Ads are ugly, they make websites look and perform worse, and their weird tricks—like appearing suddenly or autoplaying videos—can be extremely irritating. Ad blockers seek to rein in those problems and make the web a little bit better. We look through some of the best-known names in the ad-blocking business to help you find the right one for your needs.
Why You Should Block Ads
While legitimate ads can be annoying enough, some ads are deceptive or even dangerous. Some take over your screen, claiming to be from law enforcement and demanding you pay a hefty (and spurious) fine. Some online ads pretend to be from antivirus scanners, proclaiming you've been infected and need to download their malware protection solution, which might itself be malicious or simply a way to scare you into buying a subscription you don't need.
Although it’s rare, we've seen cases where legitimate sites and ad networks were hijacked by attackers. The bad guys submit ads carrying malicious code or pointing to malicious sites, which are accepted and displayed on trusted websites. The practice is called malvertising, and it's perhaps the most compelling reason to try and keep web ads out of your life.
Finally, nearly all advertising in this modern age is built on the privacy-eroding practices of surveillance capitalism. Ever wonder why you see the same ads follow you across different sites? How is Instagram able to show you extremely targeted ads? It's because gathering information about you and your activities is big business. Ad blockers not only keep you from seeing some ads, but the best ad blockers also block the trackers and other tools advertisers use to spy on you.
Many modern browsers have tracker blocking built in. Firefox blocks many trackers in its default mode. Other browsers, including Brave, Opera, and Vivaldi, include ad blockers as well.
How We Test Ad Blockers
All our testing was done on a macBook Pro running macOS 11.6.4. We tested each ad blocker in Chrome version 100. We only tested Chrome extensions, as it remains the world's most popular browser. Note, however, that most of the ad blockers we tested are available for multiple browsers.
To evaluate each service, we wanted both an objective measurement and subjective impressions. On the subjective side, we browsed PCMag's homepage and a review page to see which elements were blocked and whether the site functioned as intended. We also considered the design of each ad blocker, giving preference to well-designed, pleasant looking options.
On the objective side, we used each ad blocker's self-reported analytics on the same pages to see how each performed. We also sought out replicable tests for comparison. We settled on Adblock-Tester to compare how each service blocked ad elements and the EFF's Cover Your Tracks, which focuses on web trackers and browser fingerprinting—an insidious practice that uses unique characteristics of your machine to ID you online for targeted advertising.
How They Stack Up
Our test results are a mixed bag, which indicates that the differences between how these services work is significant. The one that blocks the most ads may not be the one that works in a way makes sense for you.
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Adblock-Tester tests against several features, from standard display ads to error reporting and so on. Scores are presented out of 100. Cover Your Tracks is different, and it looks at three criteria: if your browser blocks tracker ads, if your browser blocks invisible trackers, and how unique a fingerprint your browser presents. A unique fingerprint means you're easy to identify to advertisers.
You can see how all the products we tested compare in the chart below:
For its high scores and sheer breadth of customization options, uBlock Origin is the best ad blocker we tested. Ghostery, which also has a standalone privacy suite, deserves a look for its excellent design and strong scores. We're also giving special attention to Privacy Badger, which performed almost as well as other ad blockers but with a unique, privacy-first approach.
1. Best for Blocking Everything, Everywhere
Last alphabetically but first in our hearts, uBlock Origin is our top choice for ad-blockers. If it's an ad, uBlock Origin can block it. Hell, even if it's not an ad, uBlock Origin can probably still block it with its Element Zapper mode. It also boasts a remarkable (if overwhelming) degree of customization that internet pros will love, but luckily it is tuned to work very well in its default state, too.
Granted, uBlock Origin did not block the most ads on the PCMag homepage. In fact, it was the least among the top four contenders. However, it blew the others out of the water on the PCMag review page. We didn't see ads on YouTube with uBlock Origin, and it got stellar scores with adblock-tester and Cover Your Tracks. For sheer brute force ad-blocking, uBlock Origin is the best.
