Google has confirmed that it is adding an ad-blocker to Chrome in early 2018. Rumours have been swirling for weeks about the controversial plan, and it once again brought the topic of ad blocking to the fore.
Ad blocking has been a growing issue for advertisers in recent years, with an eMarketer report on the topic suggesting that as many as 30% of US internet users could be using blockers by the end of 2018, up from 25% in 2016. In the UK, 16.6% of the population used ad blocking tools in 2016, with the number set to increase to over 22% in 2017.
And with the confirmation that Google Chrome will be upgraded to filter out ads, 30% could prove to be a conservative estimate - Chrome is the most popular browser, accounting for an estimated 60% of the market share.
In a new blog post, Google's senior VP for ads & commerce, Sridhar Ramaswamy, writes: “It's far too common that people encounter annoying, intrusive ads on the web – like the kind that blare music unexpectedly, or force you to wait 10 seconds before you can see the content on the page. These frustrating experiences can lead some people to block all ads – taking a big toll on the content creators, journalists, web developers and videographers who depend on ads to fund their content creation.”
Ramaswamy explains Google’s ad blocker will target adverts that the Coalition for Better Ads (a body that Google is a member of) considers to be “unacceptable”. The Coalition suggests that "least preferred" ads include ads that block the content you want to access by loading first, cut to pop-up ads, auto-playing videos with sound and large sticky ads. This "least preferred" list is expanded for mobile users to include pages with more than 30% ad density, flashing animations and full-screen rollover ads.
Ramaswamy adds that publishers can find out if their ads are compliant by using the Ad Experience Report.
So, should the news send shockwaves through the worlds of publishing and advertising? Actually, probably not.
For one thing, the ads being blocked are – for the most part – a pain in the backside for users.
“Ad blocking is really a result of poor quality, irrelevant ads being allowed to be served in the first place,” notes Robin Davies, MD of operations at Conversant. “Without relevance to the user, ads aren’t fit for purpose - they annoy users, and that annoyance is ultimately associated with the advertiser.”
Andrew Bartlam, VP of EMEA, Instart Logic, adds: “Ad blockers exist for a reason – people use them to rid themselves of ads that they don't necessarily want to see. The technology came about due to the rise of socially irresponsible sites that "dumped" excessive ads onto users.”
Reasons for optimism
A further point to note is that the ad blocker could seize a lot of power away from third-party players that currently run ad whitelists.
This would potentially address concerns that ad blocking firms were creating a “modern-day protection racket”, by offering to whitelist organisations in return for payment.
Therefore, Davies envisages that Google’s move could benefit the ad industry.
By limiting the audience of low quality, irrelevant ads, consumer confidence in digital advertising is likely to increase…and the return on investment of digital advertising to brands.
“Such a measure has the potential to be good news for advertisers and consumers alike,” he says. “By limiting the audience of low quality, irrelevant ads, consumer confidence in digital advertising is likely to increase…and the return on investment of digital advertising to brands.”
And if Google were to drive up ad blocking, evidence suggests that marketers remain optimistic about the impact it could have.
Findings from a recent Chartered Institute of Marketing (CIM) study suggest that marketers believe that ad blocking will pave the way for a new wave of creativity in their profession.
76% of respondents reported that they believe ad blocking will encourage future innovation, with only 38% reporting it could lead to a decline in online marketing.
Murray Chick, freeman at The Worshipful Company of Marketors, told MyCustomer last year: “There is no doubt that the advent of ad blocking is evidence that consumers are tired of uninspired approaches to online advertising. The very existence of ad blocking software is a huge issue in delivering commercial messages to consumer audiences. However, we may yet look back and see blocking as the biggest boon to advertising of the last 30 years: for consumers, for the creative advertising industry and, especially, for advertising clients.
“Switching away from advertising is not a new development – even before the internet, people were still switching channels on the TV, changing the radio station or even flicking through pages away from advertising that didn’t engage them. However, the industry was unable to pinpoint precisely when they were doing it.
“The sad truth is that a lot of advertising wastes clients’ money. But ad blocking hasn’t made that worse. In fact, it may even be the solution to tackling the problem.”
He continues: “One of ad blocking’s biggest advantages for advertisers is that we finally know when consumers are switching, or are switched, away from advertising. This is may be of small comfort to the poor client who has spent his money on wasted advertising, though at least a blocked ad can be pulled and waste limited. However, a more positive and exciting implication is that ad blocking can force us to create better and more effective advertising, provided we are willing to face and tackle the issues. It provides a new challenge to us as we become better informed on our approach, which should be met with optimism and creativity.
“The real challenge for the creative industries may be less to fight the challenges raised by blocking than to take advantage of the real possibilities it offers - before consumers do it for us.”
Reasons for concern
Nonetheless, the news has been greeted cautiously in some quarters, with concerns that Google is carving out even greater control over the digital world.
“Despite the Coalition for Better Ads being a third-party organisation, there is justified concern that Google is too close to representing defendant, jury, judge and executioner," says Davies.
"Google serves ads, yet they’re putting themselves in a position where they ultimately determine which ad formats are shown on their browser – the most popular browser in the world. If an ad doesn’t fit the criteria that Google opts to use for the Chrome ad blocker, then every single advert on a website that serves that ad will be blocked from view for Chrome users who use the browser’s default settings."
Davies also notes that Google's move also has implications for the value exchange that consumers participate in by viewing ads.
He concludes: “The internet is largely free because of advertising - users pay for their use of the internet by viewing ads. By removing those ads, ad blockers endanger this unwritten agreement between user and publisher.
"Google’s solution respects this agreement to an extent, but adds an additional, considerable caveat to it - websites that carry adverts need to meet Chrome’s non-intrusive advert criteria. The punishment for not doing so is somewhat nuclear - if a website is showing ads that are likely to encourage ad blocker usage, none of that website's adverts will be shown at all. If a website serves an advert that’s deemed intrusive, then even adverts deemed non-intrusive will be removed."