Google recently announced it was launching a native ad blocker for the Chrome browser, which promises to improve our web experience by shielding us from annoying, intrusive ads.

Set to launch in early 2018, this new feature will effectively make Google the arbiter of what ads we do or don’t see – and how and where we see them. Predictably, this is raising some concern.

In this article, we’ll explain the reasoning behind the ad blocker and discuss what it might mean for brands, advertisers, and their audiences.

 

The case for “better ads”

 

Google, along with its friends at the Coalition for Better Ads, say they’re on a mission to improve the web experience. They argue that large interstitials, autoplay videos and full-page pop-ups are a blight on the internet.

Anyone with eyeballs would of course agree (except Forbes, cough cough). As a species we’ve grown averse to advertising; we don’t want to be interrupted while being entertained or informed. And now that we’re spending most of our time online, this is where the battle’s being fought.

In 2016 alone, usage of third-party ad blockers like Adblock Plus grew by 30%, hitting 11% of all internet-connected devices worldwide. Interestingly, APAC accounts for 94% of all mobile ad-blocker users.

If you’re monetising a web property through display advertising or making your money from the trafficking process, this poses a direct threat to revenue. In 2015, this threat amounted to an estimated $21.8 billion in lost revenue for publishers.

For the impression-based model to continue, ads must be served. They must be visible and measurable, and they can’t destroy the content experience.

This is the logic behind Google’s argument. Better ads mean better experiences and better readership… and this ultimately means more cash for publishers, brands and advertisers.

 

Extreme vetting: The advertising edition

 

Enter Chrome’s native ad-blocker. Except it’s not a blocker – it’s a selective filter.

Unlike the third-party tools, it doesn’t block all ads indiscriminately. Ads that comply with the Coalition’s standards will be allowed through.

Integrating with what Google calls its “Funding Choices” initiative, publishers will also be able to gate content for those using third-party blockers.

As a brand or advertiser, this could mean your ads will be appearing in less intrusive formats, on compliant sites only.

This all sounds great, but for a company as large as Google with a browser that half the world uses, the question of impartiality is hard to ignore.

 

The question of control

 

Google says that Chrome will “stop showing ads (including those owned or served by Google) on websites that are not compliant with the Better Ads Standards.”

The wording here is vague, considering the magnitude of what it’s explaining. It’s not clear whether individual ads will be filtered out, or whether entire websites will be de-inventoried.

This is a distinction that should be made – one non-compliant ad on an otherwise decent web property shouldn’t disqualify the whole site. One would assume that blocking should occur at a page level, not a domain level.

It also fails to mention that in conjunction with Funding Choices, visitors to participating publishers’ sites will be forced to view ads in exchange for consuming the content… whether they like it or not.

Choice of words aside, the vital issue here is that Google and Chrome wield an immense amount of power, and they’ll ostensibly be controlling the content experience for half the world’s population.

This raises questions. Might they exploit this ad filter for their own gain? Might this disincentivise challenger brands from creating independent ad tech?

Might we see higher CPMs charged for the mere fact that a site is “compliant”? In the experience economy, is forced ad viewing the best way forward?

That said, Google have so much control of the market that they have no choice but to serve the need of the market. And the blocker will also affect their own inventory, so at least they’re not exempting themselves.

Nevertheless, the question remains: does any single company have the right to be the policeman, even if it says it’s enforcing the rules of a “coalition”?

 

What does this mean for brands and advertisers?

 

If the Chrome ad blocker actually works (i.e. reinforces good advertising while removing the bad), brands and advertisers should see more positive than negative effects.

Advertisers want to buy quality placements at scale and want to see measurability and performance. In this context, this could be a welcome stimulus for industry-wide improvement, regardless of the power it gives Google.

To shed further light on what this new reality might mean for brands and advertisers, we spoke to Madelin Larsen, Client Services Manager at Amnet, DAN’s specialist programmatic agency.

“Agencies and clients will be driven to step back and more carefully consider how their ad is impacting user experience, rather than looking only at sheer opportunities to reach consumers,” she said.

Larsen noted that this is especially apparent with video inventory, which is extremely limited in Australia as it is. She said that sometimes, advertisers aren’t even made fully aware of what they’re buying.

“They might think they’re getting an interstitial video, but without their knowledge it’s actually served down in the corner or in a sticky popover.

“This could put increased expectation on advertisers to acquire true pre-roll activity for example, and for publishers to deliver it. It will highlight the need for advertisers to understand where the video is playing within a page – in banner, in a video player or an overlay unit not native to the page,” she explained.

Larsen believes the Better Ads Standards’ focus on formats could address the difficulties of accurately buying at scale while maintaining transparent oversight and measurability.

There could be some beneficial side-effects too: publishers, brands and advertisers might be inspired to swing more strongly towards branded content and custom publishing as a means of delivering the experiences that users want.

 

Don’t just comply – go above and beyond.

 

Despite the promise of programmatic and machine learning, the audience (and consumer population as a whole) will continue to be the primary driver of publishing revenue models.

While Google-owned ad blockers might raise the bar by removing the worst of the worst, audiences will ultimately choose whether it succeeds. In the end, it’ll come down to real-life user experience.

Larsen said, “We’re already seeing publishers developing non-traditional video and native branded opportunities. As long as pricing remains performance-friendly, immersive content and video messaging will be crucial to creating better user experiences and engagement.

“However, with fewer opportunities to monetise their websites, it will be interesting to monitor what impact this all has on pricing, particularly with top-tier, premium publishers.”

What this means is that brands, advertisers and publishers should heed Google’s three “golden rules” for on-page ads: Be immediate, be immersive, and be relevant. As it happens, these are the exact guidelines set out for Funding Choices.

It remains to be seen whether the reduction in inventory pushes CPMs upwards, or if we see a true shift in the types of ad formats used.

Pixel tracking won’t be affected, and full-page takeovers are enthusiastically suggested as a better alternative to countdown pop-overs.

It sure would be a welcome change to see the industry shift towards quality creative and placements. It’ll be interesting to see how this form of advertising evolves.

Who knows, it could just create a better experience – and web as a whole – for all of us.

Watch this space.

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Craig Gibson

Craig Gibson is Client Strategy Director at iProspect Brisbane. He leads strategy for a number of our key enterprise clients, specialising in solving both client and consumer problems across all touchpoints, from data and insights to strategy and creative.