YouTube's Crackdown Spurs Record Uninstalls of Ad Blockers

A "test" on YouTube has been extended, threatening to disconnect users who don't disable their ad blockers. The tool developers are rushing to react.


The annual conference of the ad-blocking tool industry was held in Amsterdam in early October. During one session, product leaders from Google gave a welcome presentation regarding changes made to allay concerns that a security update to the Chrome browser could interfere with ad zapping. Google even co-sponsored the event, which was held in an open-air venue by the water and generated almost 80% of its advertising revenue.


While this happened, a different Google team was discreetly preparing to launch the most significant offensive against ad blockers since Facebook did so in 2016. Google's YouTube unexpectedly expanded a small test started in May that uses pop-up dialogues to demand that viewers disable their ad blockers—or lose the ability to watch videos on the most popular video-sharing website in the world—as the world's ad blocker builders returned home from their conference.

YouTube's Crackdown Spurs Record Uninstalls of Ad Blockers

According to Krzysztof Madras, director of product and engineering at ad block and privacy tools developer Ghostery, Google was "very proud to present at the ad blocking conference". "And this war against ad blockers began the next day."


YouTube's crackdown appears to be effective, as evidenced by previously undisclosed statistics from ad-blocking companies, which show that in October, hundreds of thousands of users removed their ad blockers. According to the data, many ad blockers were uninstalled last month, and new ones were installed as users looked for alternatives to YouTube's annoying pop-up ads.


Ad blockers are against the platform's terms of service, according to YouTube spokesperson Christopher Lawton. The company offers YouTube Premium, which costs $13.99 monthly, for users who prefer an ad-free experience. According to him, YouTube ads "support a diverse ecosystem of creators globally and enable billions to access their favorite content." He claims that before YouTube blocks users' access to videos, it repeatedly notifies them that it does not support ad blockers. However, he declined to disclose the precise number of impacted users.


Munich-centred For most of October, Ghostery saw three to five times as many uninstalls and installs as usual, according to Modras, leaving usage at zero. When asked why they uninstalled the tool, more than 90% of respondents said it didn't work on YouTube. Users were so determined to find a functional blocker that many seem to have tried Microsoft Edge, a web browser with a much smaller market share than Chrome. Installations of ghostery on Edge increased by 30% in October over September. Microsoft opted not to respond.


AdGuard reports that approximately 75 million people use its ad-blocking tools, with 4.5 million paying for them. Its Chrome extension typically receives 6,000 uninstallations per day. According to CTO Andrey Meshkov, those exceeded 11,000 per day from October 9 until the end of the month, peaking at roughly 52,000 on October 18.


At least half of the 120-person company's complaints began coming in about four times per hour, with the majority about YouTube. Similar to Ghostery, however, installations increased as more people sought solace, reaching roughly 60,000 buildings on Chrome between October 18 and October 27. As more people learned that AdGuard's premium tools were unaffected by YouTube's ban, the number of subscribers increased.


According to the head of its product, AdLock, another extension, saw roughly 30% more daily installations and uninstallations in October than in prior months.


Many ad blocker providers don't directly track usage to protect users' privacy, but Chrome's extension store offers fundamental installation and uninstallation statistics. Rather than completely uninstalling them, users can turn off some ad blockers for particular websites. AdBlock Plus, AdBlock, and uBlock are all operated by Cologne-based Eyeo. AdBlock users can choose which YouTube videos or creators to allow ads for. However, because of the poor tracking, it's unclear how many perplexed YouTube users have selected any of those options.


Terry Taouss, a seasoned ad tech executive, compares consumers who use ad blockers to those who use the supermarket's "15 or fewer items" express lanes. Even though they are controlling their own experience, they are still customers even though they are bringing in less money for the companies. He says websites like YouTube have to be mindful of that.


Ad blocking executives claim that user reports indicate YouTube's assault on ad blockers has occurred concurrently with experiments to display more ads. With over $22 billion in ad sales through the first nine months of this year, YouTube accounted for roughly 10% of Google's total sales, an increase of approximately 5% over the same period last year. On YouTube, creators typically earn 55% of the ad sales from longer videos and 45% from shorter ones. This year, premium subscriptions are expected to bring in roughly $2.7 billion in sales, according to Insider Intelligence.


