Damian Radcliffe breaks down what consequences and benefits Google Chrome’s new ad-blocking browser could have for publishers
In mid-February, Google rolled out a new ad-blocker, automatically embedded within their popular Chrome browser. A key driver for this, the company noted on their Chromium Blog, was feedback “from our users that some advertising can be particularly intrusive.”
This feedback is hardly surprising, but the move to removes ads will which do not confirm to the Better Ads Standard, has clear implications for publishers; both in terms of their ability to deliver ads, and their need to do so within the Chrome ecosystem.
At present, Chrome is the world’s leading browser, with more than 57% market share (in contrast, Safari’s reach is just under 14%), so ensuring you play by Google’s new rules will matter for most media companies.
Why has Google taken this step? What’s the bigger issue they’re trying to fix?
In a series of blog posts, Google have consistently highlighted consumer frustrations with the impact that poorly delivered ads can play in the online experience.
Moreover, as Nielsen have found, many of these hated online advertising techniques have deep roots. “The pop ups of the early 2000s have reincarnated as modal windows, and are hated just as viscerally today as they were over a decade ago,” they reported last year.
“Automatically playing audio is received just as negatively today,” they continued, observing how “the following ad characteristics remained just as annoying for participants as they were in the early 2000s.”
It’s against this backdrop that Google has repeatedly identified similar conclusions.
“Your feedback has always played a critical part in the development of Chrome,” noted Rahul Roy-Chowdhury, Vice President, Chrome:
“This feedback has shown that a big source of frustration is annoying ads: video ads that play at full blast or giant pop-ups where you can’t seem to find the exit icon. These ads are designed to be disruptive and often stand in the way of people using their browsers for their intended purpose—connecting them to content and information.”
Consequences for publishers
Although the figures vary, we know that ad-blocking is a growing trend around the world, and that ad-blockers are used across all demographics, including younger users. Privacy concerns play a role here, but so too does poor user experience.
And that matters, as former BuzzFeed News executive Stacy-Marie Ishmael has observed, when “we already have too much stuff to do.” “There’s always something else [to do], and we are increasingly competing for smaller and smaller slices of your more and more fragmented attention,” she said during a 2017 talk at the University of Oregon.
Put simply, poor user experience means less engagement (in the form of time on site, clickthroughs etc.), an increased likelihood of ad-blocking tools being deployed by consumers, and a reduced ability to serve ads; a major income source for many publishers.
Why this bigger picture matters for publishers
We know that the inability to serve ads clearly costs publishers money. As a result, it’s imperative that media companies need do two things:
First, they need to redouble their efforts to diversify their revenue streams and reduce their reliance on display advertising – be that in print or digital.
Secondly, they need to improve the user experience for readers coming to their digital properties. Many websites have an overwhelming array of banner ads, pop-ups, or side bars full of garish looking adverts. It’s an off-putting experience, which does nobody any favours.
Google isn’t the first tech company to go down this route. Apple did something similar a few years ago. Arguably, what Apple and Google have done is make it easier for consumers to do something that they are already doing: using tools at their disposal – such as ad-blockers – to try and take control of both their privacy and the quality of their online experience.
What are the short-term implications of this latest development?
Numerous. In the first instance, publishers need to recognize that 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 up to them to clean up their act. Google may be giving them a gentle push to do something they already need to be thinking about.
Alongside this, the mindset of advertising volume – prevalent at too many companies – needs, in part, to be replaced by quality and relevance.
This coupled with a drive to improve the user experience, particularly on mobile, is essential if publishers want to stop consumers aren’t going to take matters into their own hands by blocking annoying and invasive ads.
More specifically (and urgently), publishers need to also ensure that their online adverts don’t fall foul of Google’s new guidelines.
Google has given plenty of warning that this change was coming, having announced their plans in June 2017, some eight months before roll out. “As of February 12,  42% of sites which were failing the Better Ads Standards have resolved their issues and are now passing,” they said. “Our goal is not to filter any ads,” they explained, “but to improve the experience for all web users.”
Image: The 12 ad experiences identified as intrusive by the Coalition for Better Ads Better and now automatically blocked by Chrome. Source: Coalition for Better Ads.
Longer term impact
As The Verge, explains, site owners can access Google’s evaluations of their pages, and they have 30 days to become compliant before the new ad-blocking kicks in.
Meanwhile, Marketing Land reports that: “Site owners that receive a Failing assessment and have their ads blocked in Chrome can request a review from the Ad Experience Report after making necessary changes to non-compliant ad experiences.”
Desktop and Android users can also opt to accept blocked ads too. (See image below)
Publications ranging from Wired to MediaPost have made a lot of positive noises about the potential benefits this move will bring to the advertising and internet ecosystem, highlighting how this is forcing companies to clean up their act and concentrate on a more considered (and less cheap looking) advertising – and content – experience. Forbes’ Agency Council has also stressed the opportunities, especially for branded and native content, and the need to “always focus on the end user first.”
Given this, newspapers need to reduce their dependence on traditional advertising. As a percentage of their income, I expect this source to only decrease. (And if it doesn’t, then they’re in trouble.) So publishers need to redouble their efforts to grow other income sources such as subscriptions, membership models, events, eCommerce and native advertising.
The Guardian’s Alex Hern, however, rightly took a more cautious – if not to say sceptical – view, asking: “Can we really trust Google as judge, jury and executioner of online ads?”
Noting the size of Google Ad Revenues (predicted to be $40bn in 2018), their role in the body which has determined these standards (the Coalition for Better Ads) and their vested interest in ensuring that online ads (the primary source of income for Google) continue to be delivered.
“The plan is simple, and almost explicit,” Hern wrote, “block just enough adverts to make sure that people don’t feel the need to install an adblocker that will block them all. The only way to save the ad industry is to improve it, and the only way to do that is to cut off the most egregious offenders at the knees.”
It’s too early to say what the impact of Google Chrome’s ad blocker will be, but both viewpoints – the enthusiastic and the more reserved – are valid.
There’s a welcome potential for Google’s move to improve online UX and the wider advertising experience (for which read better designed and more relevant). Yet, at the same time, Google’s market size, dominance and publishers reliance on the duopoly, also means that it’s a development we have to keep an eye on too.
Either way, as Nielsen outlined: “Designers and marketers continuously need to walk a line between providing a good user experience and increasing advertising revenue.”
“There is no “correct” answer or golden format for designers to use in order to flawlessly reach audiences… That said, if, over the course of over ten years, users are still lamenting about the same problems, it’s time we start to take them seriously.”
Let’s all hope, then, that we’re not having the same conversation in another ten years…