Ad Killers: A Threat?

Last week at an industry conference, I heard someone assert that 7 out of the top 10 downloads at Download.com were programs that blocked pop-ups and other Web advertisements. If this were true, it would be truly alarming. What if a substantial amount of the Web audience wasn’t seeing ads?

I went to Download.com and found the claim wasn’t true (although rankings change frequently). None of the site’s top 10 downloads were designed to block ads (although number 7, Ad-aware, removes adware and spyware, tracking and ad-serving programs that are downloaded along with popular software). Relieved, I decided to do an informal inventory of ad-blocking programs.

Even though I only looked at one download site (there are many others), what I found should serve as a caution to the industry. Although ad killers and pop-up blockers are not yet widespread, their easy availability could pose a threat to advertisers who rely on the Web to reach their audiences and sell their products.

Here are the facts:

  • The most popular Windows Internet utility is a program called Kill Popup, which the developer says “is a very simple and small program that is very, very good at killing those pesky pop-ups.” The program is tiny (only 62K). It’s been downloaded over 100,000 times from Download.com since it was made available on the site.

  • There are many other popular pop-up and ad-blocking programs available. AnalogX POW! closes pop-ups and has ranked 200,000 downloads so far. Ad Muncher, with about 20,000 total downloads “is a program for Windows systems which removes adverts, popups and general browsing annoyances from all popular browsers and Web-utilizing programs.”
  • I counted a total of about 400,000 total downloads for all the current versions of the top ad-killer and pop-up-blocking utilities available on the site. Most of these downloads come from programs that block just pop-ups, not other types of Web advertising.
  • Judging from user feedback, not all the programs work for everybody. I think it’s safe to assume many people download multiple programs. None of them block 100 percent of pop-ups or ads.

Based on these facts, it is extremely doubtful that more than 1 percent of the U.S. Web audience currently blocks pop-up ads. The real number is probably far less. For most advertisers, especially those who don’t rely exclusively on pop-ups, this type of software is not currently a big problem.

Let’s put the issue in proper perspective. KaZaA, the peer-to-peer file “sharing” software that lets people trade MP3s, and Morpheus, a similar program, combine for a total of almost 250 million downloads. KaZaA gets more than 3 million downloads a week.

Compared to these programs, ad blocking is extremely rare. But file-sharing programs should serve as a cautionary tale to the online advertising industry. The music business is in serious decline, in part because of this type of free software.

I have written before in this space that I believe the pop-up issue is about frequency, not format. Research shows consumers find a few pop-ups an hour acceptable, but too many irrelevant ads degrade the Web experience. Of course, that depends on the audience, and I applaud sites such as iVillage and AOL that have made their own decisions based on research with their users.

There are advertisers, mostly of the Ginsu-knife class of companies, with a strip-mine attitude toward Web consumers. We can do little to stop them. But let’s not make the same mistake.

Unless advertising offers value to consumers, they’ll find a way to get rid of it. We need to continue to work to develop ways to make Web advertising relevant, informative, entertaining, and interesting. Otherwise, more consumers will find a way to make it go away.