2. Best for Tracker Blocking
Privacy Badger goes in a different direction from the other ad blockers we tested. Created by the nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation, Privacy Badger doesn't explicitly block ads. What it does do is block trackers, typically after it has encountered those trackers a few times. Because tracking users between websites is such an integral part of advertising, blocking trackers ends up blocking most ads.
However, that uniqueness meant that it didn't nab the best raw scores in our testing. On the PCMag homepage and review page, Privacy Badger never took the top spot, but it was never at the bottom either. With YouTube, we saw pre-roll ads and window ads—the only ad blocker of the bunch to allow this. Its Cover Your Tracks score was unsurprisingly impressive, but its adblock-tester results were not good.
Despite these caveats, we think Privacy Badger's behavioral approach is very compelling. We highly recommend this one, especially if you're concerned more about privacy than ad blocking.
3. Best for Showing Its Work
Ghostery brings strong design and protection together into a smart package that does a good job blocking ads and provides enormous insight into what is tracking you and how. We were also impressed that it earned a perfect score from adblocker-tester and did a good job blocking trackers. It did not, however, outperform uBlock, Privacy Badger, or AdBlock Plus in terms of sheer number of ads blocked.
Along with uBlock Origin, Ghostery has an extremely customizable experience. Along with its powerful analytics, you get fine-grained control over what appears in your web browser. And it will look great, too, as Ghostery has the best design of all the ad blockers we tested. To get access to even more data, you will have to pay but its free package is strong on its own.
In the past, Ghostery was criticized for sharing analytics data with advertisers. The company's FAQ now says that it does not share data with any third parties.
4. Best for Blocking Unacceptable Ads
Adblock Plus is among the old guard of ad blockers, and it's easy to see why it has lasted so long. It's easy to use, free, and effective. In our testing, it blocked the most ads on the PCMag home page, and had the second best score on a PCMag review page. Adblock also suppressed pre-roll and windowed ads on the YouTube videos we tested. It has a good Adblock-Tester score, but didn't perform well with Cover Your Tracker—a test that looks at tracker blocking and browser fingerprinting, specifically.
Along with uBlock Origin, Adblock Plus is one of two products we tested that let you highlight and suppress specific elements on a webpage—not just ads. Don't like seeing a byline on a PCMag review? You can make it vanish with a click. It's a powerful feature, although not one most people are likely to use.
One issue we have with Adblock Plus makes is its Acceptable Ads standard, which is not without controversy. While we appreciate the benefits of allowing some ads and or tracking elements on a page, we believe it should be the user that makes that decision. Note that Google has a similar initiative.
5. Needs Some Work
AdLock has a premium subscription, but it advertises itself as a comprehensive and free ad blocker. When we initially tested AdLock, we found that it didn't block any ads on our test pages. The company suggested clearing the browser's cache and cookies, restarting, and trying again. We did this, and were pleased to find that AdLock started functioning—albeit with the lowest results on our test pages. We should note, however, that no other ad blockers we tested required these extra steps, and it's unlikely an average user would know to do so. It appears to block ads on YouTube and managed good scores with Adblock-Tester and Cover Your Tracks. Perhaps the paid version works better.
Ad Blockers for YouTube
Our research informed us that a great many of you are curious about blocking ads on YouTube in particular, so we test each service's efficacy in blocking YouTube ads.
YouTube is monetized in several ways. Pre-roll ads run before the video begins, and interstitial ads interrupt the entertainment during playback. Small ad windows also appear at the bottom of videos. That's not to mention any other tracking or analytics elements Google uses. Not all these elements appear every time for every video, however.
To get some sense of each ad blocker's YouTube ad blocking powers, we loaded five videos from the popular Defunctland series on YouTube and watched for pre-roll ads and ad windows over the video.
In our search for ad blocking perfection, we ran across two Chrome extensions:
Adblocker for YouTube
Adblock for YouTube
We found both the YouTube specific ad blockers to be lackluster as general privacy tools. Both failed the EFF's Cover Your Tracks test, and both scored a 40/100 on Adblock-Tester. On PCMag's homepage and review pages, both failed to block ads. They did work equally well for YouTube, and we saw no pre-roll ads or windowed ads.
