the same thing w/ out being touched.

    As far as entirely flash based websites … yah, as purdy as they look, they are simply not practical and even if someone did do that the adds could still be blocked by scanning and modifying the HTTP header information requested by the scripting of the site

    As far as companies loosing money due to people not really giving a sh!t about there blink pop up pos add … who cares. They need to go back to advertising 101. You don’t catch flies w/ vinegar , you catch them with honey. If these web 2.0 developers are half as smart as they want us all to believe, they will follow in the footsteps of TV commercials and start designing adds that are either unobtrusive but still there and or actually worth while looking at … aka funny (like super bowl commercials).

    The whole QQ people are blocking my web ad pull on the same heart strings reserved for people who are QQing about people filtering spam … aka don’t care. Advertisement and Sales are an art form … not every idiot who can host a blog is going to be able to do it … and those who can do it … and actually have something to blog about will survive … more power to them.

  11. paul - the lazarus corporation

    “In fact, there’s no evidence that the masses view online ads as a nuisance.”


    “Some 2.5 million people currently use [Adblock Plus]”

    Surely 2.5 million people actively attempting to block out online ads qualifies as evidence that they find them a nuisance? (and that’s just the people using Adblock Plus, not all the other ad-blocking browser add-ons).

  12. roger@interactivedaily

    I agree that the current user base is still small but it definitely is vocal. One interesting recent development has been the site where a publisher has made an argument that Mozilla’s implicit support of AdBlock violates the publisher’s right to revenue and thus all Firefox users are blocked. His site was defaced and hacked about a week ago and the site has been skewered all over the net. However, a lot of the responses such as here ( are not argued well and somewhat immature.

    Similar to proponents of AdBlock’s belief that it’s the users right to block ads, then isn’t it the site owner’s right to block content? Many people who block ads believe that what they’re doing isn’t hurting the publisher but in actuality they are as less people seeing the ads = less clicks = less ROI = poor performance = ad spend pull = site loses revenue stream to continue running. This may not be a big deal today given the adoption rate of AdBlock but like you point out Nick, there’s always a chance this will catch fire and then it becomes a big problem overnight.

    Publishers are also not entirely without fault as many have embraced annoying pop-ups, hover-overs, intrusive blinking ads, etc. that have turned off audiences to any type of advertising. One of the problems I see with AdBlock is that it blocks all ads coming from a source, regardless of its quality/relevance to the user experience.

    On the site I help manage, we have taken the approach of finding a good balance between revenue and user experience. All decisions on new types of advertising are made as a team with user experience and product development involved and if we feel it will annoy our user, we won’t run it. We believe this is a good way to ensure that we can continue providing a valuable service for free to the user without affecting their experience online.

    And finally, re: people who say they’ll gladly pay for good content without advertising, that’s honorable but in most cases online that has shown to be an unsustainable model (, most newspaper sites now.. etc). And to CaffeineAddiction, re: people QQing about filtering SPAM, SPAM is invasive and delivered to you without permission (here’s ads!), your decision to visit a website to access whatever that website provides enters you into an exchange (here’s content in exchange for you seeing some ads) and is an entirely different issue.

  13. KKZ

    I use adblock and I have two comments.

    Any site that blocks firefox user because use it deserves to fail. Not because the owner is evil, but because he is too stupid to run a business. Not that defacing the site is a remotely appropriate reaction – everyone has a right to be an idiot, even an offensive idiot. I read what this particular guy has to say, and that’s my impression of him.

    My second comment may help explain why I use and recommend AdBlock. At home, I have children. Many of the ads on otherwise legitimate sites (eg news sources) have ads that are really inappropriate. It’s not even always their fault; look at Paul McNamara’s description of what happened when a Disney site got stuck with jock strap ads on its site for weeks. At work, I didn’t use to bother because I mostly access IT related sites, with some work related vendor stuff. But, some of the advertising is SO disruptive that it was taking several times as long as necessary to read an article. And, this, in a serious IT publication. I hated to do this, because I know that these magazines live off their ad revenue. But, it was either AdBlock or not read the site. Talk about self destructive tactics!

    I don’t block advertising on Google itself – the ads don’t get in my face, they are relevant enough that I generally don’t have to worry about something I don’t want my kids seeing showing up, they are text based (avoiding many inappropriate visuals for otherwise fine products), and I even find the ads useful on occasion. That’s a win-win.

    I do have a couple of sites for which I have disabled Adblock. Why? Because the site has features that don’t work so well with AdBlock on, and I can afford to just disable it as the ads DO NOT PRESENT A PROBLEM. Again, the ads are relevant, avoid inappropriate content and may even prove useful.

