When fighting ad blockers, consider your site’s load time

November 3, 2015

After years of disruption in the publishing industry caused by digital technology, things were finally starting to turn around. The New York Times reached a million digital subscribers this October, with online advertising revenue rocketing to nearly $50 million; the Washington Times made a profit in September, its first month to do so in its 33-year history, thanks largely to robust online growth. But before publishers could begin popping champagne, another digital obstacle presented itself.

Since Apple announced in September that its newest iPhone update would make ad blockers available for download, the media chattering class has bemoaned its rotten luck. But some newsrooms are discovering ways to improve their fortunes, with simple strategies that could help dissuade readers from downloading the potentially revenue-choking apps.

Before the recent panic caused by ad blockers, digital media was already suffering from a self-inflicted malady it had mostly ignored: speed. News sites are some of the slowest on the Web, and as a result they’re one of the primary motivations behind readers downloading ad blocking software. The antidote, then, is in picking up the pace.

Dan Chilton, the front-end engineering director for Vox Media, can claim one of the victories in this battle. Just a few months after declaring “performance bankruptcy” and proclaiming, “Our sites are friggin’ slow, okay!” in a company blog post, Chilton and his team at Vox have cut load times in half.

“Over the past four years, our focus was on launching new properties and new websites,” Chilton says, “so there wasn’t a lot of time to sit back and fix the technical mess we made.”

Vox was able to cut its load time dramatically through relatively simple actions, Chilton says, such as requiring universal font type and transitioning to Google’s open-source, free WebP image format, which cuts image size 34 percent without compromising quality.

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Basic steps like these don’t affect the audience’s experience in any way (after all, how many readers really notice the difference between Helvetica and Arial?), but they will make sites faster.

Yet barring any massive and immediate reengineering of every site on the Web, speed boosts like Vox’s may be too little too late in combating the adoption of ad blockers.

That’s because #adblockalypse, as quick-to-hyperbole journalists and publishers have dubbed the threat on Twitter, is nothing new, despite the recent despair. Rather, it’s part of a long trend of established media organizations neglecting their Web presence. Before the popularity of smartphones and the dominance of the mobile platform, publishers were already struggling in the transition from print to digital–but if any lessons were learned in that transition, they weren’t applied in the following shift from digital to mobile.

Gregory Franczyk, the Washington Post’s chief architect and director of software engineering, believes the publishing industry is too insular, which makes it difficult for ideas from outside the media world to take hold.

“I think that having an external perspective is always a good thing,” says Franczyk.

Franczyk came from the external perspective of e-commerce, previously working for the retail conglomerate Sears Holdings before joining the Post in 2011. But in the past year and a half, he says he and his team have cut load times for the Post’s website by 60 to 70 percent.

In e-commerce, only about 1 percent of shoppers ultimately buy anything, he says, so site engineers try to make the process as smooth as possible–from clicking on a product, to adding it to a cart, to checking out.

“If a site is too slow or there are too many barriers, people stop what they are doing and either shop somewhere else or stop altogether,” Franczyk says. “The same principles apply to the media.”

If readers encounter even the slightest barrier, it increases the likelihood that they’ll give up on a site or, in the event of onerous ads, download ad-blocking software. And every second counts. “There’s not a huge difference for readers between one second and 1.5 seconds of load time,” Franczyk says, “but the difference between seven second and 8 seconds feels like an eternity.”

Like Vox, the Post did some basic Web engineering to speed things up; namely compressing javascript and html, as well as  transitioning to WebP. These strategies don’t directly deal with ads, but Franczyk thinks if more sites used these techniques in addition to cutting down on obtrusive ads, it would help dampen the popularity of ad blockers.

It’s possible that these solutions are only delaying an inevitable restructuring of the entire revenue stream for digital media. A fundamental shift will have to occur in the way news sites deliver ads, says Dritan Suljoti, the co-founder and chief product officer of Catchpoint Systems, an IT company that specializes in Web services and monitoring.

Catchpoint performed research this spring that found that, compared to several other industries–including e-commerce, travel, and banking–news sites are the most bloated.

“This is because news sites rely on ads to generate revenue and therefore incorporate third-party ad services as well as marketing tags and tracking pixels,” Suljoti says.

News sites, of course, aren’t bloated from ads alone. The publishing industry is heavily dependent on photos and videos, and increasingly so as capturing an audience’s attention becomes an ever-more-fickle exercise. This can become a circular problem as enticement can directly lead to repulsion: More imagery means slower load times.

When every second–and fraction of a second–counts to readers, they can either tolerate slow load times or avoid a site completely, but for many the simplest speed boost is downloading ad blocking software.  Publishers can and should make their sites faster, but ultimately, they’ll need more creative solutions.

“We’re not sure what those strategies will look like yet,” says Suljoti, “but necessity is the mother of invention, and the need for innovation is clearly extremely high right now.”

Nathan McDermott is a student at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism who has written for the American Prospect and the Atlantic