Mastering the Unskippable: YOUTUBE’S New Frontier in Ad Tech

It’s also in a space where the ultimate driver of value is content, and where streaming providers – YOUTUBE included – are locked in a relentless battle to grab our attention and not be blocked by ad-blockers. In yet another twist to its prolonged cat-and-mouse game with ad blockers, the internet giant YOUTUBE, a subsidiary of the tech giant GOOGLE, has done something no other company has done before, and a few companies (including GOOGLE) have told me they never expected it: it has made it impossible to skip adverts on video streams. Its latest move, coming on the heels of its 2017 change to the YOUTUBE homepage, continues the company’s so-called ‘war on adblockers’ by changing how it delivers ads to billions of users. In this Essay, I unpack the layers of YOUTUBE’s move and what it means from the perspective of viewers and creators.

The Advent of Server-Side Ad Injection

Historically, YOUTUBE has relied on client-side ad delivery, meaning that ads are typically treated as individual units that can be identified and blocked by ad-blocking software. Recent evidence suggests that they are also experimenting with server-side ad injection, which embeds ads directly within the video stream in a way that might circumvent many ad blockers.

Understanding the Technology Shift

Server-side ads aren’t simply a tweak to the way advertisements are delivered, but rather a complete change to the underlying mechanism. By baking the ads into the content at the source, GOOGLE can be confident that your device is receiving the ad as a single piece, and that it won’t get split up before the page reaches your browser. And that means viewers are suddenly confronted with ads that they’ve long been able to block.

Viewer Experience and Reaction

Given the initial reactions on YOUTUBE – a mix of perplexed and irritated comments – it’s clear that users’ feelings about this are going to be mixed. People who have ad-blockers installed have sometimes been greeted with odd, intermittent, and very long, unskippable ads. Complaints about 90-second-long ad marathons and disabled playback controls – features that make viewing a real chore – proliferate on Reddit.

The Countermeasures

In the wake of YOUTUBE’s new ads strategy, ad-hacking projects like SponsorBlock are evolving. Realising that server-side ads pose an existential threat to ad-blockers’ viability, SponsorBlock has started rejecting some submissions in an attempt to keep its database safe. The proposed tools and tactics provide a glimpse into the future direction of internet advertising and viewing.

GOOGLE's Stance on Ad Blocking

GOOGLE has said outright that it believes that ad blockers hurt the ecosystem surrounding YOUTUBE. Ads aren’t something that the company simply sells; they are the lifeblood that keeps creators afloat, and allows the tech giant to continue building its empire. According to GOOGLE, ad blockers cut out the middleman. Not only do they hurt creators whose livelihoods depend on the revenue their ads bring, but they fundamentally undermine the industry itself.

Implications for the YOUTUBE Community

The pivot to server-side ad injection is not just a technical move: it states GOOGLE’s determination to protect its ad revenue and the creator economy it promotes, at the expense of viewers’ rights and a compromise between monetisation and user experience.

A Future with Unskippable Ads?

As YOUTUBE experiments with this new ad model, some have questioned whether it’s the future of internet content. Will server-side ads become the status quo – basically asking viewers to either put up with advertisements or switch to a paid subscription (such as YOUTUBE’s own YOUTUBE Premium, which began rolling out in 2018), previously seen as a way to avoid ads on the site. If so, it would transform the way viewers experience content on the platform.

The Broader Perspective


A broader understanding of how GOOGLE thinks about YOUTUBE ads is necessary, given the company’s size and reach. As well as its encyclopaedic control of search and online advertising, it dominates in areas such as cloud computing and artificial intelligence. Its approaches to YOUTUBE and other matters are bound up with maintaining its position and driving innovation in the wider tech sector.

This journey into the practice of server-side ad injection on YOUTUBE also tells a story about the relationship between monetisation, viewer experience and the technology that links them, as the ways we make money online, and therefore the media we consume online, continue to evolve, under the thumb of the likes of GOOGLE, who are pushing their own visions for our digital future.

Jun 15, 2024
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