  14. roc97007

    It’s an interesting question.

    Ads in general don’t bother me, unless they have sound, (“Congratulations! You have won a free ipod!”) an annoying blinking background, or drift around the page obscuring content. Pop-ups have been all but eliminated by commonly available popup blockers.

    I haven’t seen a lot of problems with porn ads on non-porn pages, but if it is happening, I could see how that would be grounds to nuke all ads.

    If advertisers agreed to keep their ads discreet, I wouldn’t have a problem with the ads being on the page. But what I think will happen is that some jerks will continue to use annoying tactics and eventually ruin it for themselves and all their brethren.

    Maybe there’s a happy medium — an ad blocker that optionally blocks ads with content that changes too often (blinky or other obnoxiousness), includes sound, or obscures non-ad content, but leaves the ads in place that “play nice”. I think most advertisers would not object to that, and it would encourage the jerks to clean up their act.


  15. Noone Willknow

    Forget AdBlock. Between NoScript and FF’s native ability to block images from domain X, I almost NEVER see ads. No joke. And in case you are wondering, I am one of those folks who doesn’t watch TV and listens to CDs & college radio, all for the sake of no ads. Why? They’re just too offensive. After years of living in an apartment where I looked out my 2 windows only to see a billboard, I just cannot tolerate ads anymore.

    And to anyone who says I’m a thief, ponder this: I’ve been around a while and remember when cable was ad-free because you paid for it. I’ve been using the internet since 1994 (if you could call it the “internet” in those days – Lynx, anyone?) and can remember when an ad was unheard of… of course there were no multi-national companies on the web in those days just to make more money off of your bandwidth.

    Maybe I’m one of those hardcore guys the 2nd poster mentions. But I still look forward to a day when all forms of advertising are legally opt-out.

    If you block FF users from using your site, you deserve to lose your shirt.

  16. Spencer

    The reason nobody cares about these AdBlock users seems obvious. I bet they almost never clicked through many ads and even more rarely actually bought the product being advertised.

    They obviously find ads irritating enough to seek out a program to block them. I don’t think forcing them to view ads would generate more revenue – just more complaints.

  17. melyssafaye

    I use Ad Block with Firefox, and to be honest, I don’t see what the big deal is. I still see ads on blogs. What I am glad that I don’t see is the blinky ads that auto play sounds, the click the monkey banners and such. I am a gmail user, and I still see the Google ads.

    I like it that I don’t have to deal with the half page ads that are in the middle of articles I am reading. I like to keep my speakers turned on because I am a StumbleUpon user and like to watch videos and I never know what page I will see next. When I get to a page that is ad rich, it is annoying because the autoplay audio is so loud and sometimes there are 3 or 4 playing at the same time.

    I don’t think any advertisers are losing money from me. As a rule, I never click ads. If I want to buy something, I will Google search it and research the item and buy it. An advertisement isn’t going to make me decide to purchase something, maybe I just don’t have the disposable income to be someone that would say..”hey that looks good!”

    My opinion on the whole issue is that people that chose to block ads aren’t your target market anyway, and until site owners get paid just by my viewing the ad, I don’t see how I am robbing anyone.

  18. licnyc

    People are living in La La land. Where do you think revenue comes from to operate a site? Magic money tree? Venture capital fairy? You didn’t pay to read this article and you didn’t pay for the plugin. You think if you block all ads that you’ll be able to surf the web happy and ad free, but guess what-if everyone blocks ads there will be no more websites and you will actually have to pay for content. Its only in fantasy land that websites just magically appear without a revenue stream. I would really like to hear some theories on how people assume a site that requires a 10MB connection and 3 servers with a linux admin can be maintained? I’d like to hear from the people willing to pay 50 cents per search on google or yahoo.

  19. roger@interactivedaily

    @ melyssafaye: Actually, site owners DO get paid when you view an ad, it’s called a CPM model and it’s how they sell banner banners. In regards to you not clicking anything, the majority of people don’t, but there is a branding effect that they pay for and when you block an ad, the site owner is not holding up their end of the contract. Think about banners like TV, you don’t call Dominos pizza every time a Dominos ad comes on but when you get a hankering for pizza, you might just think “Dominos” first next time because of the recall effect. Also, advertisers are able to track whether or not someone who saw an ad was more likely to visit their website, if you had blocked the ad, it will make the ROI look bad for the site owner and then they’ll be cut from the media plan and then they won’t have that revenue anymore.

  20. dubdub

    You webvertisers are all ignoring some very basic realities about click/impression fraud with these current advertising models.

