The Battle Between YouTube and Ad Blockers: A Modern Arms Race

YouTube recently took significant action against users who visited its site with an ad blocker running. After a few pieces of content, it will simply stop serving videos. If you want to get past the wall, the ad blocker will probably need to be turned off; and for an ad-free experience, users will need to pay for a Premium subscription. Although this is an aggressive move that seemingly left ad blocking companies scrambling to respond, it didn’t come out of the blue. YouTube had been testing similar initiatives for months. Even before this recent clampdown, the Google-owned video service had been engaged in an ongoing conflict with ad-blocking software, in which YouTube rolls out new ways to serve ads to viewers with ad blockers, and then ad blockers develop new strategies to circumvent those measures.

As noted in a blog post by the ad- and tracker-blocking company Ghostery, YouTube employs various techniques to circumvent ad blockers, such as embedding an ad in the video itself, or serving ads from the same domain as the video, fooling filters that have been set up to block ads served from third-party domains. Many digital publishers make similar attempts to stymie ad blockers, but YouTube gets more attention due to its popularity. Many ad blocking strategies no longer work on the site, and it requires maintenance and resources to maintain these defenses.

According to Ghostery’s director of product and engineering Krzysztof Modras, YouTube seems to be “adapting [its] methods more frequently than ever before. To counteract its changes to ad delivery and ad blocker detection, block lists have to be updated at minimum on a daily basis, and sometimes even more often.

Google’s Chrome browser is set to adopt the Manifest V3 standard, which will limit what extensions are allowed to do, making it even more challenging to keep pace with YouTube. Users seem to be quickly cycling through different products and strategies to get around YouTube’s anti-ad block efforts, then discarding them when they stop working. Some ad blockers still work, using a new approach: scriptlet injection, which uses scripts to alter website behavior in a more fine-grained way. This is currently the only reliable way of ad blocking on YouTube. AdBlock Plus won’t be trying to get around YouTube’s wall, as they respect YouTube’s decision to start “a conversation” with users about how content gets monetized.

As the battle between YouTube and ad blockers continues, users may face challenges in accessing ad-free videos and ad-blocking companies have to adapt to YouTube’s changing strategies and maintain their methodologies.