Bloomberg Media this summer has been pursuing an information campaign to help curb its exposure to ad blocking technology, which the company said is being used on about 20% of desktop traffic to Bloomberg.com.
Starting at the end of May, Bloomberg began deploying a pop-up message to ad-blocking users. "We noticed that you're using an ad blocker, which may adversely affect the performance and content on Bloomberg.com," it said. "For the best experience, please whitelist the site."
But there was a problem: Some readers reported getting the message even though they weren't using ad-blockers. In early June, a Bloomberg spokeswoman attributed the problem to "events across the Web" and said the company was working on a solution.
But that solution doesn't seem to have come, because users are still frequently complaining about the same issue.
On Wednesday, Kadhim Shubber, a reporter for Financial Times, posted on Twitter a screenshot of the message and said, "Weird, I'm literally not using an adblocker." Last week, a Huffington Post editor wrote on Twitter, "Bloomberg's website keeps accusing me of having an ad-blocker on but I have never had an ad-blocker, ever. Very annoying."
Journalism professor Jay Rosen got the same false positive, and hinted at a potential explanation for it: "I use a pop-up blocker, not an ad blocker."
In an ad-blocking primer published earlier this year, the Interactive Advertising Bureau's Tech Lab listed "false or perceived false positives" as a risk for publishers considering taking a strong stance against the use of blockers. "The visitor might be on a slow connection or network that has poor connectivity with the ad systems, or they might not know they're actually having ads blocked at the network level," the primer says. Consumers might really have ad blockers running on their computers but not know it, for example, because they were installed "by a system administrator, institutional network provider, or ISP."
False positives can also serve to inform readers about ad-blocking technology, which might lead them to implement it, thereby defeating the purpose of the experiment.
Bloomberg did not provide a technical explanation for the false positives but put them into context. "As anyone in the industry knows, it's nearly impossible to eliminate false positives entirely given the variability of each user's Web experience; including type and version of browser, number of plug-ins, or a user's connection speed," a spokesman said in a statement. "Having said that, we have been successful at decreasing the number of false positives over the last few months and will continue to work towards minimizing them to maintain a premium user experience for our global business audience."
The spokesman said Bloomberg is happy with how the experiment is going, reporting a 20% drop in the percentage of users who employ an ad blocker when accessing Bloomberg.com.
Some Twitter users have also reported false positives on Wired magazine's website. Wired has taken an even tougher stance on ad-blocking than Bloomberg, giving readers the choice of either whitelisting Wired.com or paying for an ad-free version of the site. There are still no plans for Bloomberg to cut ad-blockers off entirely.
While false positives are an annoyance for innocent readers, it's potentially a big problem for companies such as Bloomberg that are trying to convince readers of the value exchange that underpins ad-supported content. When readers get a slap on the wrist for doing something they're not, the reader-publisher relationship starts off on the wrong foot.