Google Chrome: protecting the advertisement business | Twenty of Time

Google Chrome: protecting the advertisement business

Google’s attempt at strong-arming the industry

Friso van Dijk Friso van Dijk

We all know them, those annoying advertisements. Your screen gets blocked, a large advertisement loads and you're forced to wait before you can continue. Highly annoying. Now, such advertisements may soon belong to the past. Google Chrome is getting a built-in adblocker aimed at improving the user experience by blocking bad advertising practices. What's the catch?

Adblocking has seen a surge in popularity over the recent years. With advertisements becoming increasingly intrusive and distracting. This resulted in an arms race that pitted users with adblockers against websites whose primary revenue came from those advertisements. Multiple websites took an approach of blocking users with adblockers from accessing their content, something they made increasingly hard to bypass. In return, adblocking became even more popular, as previously unaffected users were faced with more intrusive advertisements.

This sentiment was confirmed in a market survey, showing that the major reason for blocking advertisements was frustration. In response, the Better Ads Experience program, launched by the Coalition for Better Ads (CBA), aims to promote customer-friendly advertising. The CBA consists of some of the largest advertisers and a long list of advertisement associations. This combined effort aims to push back the use of adblockers by blacklisting intrusive advertisement types.

The Better Ads Standard

In an attempt to stop the rampant growth of adblocking, the CBA launched their initial Better Ads Standard in 2017. This is a common practice within industries, where standards are made to provide a better overall service. Think for example of standardised shipping containers, allowing cargo to transport with any ship and with any combination of shipping companies.

The CBA performed their own research on the user experience of advertisements. In three studies, they surveyed respondents on their experience after they read an article. They asked questions such as "How annoying was the ad?" and "How useful was the ad?" They conclude that some advertisements detract more from the user experience by being distracting and annoying.

Big surprise there, right? Well, they used this research to build their initial Better Ads Standard. This standard describes types of undesirable ads, distinguishing between desktop and mobile users. The four types of advertisement undesired for both types of devices are:

Sample of blacklisted ad types
Blacklisted advertisement forms for desktop in the Better Ads Standard
  • Pop-up ads, those annoying little windows that make you search for a way to close them as soon as they appear.

  • Auto-playing videos with sound, so your whole office can enjoy an ashamed colleague who visited a website with the sound on.

  • Advertisements with countdowns before allowing you on the website, effectively blocking stopping you before seeing the content.

  • Large advertisements that stick to the top or bottom of the screen, helping you focus even better on the little reading area remaining.

It almost feels like doing a research on whether or not people want a billboard directly outside of their bedroom window. It's rather pointless and even your grandma, who never used a computer, can tell you that that's annoying.

Sample of blacklisted ad types
More blacklisted advertisement forms for desktop in the Better Ads Standard

This list is further extended for mobile users with the following advertisement types:

  • An ad density of more than 30% of the page content, because who wants to read the article anyway when you can look at advertisements?

  • Flashing animated ads, for those who miss random people having epilepsy during their commute.

  • Full-screen scrollover ads, where you see a full-page advertisement and hope you don't click on it by accident.

  • Postitial ads, which are advertisements that you get before you leave the page after clicking a link. I don't even have a witty comment here. Why would someone do that? That's just pure evil.

Jokes aside, there's one major critique I have on their research. To determine which ads were annoying or not, participants were asked to read a set of short, 400-word articles. Afterwards, a survey was presented to the readers to measure their user (and ad) experience. I'm much more likely to get annoyed by intruding advertisements when I'm truly engaged in something. When I'm just skimming or reading with half an eye, I don't really care. Short articles generally don't create that much engagement anyway, as market research shows.

I believe that the Better Ads Standard is a step in the right direction for the advertisement industry. They prove that they're listening to consumer concerns by taking a critical look at the job they're doing. They're actively working on creating a standard based on research they conducted. Over time, I'm curious how this standard will evolve and whether the advertising industry will be able to self-regulate.

That brings us neatly to the second part of this article: Google Chrome's new built-in adblocker. Is it only intended to increase the user experience or are there more motives?

Chrome Adblocker: Strong-arming the Industry

Google Chrome is adding its native adblocker in its latest version on February 15. Its purpose is to take away the major reason for many users to install adblocking: it will block intrusive ads. It takes the Better Ads Standard described above and removes advertisements that fail the standard. It works together with the advertising industry to enforce a better user experience.

Chrome is not the first browser to do something like this. Firefox has a tracking protection option that's clearly presented in the browser's private mode. You can also dive into its settings and enable all those features from there, for regular browser use. Whereas it's reported that the Chrome adblocker will only block 17% of advertisements, the Firefox tracking protection is much more aggressive.

Sample of blacklisted ad types
Firefox offers an easy switch when opening private browsing mode

That brings me to the major concern with Chrome's: it's made by an advertiser. They aren't there to protect you from intrusive ads, they're there to protect their business model. Google has made $27,2 billion in advertisement revenue in the fourth quarter of 2017. This accounts for most of the revenue that parent company Alphabet made.

To secure and grow that revenue stream, Google has to show advertisements to as many users as possible. With the increasing amount of adblockers being used, this business model is under pressure. In order to fight back, Google thus releases a built-in adblocker in Chrome. And if you consider the 56,31% market share of Google Chrome compared to the second-place Safari with 14,44%, you can bet that this will wake up the industry.

Another thought to consider is that blocking intrusive advertisements may also increase revenue in another way than by just having more exposure. The way advertisements like Google's work is that you pay whenever a user clicks on your banner. To express this in dollar values we call it the cost-per-click, or CPC in short. If the average CPC is high, it means that there's generally a lot of competition in the field.

Google's CPC has been dropping for a few years now, which means that there's less competition for the same clicks. This may be due to the rise in mobile advertisements (which are generally cheaper), advertisers leaving because they don't get the intended results or because the internet population is sick of advertisements that follow them everywhere (and using adblockers as a result). In the fight for attention on the internet, Google appears to be striking back at the loudest yellers. With removing the most intrusive ads, we may assume that more people will see and notice the rest, which may have a positive influence on their competitiveness.

Time will tell whether my gut feelings on the subject are true. Either way, We see Google make an attempt in strong-arming the advertising industry by leveraging its browser's market share to force advertisers to change. Whatever the motives are, I can say this will be at least a fresh breath of air for those not yet on the adblocking bandwagon.

Let me hear your perspective on the Google adblocker in the comments.