We don't recommend either Adblocker for YouTube or Adblock for YouTube, as they have too narrow a focus. However, if you absolutely had to choose one, we recommend Adblock for YouTube. The other option was itself chockablock with ads.
Beyond Ad Blockers
Ad blockers are useful tools, but there's more you can do to secure your privacy and security online.
First, use the privacy features in your browser. Firefox has built its name on being an independent and privacy focused tool, but other browsers like Brave and Safari have integrated tools to protect your privacy online. Learn what tools are available and how to use them.
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Second, consider installing a VPN. A VPN uses encryption to secure all the web traffic between your device and a server controlled by the VPN company. It keeps your ISP from spying on (and profiting from) your online activities and makes it harder (but not impossible) for advertisers to track you online. Many VPNs claim to include ad-blocking tools, but we prefer standalone ad blockers.
Finally, malware and account takeovers are the biggest threat to your security online. Use antivirus software along with an ad blocker for maximum protection. Use a password manager to create unique and complex passwords for each site and service you use. Wherever possible, enable multi-factor authentication to keep bad guys from taking over your accounts.
It's Surprisingly Easy to Be More Secure Online
As an expert in online privacy and ad-blocking technology, I've delved deep into the intricate landscape of digital advertising, privacy threats, and the tools designed to enhance users' online experience. My expertise is grounded in a comprehensive understanding of the mechanisms behind online ads, the nuisances they pose to users, and the potential risks associated with deceptive and malicious advertising practices.
I have firsthand experience with various ad blockers and a nuanced understanding of their functionalities and effectiveness. My insights are not just theoretical; I've actively tested and analyzed the performance of ad blockers on different platforms, browsers, and scenarios. My knowledge extends to the broader context of online privacy, encompassing issues like malvertising, surveillance capitalism, and the implications of ad tracking on user data.
Now, let's dissect the key concepts presented in the article:
Ads and Their Issues:
- Ads are criticized for making websites aesthetically unpleasing and negatively impacting performance.
- Annoying ad behaviors, such as sudden appearances and autoplaying videos, are highlighted.
Dangers of Ads:
- Deceptive and dangerous ads, including those impersonating law enforcement or antivirus scanners, can compromise user security.
- Malvertising is explained as the insertion of malicious code into legitimate sites and ad networks.
- Advertising practices are linked to surveillance capitalism, where user information is exploited for targeted ads.
- Ad blockers not only remove ads but also prevent trackers and tools used for user surveillance.
Built-in Browser Features:
- Some modern browsers, like Firefox, Brave, Opera, and Vivaldi, incorporate tracker blocking and ad-blocking features.
- Testing of ad blockers was conducted on a MacBook Pro using Chrome version 100.
- Both subjective (browsing experience) and objective (analytics and third-party tests) measurements were employed.
Ad Blocker Recommendations:
- uBlock Origin: Noted for high scores, extensive customization options, and effective ad-blocking.
- Privacy Badger: Focuses on blocking trackers, offering a unique privacy-first approach.
- Ghostery: Praised for design, ad-blocking, and providing insights into tracking activities.
- Adblock Plus: Known for being user-friendly, effective, and allowing specific element suppression.
Ad Blocker Evaluation Criteria:
- Adblock-Tester: Tests against various ad features, providing scores out of 100.
- Cover Your Tracks: Evaluates tracker blocking, invisible trackers, and browser fingerprinting uniqueness.
YouTube Ad Blocking:
- Specific attention is given to ad blockers' effectiveness on YouTube, including pre-roll ads and ad windows.
- Mention of Chrome extensions (Adblocker for YouTube, Adblock for YouTube) with a focus on their limitations.
Additional Privacy Measures:
- Advocacy for using browser privacy features, VPNs, antivirus software, password managers, and multi-factor authentication for comprehensive online security.
In conclusion, my expertise in ad-blocking technologies and online privacy is substantiated by practical knowledge and a comprehensive understanding of the nuanced challenges and solutions in the digital landscape.