Google’s move is indicative of how the world of online advertising has changed in recent years
Can Google Chrome’s ad filter save us from those annoying pop-ups?
Nowhere is the relentless nature of advertising more evident than on the internet. From the moisturiser ad that doggedly pursues you around various websites to the full-screen pop-up video with an infuriatingly unclickable “close” button, urgent sales pitches come hand in hand with the online content we consume.
Given that we don’t pay for much of that content, advertising is clearly necessary for the web to continue functioning, but the desperate pursuit of our attention by some online ads has caused us to actively rebel. Millions of people have turned to “ad-blocking” software to help remove commercial messages from their gaze, a trend that has caused consternation among publishers and advertisers alike.
But earlier this week, one of the world’s biggest advertising companies, Google, confirmed that its web browser, Chrome, will introduce a form of ad-blocking from February 15. Will this fundamental change to the world’s most popular browser spell the end of intrusive advertising?
Google’s move is indicative of how the world of online advertising has changed in recent years. In the late 1990s, ads didn’t have to be intrusive, and they tended to perform pretty well. But as online publishers became more desperate for revenue, adverts became louder, brasher and more numerous. As people soothed their irritation with ad-blocking software, the makers of that software effectively became gatekeepers; they decided how web pages would look. Then, in 2011, the most popular ad-blocking service, Adblock Plus, dropped a bombshell. It announced an “Acceptable Ads” initiative, where if adverts conformed to a certain set of criteria, they would be let through its filters for people to see.
In addition, the biggest firms – Google, Microsoft, Amazon and others – would pay Adblock Plus for that privilege. The perception of Adblock Plus as the self-appointed policeman of online advertising caused consternation; the global chief of the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB), Randall Rothenberg, described Adblock Plus as an “unethical, immoral, mendacious coven of techie wannabes, [operating an] old-fashioned extortion racket.”
However, in terms of monetising the service, Adblock Plus had played a blinder – and it completely changed the advertising landscape. Ad-blocking firms began to understand that a total removal of adverts was unrealistic (indeed, one of the most gung-ho ad-blocking companies, Shine, which was described by its own head of marketing as “the single biggest threat in the history of advertising”, ended up rebranding itself as Rainbow, and disassociated itself with ad-blocking completely.)
At the same time, there was a dawning realisation among advertisers and publishers that online advertising had become a total mess and given itself a bad name; when their attempts to fight back by banning people who used ad-blockers was found to be counterproductive, it became clear that a more conciliatory approach was needed.
In this new climate, two competing bodies have been leading the debate over what constitutes intrusive advertising: there’s the Acceptable Ads Committee, an independent, 12-person body set up by Adblock Plus to meet every six months to discuss which ads are whitelisted; and the Coalition for Better Ads (CBA), an arm of the IAB, which includes representatives from a number of companies, including Google. By taking its cues from the Coalition’s recommendations, Google will be hoping that Chrome’s ad-filtering system will establish an internet-wide standard for acceptable advertising, and effectively make stand-alone software, such as Adblock Plus, superfluous.
So, which ads might Chrome relieve us of? The CBA has cited a handful of specific irritants that it seeks to banish, including pop-ups, auto-playing video ads with sound, some prestitials and postitials (ads that appear before a website loads or after you’ve left it) and, on mobile platforms, such annoyances as full-screen scrollovers, flashing animation and just the sheer, overwhelming density (the CBA seeks to keep density of ads at under 30 per cent).
It remains to be seen how many of these Google will block within Chrome, but it has outlined how the removal process will work: it will notify websites that fail to meet its standards, and after 30 days of transgression they will have all those ads blocked. (This includes, perhaps surprisingly, ads that are “owned or served by Google”.)
People have waited a long time to be spared the worst excesses of the advertising industry without having to install special software, and this move will undoubtedly make web browsing less annoying. Pages will load quicker and become easier to navigate, but more significantly, the might of Google and the huge market share of Chrome will effectively force all advertisers to finally recognise that intrusive advertising is a bad thing.
It will also successfully preserve the advertising model as a means of publishers making money; Google’s Sridhar Ramaswamy recently outlined how the company believes these changes “will ensure all content creators, big and small, can continue to have a sustainable way to fund their work with online advertising”. But this move also augments Google’s online dominance; if successful, ad-blocking firms will surrender their current powers to Google, and because it already has such a powerful voice within the CBA, Google will effectively decide which adverts are acceptable.
While ad-blocking was initially driven by the revolutionary spirit of sticking it to “the man”, “the man” may now end up completely neutralising it.
Few of us will mourn the demise of those auto-playing videos we rush to mute when we’re working in a quiet office. We yearn to be spared from other irritants, too; Apple recently updated its browser, Safari, to stop advertisers tracking web-browsing activity for longer than 24 hours after you’ve visited a website – but the IAB has criticised Apple’s move, and Google has confirmed that it won’t be bringing this feature to Chrome.
In the same way that turkeys don’t vote for Christmas, advertising firms will never vote to act in a way that harms their own interests. Chrome’s ad-blocker may improve our online experience, but one thing is clear – we’ll still be seeing adverts. How many? Well, as many as Google decides that we can cope with.