Important note: This blog was originally authored in April 2017. Since the, the Chrome ad blocker has become reality. You can find more up to date information about this here: Chrome ad blocking – what publishers need to know
A report in the Wall Street Journal this week has many publishers concerned at the prospect of Google enabling ad-blocking by default for Chrome users. With Chrome having close to 60% share of the browser market, many web publishers fear that this could be another nail in the coffin of ad funded publishing.
Our view at OKO is that Google moving into the ad blocking market could be good news for those (like us and the websites we work with) who rely on ad revenue. In fact it’s something that we’ve wanted them to do for some time.
The problem with ad blockers
Love them or loathe them, ad blockers are here to stay and are driven by a demand from web users. Even the biggest advocate of online advertising has likely been annoyed by ads at some point and users want to be able to control what appears in their browser. The problem is that most of the tools we have available to do that are dumb.
Ad blockers are generally blunt tools supported by the efforts of a community that aims to block this highest proportion of ads that they can. If one type of ad annoys you then your options are either to put up with them or block everything.
The outcome of this is that users often result to “punishing” all publishers for the actions of a minority. This does nothing to support “good” publishers, has least impact on those who monetize most aggressively and results in less choice for publishers. Ultimately it is also an approach that puts the sustainability of a free, open web into doubt.
Why Google might build something smarter
Google is largely an ad-funded company. They have as much to lose from the rise of “dumb” ad blockers as any publisher. They are though a company who puts great value on user experience. When Google listed “10 things we know to be true” as their company philosophy the first point on the list was “Focus on the user and all else will follow”. Despite frequent criticism this policy still seems to hold great value to the firm, particularly where ad monetization and user experience converge.
Google could easily have pushed resources to combat ad blockers and even prevented their use in Chrome, but have taken the decision to leave the choice in the hands of the user. If, rather than trying to crush ad blockers, Google built a better one they could stay true to those principals; increasing choice for users and reducing the “collateral damage” to the free web.
What might Google backed ad-blocking look like?
A Google backed ad blocker is likely to put greater focus on the types of ads that users find problematic and allow “gentler” ads through. The most likely way to do this would be to allow ads that meet the criteria of an independent body like the Coalition for Better Ads, or the Acceptable Ads Committee (the former seeming more likely).
If enabled as default, this approach would stop most users from ever seeing the types of ads are most likely to motivate people to install an ad blocker. This could potentially slow the rise of “block everything” blockers and even win back less die-hard users who want to free up system resources.
One option that the WSJ articles says is being considered is to block all ads on sites that contain any sub-standard ads. This approach would presumably serve to encourage more widespread adoption of the standards for the greater long-term good of the ecosystem.
An alternative approach might be to offer granular control over what type of ads is shown or blocked. Giving users the ability to block creative types or tracking technologies that annoy them would give far greater control, but might be too complicated for widespread use.
Why might this not happen?
Whatever approach Google take to ad blocking in Chrome they are bound to face criticism and have anti-trust concerns raised. Anything that Google does to enable ad-blocking has the potential to penalise their competitors, which will cause concern.
Enforcing blocking-based third party standards seems the most likely way to reduce those concerns, but they are unlikely to go away. Given the ongoing anti-trust investigations in Europe any moves to roll out default ad-blocking will need to be considered very carefully by Google. Some reports suggest that the feature could be released within a few weeks, but that it is equally likely that it could be killed before ever seeing public release.
We’ll be sure to update you if and when there is more to report.