Apple and Microsoft have pointed to the presence of ads in Google's Gmail as a reason to choose their software, and they have taken steps to limit online ad data collection in their browsers, data that Google values. Mozilla, which still relies on revenue from its search deal with Google, planned earlier this year to implement third-party cookie blocking by default in Firefox 23, but subsequently postponed the plan following objections from ad industry representatives.
While taking a stand against ads offers online companies an opportunity to push back against Google, doing so also resonates with users. Of course it's anathema in the TV industry, which is why Apple and Microsoft seek to straddle both sides of the divide.
In an effort to build a bridge between ad avoiders and ad purveyors, Apple is said to be trying to drum up support for a new television service that would allow viewers to skip ads in television shows while also bringing revenue to the media companies presenting shunned ads. It's trying to strike a balance similar to what Google is trying to do with its tools for muting and managing ads.
AdBlock Plus, the company behind the popular ad blocking software of the same name, is also trying to strike a compromise. Its Acceptable Advertising initiative offers advertisers the opportunity to have their ads whitelisted for a fee, though savvy users can override this block exemption with a manually created filter. Google in June began participating in the program to prevent its search ads from being nixed.
Blanchfield said that while some people feel Acceptable Advertising is a protection racket, he's inclined to see the effort as a noble one.
"I think there should be a better solution," Blanchfield said. "The concept of Acceptable Advertising is a good one. They're doing it because of the practicalities. Some sites are running ads that so bad they're driving people away. It's a 'tragedy of the commons' situation. A few bad actors can ruin it for everyone."
The solution no one seems to accept is paying for content. "If you're the New York Times, maybe you can get away with it," said Blanchfield. "Paywalls still make the majority of the audience bounce."
Jonathan Hochman, principal at Hochman Consultants, an Internet marketing firm, said he doesn't see ad blocking as a problem for search advertising (it matters more for display advertising). "Search advertising isn't about forcing something on the unwilling," he said in a phone interview. He said that he's never advised a client that rising ad blocking is making search advertising less effective. Rather, he said, the issue tends to be excessive competition. Some industries, he said, are over-saturated and the cost of ads is bid up so that only the strongest can afford to play.
A more salient long-term threat to Google, Hochman argued, is the tendency of people to perform searches at specialized websites rather than at a general search engine. Google, he said, is where people go when they don't know where to go. But for specific types of searches, like travel, he said, they tend to go websites like Expedia, Kayak or Hipmunk.
Nevertheless, Hochman is upbeat, despite the apparent increase in people tuning out ads. "The industry wants to know more about the consumer," he said. "They've found search ads work well, branded ads work the best, retargeting works just about as well. If I'm looking for a Dell computer and Dell puts up an ad, that's like a slam dunk."
Although the advertising industry might be keen to know as much about Internet users as possible, more Internet users than ever are choosing to expose as little about themselves as possible. Something has got to give, or someone has got to pay.