Goodbye forever annoying autoplay videos and large sticky internet ads that take up the whole page.
At least, in theory: Google Chrome launched its new built-in ad blocker on Feb. 15 in response to the Coalition for Better Ads’ 2017 Ad Experience Report. It’s part of an initiative to improve the user experience and reduce the number of “bad ads” across the web.
But how much will this affect newspapers’ digital revenue? How drastically will they have to reconfigure their ads? And does this give Google too much power over what we see and don’t see when we log on?
According to PageFair’s 2017 study, 11 percent of the global internet population is already blocking ads on the web, a figure that grew 30 percent in 2016. And according to StatCounter, as of January 2018, Chrome was the most popular browser with 56.3 percent of the market. PageFair also reported 21.7 percent of Chrome users already use an ad blocker.
That means ad blocking—and Chrome—can’t be ignored.
“Pass or Fail”
Although E&P went to press before the ad blocker launched, we talked to Google, the News Media Alliance and others about what Chrome’s built-in blocker might mean for news sites.
Damian Radcliffe, professor in journalism at the University of Oregon, told E&P, “We know that ad-blocking is a growing trend around the world, and that ad-blockers are used across all demographics, including younger users. The inability to serve ads clearly costs publishers money, but this isn’t a trend that’s going to go away any time soon.”
Radcliffe advised, “(Newspapers) need to improve the user experience for readers coming to their digital properties.” He cites an “overwhelming array of banner ads, pop-ups, or side bars full of garish-looking adverts” are often found on local news sites, the kind that make people want to use the most extreme ad blocker possible.
“It’s an off-putting experience, which often leads to the content looking ‘buried’ and which does little to drive click-throughs or other forms of engagement,” he observed.
Enter the Coalition for Better Ads’ new standards.
“It was designed to be a voluntary, multi-stakeholder program, to clean up the digital advertising experience for consumers,” said Paul Boyle, senior vice president of public policy at the News Media Alliance.
But now, with Chrome, Google is making these higher standards a commercial reality that publishers can’t avoid.
According to a Google representative, Chrome will only filter ads on sites that have been reviewed by the Ad Experience Report, have a “failing” status, and have not been resolved within the 30-day notification period. If a publisher’s ads meet the new standards, then nothing, in theory, will be blocked.
Scott Spencer, director of product management for sustainable advertising at Google, told Axios, “Our goal is to not filter anybody. Our goal to get rid of annoying ad experiences to make the internet better.”
According to Axios, Google has been auditing sites since June 2017, and only 1 percent of publishers were “non-compliant” with the new ad standards. Of the more than 100,000 sites surveyed, Axios reported, only .5 percent were at the “warning” level of potentially being blocked, and only .9 percent were considered “failing” and would be blocked.
Ad Age reported that the six-month grace period that the Coalition advised began in August 2017, when publishers began receiving notices of violations. Spencer told Axios in February 2018, “We’ve been working closely with publishers for months.”
Axios also reported that publishers will need to have a 7.5 percent non-compliance threshold before their ads are blocked. And that that threshold is expected to fall to 2.5 percent as more publishers comply with the standards.
Still, some bad ads might slip through and spoil an entire site.
“Unfortunately, if a publisher is ‘non-compliant’ after an assessment where sites contain bad ads above the threshold, all ads to the site—even ads compliant with the standards—would be blocked as it is impossible technologically to filter only the bad ads,” said Boyle.
So, how will Chrome’s ad blocker be different than others?
Sean Blanchfield, CEO and co-founder of PageFair, broke it down like this: “Adblock Plus, Adblock and the other ad blockers are ruthless in their blocking, and aim to block all ads of all kinds by default—with the exception of some simple ads that they will whitelist, normally in exchange for a cut of the revenue. Chrome ad filtering will only affect a minority of ads that Google and the Coalition for Better Ads have determined to be the worst offenders.” As for Google’s own ads, he surmises, “Most Google ads will not be included in this definition.”
AdBlockPlus took it as a point of pride that they block more than Chrome intends to, referring to Chrome’s blocker as more of a “skimmer.” In a January 2018 post, the site said that in a test using the Acceptable Ads standard, Adblock Plus and other ad blockers blocked 92.7 percent of “bad ads,” while stating that “the new CBA-endorsed ad skimmer (Chrome) will only block 16.4 percent of the ad types listed in its white paper.”
According to Axios, house ads will not be blocked by Chrome, and Google informed E&P that users will still be able to “whitelist” specific ads.
As rival AdBlockPlus observed in a January post about Chrome’s new ad blocker, “For some, Google’s double role as enforcer of CBA standards in Chrome and voting member for the CBA is a bit like the fox guarding the henhouse.”
PageFair’s Blanchfield echoed that sentiment. “Google’s current intentions seem benign and focused on the sustainability of the web, but people’s fears about monopoly are understandable.”