Unskippable

Over the years, some surveys and estimates have indicated that approximately one or three of every five internet users use ad blockers when browsing. In charge of Eyeo's ad blockers, Matthew Maier claims that polls indicate most users aren't wholly opposed to advertisements. However, bothersome ads, excessively frequent, or last longer than six seconds without providing a "skip" option irritate them. He claims that when users feel they have crossed the line, problems arise, but he won't give any usage statistics for Eyeo.

Ad block developers claim that YouTube's test has impacted users using Chrome on laptops and desktops to access the website. Those who watch YouTube videos embedded on other websites, use the YouTube mobile site, or use the YouTube TV apps are unaffected. According to Lawton of YouTube, warnings show whether users utilize Incognito mode or are logged into the service.

Furthermore, rather than focusing on any particular extensions, Ghostery's Madras claims that YouTube appears to trigger the warnings when it recognizes specific open-source filtering rules that many ad blockers use to identify ads. He says YouTube's technology is similar to code Google created in 2017 for a program called Funding Choices, which allows news and other websites to identify ad blockers.

In private Slack groups and discussions on GitHub projects, ad sleuths who discover methods to identify ads and engineers adept at blocking them are devoting much effort to figuring out how to get past YouTube's blocker blockade. However, because YouTube isn't entangling every user in its dragnet, progress has been impeded. Only a tiny percentage of the developers have successfully triggered the alert; these individuals may be the only ad blockers in the world who rejoice when YouTube eventually finds them.

Google and the ad-blocking sector have a tense working relationship. Unlike Apple's App Store, the Google Play mobile app store has prohibited ad blockers for approximately ten years. However, Chrome has given them a fair amount of operating latitude, as Google stated that it supports an open internet where users can be secure and private. Many ad-blocking tools come with features that shield users from being tracked online in addition to ad filtering. According to the makers of ad blockers, frustration with YouTube has long been a significant factor in the downloads of their products.

Users went in all different directions last month when they encountered YouTube's demands to turn off the blockers. Online forums reveal that some people suggest services like Newpipe.net, an open-source YouTube clone that employs workarounds to play videos from the platform without advertisements. On its website, Newpipe states that it does not gather usage information.

Ad blockers are starting to adjust. This week, Hankuper, the Slovakian company that makes the less well-known blocker AdLock, released a new version for Windows that it claims YouTube hasn't noticed. The fix will be pushed to versions for macOS, Android, and iOS if users find that to be the case, according to Kostiantyn Shebanov, the product head and business development manager at Hankuper.

Modras of Ghostery is concerned about what will happen if Google intensifies its campaign against blockers. When users turn off these tools, they lose their protection against online threats, and the more sophisticated blocking strategies that businesses like his are compelled to implement may create inadvertent security flaws. According to him, there is a greater risk involved the more powerful they must become to overcome obstacles.

There might be legal consequences as well. According to Modras, developers cannot attempt to get around publisher-thwarting measures against adblockers in Europe. However, he thinks it's acceptable to block advertisements if the blocker does so before a warning appears.

Though attempts have been made by publishers, advertisers, and ad blockers to find a middle ground on less problematic ad formats that ad blockers would let through, a truce appears unlikely shortly. However, different users' perceptions of what they want and competing business needs have created a patchwork of unique ad experiences. Eyeo favours the Acceptable Ads Committee, and Google adheres to its standards when running YouTube. Both companies are members of the Coalition for Better Ads.

According to Eyeo's Maier, YouTube eventually wants to follow other websites that have committed to only running "acceptable ads." These are ads that Eyeo's blockers and browsers like Opera do not obstruct for their estimated 300 million users, as stated by the Acceptable Ads Committee.

Meshkov of AdGuard doesn't think the fighting will end any time soon. "I find it hard to imagine them prepared to do any commercials that are considered appropriate," he remarks. "With every update, they make their ads more and more annoying."

Every time that occurs, the industry of ad blockers adjusts, driving up the cost of campaigns such as Google's. According to developers, Facebook seemed to give up following its 2016 assault because it used too many internal resources to keep up with the blockers. An inquiry for comment from Meta was not answered.

Although it reduces the platform's engineering load, YouTube's strategy of identifying blockers and placing the burden on users to disable them rather than deploying code, according to Meshkov, is nonetheless noteworthy.

He predicts that "this game will go on, and there will be times, maybe even most of the time when people can use YouTube without any annoying stuff going on." "However, it won't be a pleasant experience even if you see advertisements 20% of the time." In the worst scenario, ad blockers may give in to Google at the industry conference the following year.