    It is difficult to distinguish “real” versus “fake” clicks/impressions from modern spam networks. Yes, it’s easy for Google to detect the stupid click fraudsters, but sophisticated networks are everywhere.

    Remember, click fraud is not illegal, and (potentially) very profitable. Given the continued prevalence of email spam, viruses, etc. (which have legal consequences), don’t you think this will attract a certain motivated element?

    Some comments on click/impression based advertising remind me of the casino operator who gives “strategies” and “tips” for winning at roulette or slots. Your comments beg the question of whether the “users” you are seeing in your logs are real in the first place.

    No ROI lectures please. I may get a positive ROI if an advertiser lies about running half my radio ads, or buries half the billboards I’ve paid to run ads on, but that actually is a crime. It is also notoriously difficult to track ROI for branding purposes anyway.

  21. Bertil

    The problem of talking about ads is that you consider paid-for content and paid-to-be-here content. What Google and all users focus on is the relevancy; ask anyone: they don’t care to click on the main result list or the blue margin, as long as they are driven to the right site. I am happy with an “ad” for you next and last books on your blog — but anything else would seem odd: if it’s not IT, it doesn’t fit here; and if it is IT-related, you probably trashed it recently, so. . .

    I use several browsers, and several ad-busting configuration. It is a great tool and a spectacular relief: those who criticize just probably don’t understand why iTunes is so successful. And even then, the so-easy paying mechanism is tedious enough explain why e-Music will take control.

    I doubt the ad-based business model is the proper one for the cultural industry: I believe the 90-freebie, 9-paying-elite, 1 producer is a better way; sometimes, subscriptions are a better way too. Sharing to whomever wants to here is what makes information this amazing good; forcing attention, setting up walls, neither can make it any better. But by using the reach of being free, of great quality (and with full RSS feeds) one can sell another, related, better-suited, experience: concert for music, insights for video, full books for thinkers.

    Don’t tell me I’m a grinch: I spend a larger share of my revenue on cultural products then any of you. I don’t have time to read half the books I bough on Amazon, and I go on doing so, because I thing it’s a great way to help thinkers; I dream of the day screens or e-ink will be good enough to be able to simply by the e-books directly from them, and not split it with tree-killers — but as long as they feel like forcing me to view ads for scam-baits, I refuse to support that approach, because it is ugly.


    I’ve been used to block ads since the dialup days, originally only because of simple bandwidth reasons. and have used ad-blocking software since.

    the thing is i recently had to use an old fashion IE6 at work and … i clicked on ads! i was not imunized from theses ads as most people were.

    most people don’t see them anymore, but if you’re used to an add-free web it’s hard to see a nytimes article without being really pissed of about the ad in the middle of the article

    adlbock, privoxy, hosts file, …. helps you get the most off your internet experience, i don’t give a shit about who is making money

  23. Steve Gunhouse

    There are some ads that everyone blocks (or wants to). Popups, popunders, floating DHTML or Flash … the real nuisance ads. Then again, I’ll never buy anything I see advertized in any of those types of ads anyway, anyone who uses such ads is costing themselves business.

    I use Opera as my browser. Originally, Opera was actually an ad-sponsored browser, but they changed their business model 2 years ago and are now free. Opera has always blocked popups and not by website but by action, so even if you’ve never seen popups from some ad server before you’re still not going to. But by popular demand they also added a content blocker last year. Okay, it doesn’t automatically block stuff, but it is easy to remove, say, Intellitext ads from articles.

    Google ads? The ones that appear in their searches can actually be helpful, I leave them there. The Google syndication ads? What ads? ;-)

  24. live television

    I can argue either side, but I do think that it’s a little unfair for viewers to block all ads especially sites they enjoy and frequent. Doing so will hurt the site in the long run if the majority begin to do this.

    But I do believe that users should be empowered to select what type of advertising is appropriate and what is not. So popups I say are fair-game for ad-blocking, flash and heavy multimedia banners I’m fine with being blocked – since they can drain memory and cpu and bandwidth. But text ads are another story, it’s somewhat wrong to block them especially since in most cases they aren’t very distracting.

    I’d recommend that if people like free services and enjoy certain websites – they should disable their ad blockers on these sites, or at the least whitelist them (a feature in adblock that lets specific sites chosen by the viewer to display ads).

  25. Michael Schaffner

    Is the Internet becoming the modern day “Tragedy of the Commons”? As we all act in our own best self interests (annoying people with ads and blocking ads) will we ultimately limit the usefulness of the Internet? I don’t see regulation as the answer but unfortunately given the nature of the Internet I don’t know if balance of self-interest versus common good will ever be resolved.

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