Given that many publishers are already using Google search, Google ads and maybe even Google hosting, Blanchfield noted, “Many feel that Google is already the gatekeeper of nearly every substantial aspect of their business. By now choosing to globally ban certain poor-quality ads (no doubt, mostly non-Google ads), Google’s immense power over the future of the web is suddenly explicit. Publishers are wondering if they are really independent at all, or just players in a virtual gig economy that helps Google monetize a Google audience with Google ads.”
At the News Media Alliance, Boyle said, “While we believe that Google is trying—in good faith—to help clean up the ad experience for consumers and speed up load times—ad blocking within Chrome is deeply concerning to publishers. No publisher wants anyone from the outside to interfere with how their site is presented to the public.”
He added, “Our preference would have been a voluntary, self-regulatory program, where all stakeholders in the digital ad ecosystem work to improve the digital ad experience. Under blocking within Chrome, the onus falls squarely on publishers. Because of technological limitations Google will have to block all ads to a site that is not compliant, even ads that meet the Better Ad Standards. This is another example of Google’s dominance as a platform where it can establish rules for publishers and others in the ecosystem.”
According to Google, many publishers are voluntarily removing ads that might be filtered out. Prior to Chrome’s launch, a rep told E&P that, of the publishers they’d reviewed whose ads violated the new Better Ads Standards issues, 30 percent had already fixed the problem.
The Google rep also pointed out that Chrome has always protected users from pop-up windows and warned them if they land on a malware-infected page, so a built-in ad blocker is simply a natural evolution of the browser’s functionality.
“Arguably, in this instance, what Apple and Google are doing is simply making it easier for consumers to do something that increasing numbers of readers are already doing: using ad-blockers.,” Boyle said. “Audiences are using these tools anyway, and will continue to do so, with or without any further assistance from some of the world’s tech giants…It’s too early to say what the impact of Google Chrome’s ad blocker will be, but it’s symptomatic of a wider issue that publishers need to address.”
A Change of Heart
Publishers may be having a change of heart when it comes to ad blockers. Boyle said that News Media Alliance members are working to address consumers’ frustration with ads that disrupt their experience, interrupt content or slow down browsing.
“Publishers, advertisers, ad agencies and ad tech must collectively improve the user experience for consumers to discourage the adoption of ad blocking,” he said. “Blocking all ads, however, is not a solution if one acknowledges that high-quality, journalistic content is expensive to produce and advertising revenue is critical for its sustainability in our democracy. I think publishers have done a better job of explaining why ads are needed, and the public generally understands, and would accept ads—as long as they are not disruptive and degrade the user experience.”
PageFair’s latest study supports that view. While 74 percent of American ad blocker users say they immediately leave sites that put up a wall to ad blockers, 77 percent are willing to view some ad formats, with a preference for standard display ads.
Google noted that the Coalition’s research gives companies data-driven insights for the first time about what constitutes a good ad experience—and what makes for a bad one. And that, despite the potential hassle of getting rid of annoying ads, publishers win if readers have a better experience on their site.
What will this mean for digital advertising post ad-blocking? You’re likely to see ads that are less intrusive and much smaller, since some of the worst offenders are those obnoxious “large sticky ads” or ads that take up more than 30 percent of the screen.
PageFair’s Blanchfield said, “Newspapers normally have professional ad operations teams focused on maximizing the revenue yield of the advertising they run. This can sometimes lead to heavy ad loads and a lot of tracking.
“In contrast, many newspapers have done a great job of playing the long game by focusing on crafting a high-quality experience that will keep their audience returning every day, get rewarded with higher traffic from a loyal returning audience, and can then sell ads at higher prices to advertisers who care about the context their ads are viewed in.”
He added, “Although programmatic ad buying can blur the lines between premium sites and less-than-premium experiences, Google’s move will restrict the supply of low-quality ads, which should increase demand for the high-quality ads that premium publishers are running.”
Blanchfield hopes these new standards will raise the quality of ads (and possibly also content) overall. “For years there has been a vicious circle of poor ads monetizing cheap content monetizing viral content. Google’s initiative probably won’t be enough to break us all out of that race to the bottom, but it will help,” he said.
It might even help end clickbait.
“Unfortunately, we’ve been in a prolonged phase where many publishers who work to build a healthy audience have been losing to lower-quality websites who focus on attracting traffic through click-bait and dubious traffic acquisition tactics,” Blanchfield said. “The industry is now focusing on quality over quality again. Not all ad impressions are alike. As ad spend begins to shift back to quality, so will the quality of our user experiences online.”
Boyle agreed: “The mindset of advertising volume needs, in part, to be replaced by quality and relevance, alongside a wide drive to improve the user experience, particularly on mobile. Without these types of improvements, can we really be surprised that consumers are increasingly deploying ad-blockers?”