The Facts and Controversies of Google's New Ad Blocker

By: Will Koziey-Kronas

Ask anyone what Google is, and you're likely to hear "a search engine company" or "information providers". Ask a digital marketer, however, and you'll get a consistent response: "an advertising company". It's true that Google is a search engine, and a handy map, among many other forms of information distribution - but Google is above all else an advertising company, with 89 percent of their 60 billion a year profits coming from ads.

That's why it seemed odd for Google to confirm last month that they're developing an ad blocking extension for Chrome - ad blockers, like the popular Adblock Plus and uBlock - block ads from displaying on sites. Why would an ad company have any interest in making their own? In this post, we'll answer that question by looking at the facts and controversies you should know about Google's new ad blocker.

The Facts

Google's new extension has made the rounds under the title of "ad blocker" - but it's technically an ad filter. Whereas Adblock Plus removes all ad content (with exceptions the user can determine), Google's extension only filters out ads deemed unacceptably intrusive and annoying. That leaves us with two questions: what constitutes unacceptable annoyance, and who gets to decide?

The body of ad formats considered unacceptable are derived from an industry group called the Coalition For Better Ads. The group consists of several dozen digital advertising conglomerates, including Google and Facebook, who united to set new, better standards for web advertisements. Thus far, they’ve identified 12 ad formats that "rank lowest across a range of user experience factors", both on mobile and desktop.

Three examples of unacceptable ad formats, as per the Coalition For Better Ads.
The results come from a research study based on the input of 25,000 internet users, not the Coalition themselves. Among the 12 ad formats are some expected offenders - pop ups, auto-playing videos with sound, and ads with flashing graphics and colours. Also on the list are "Prestitial" ads - ads that prevent you from visiting a page until you either click past them or wait for a countdown - and "sticky" ads - ads that remain on a mobile page regardless of where the user scrolls.

An example of a prestitial ad, which imposes itself over the site until users close it.

It's understandable that Google would have interest in consumer's perception of ad formats - but when 90 percent of Google's revenue is based off advertising, the question remains: why would they want to filter any ads out of the browsing experience, if less ads equals less income?

The answer is best explained by the Coalition themselves: bad, annoying ad formats increase "propensity for consumers to adopt ad blockers". And considering advertising is the sole source of revenue for a vast majority of sites, the ability for consumers to effectively turn off web ads poses a serious problem for Google and other digital marketers. Sites (particularly news publications) have resorted to preventing adblock users from visiting, often requesting "donations" in compensation for an ad-free experience.

A message from WIRED, preventing ad block users from entering the site without disabling the extension.

So those are the facts - Google is creating an ad filter that removes offensive ads, but maintains the acceptable ones, steering users away from all-encompassing ad blockers in an attempt to ensure advertising remains a reliable source of revenue for site publishers and marketers.

The Controversies

You'd be hard pressed to find anybody that enjoys encountering any of the 12 annoying ad formats Google's extension hopes to filter out - so why was the extension's announcement met with so much contention among marketers and consumers?

First, Google isn't impartial. By de-incentivizing the use of ad blockers, they protect their own revenue and shift more power towards themselves. This is especially concerning for other digital marketers when you consider the reach of Google Chrome - it makes up 47 percent of the world's browser usage. Again, the extension is only filtering unacceptable ads, and other marketers will benefit from less adblock users. But it's an understandable worry for digital marketers when there's a risk of missing half the world's internet users if their ads don't meet Google's criteria.

A graph charting browser usage share to June 2016.

Second, there's the question of whether a filtered browsing experience is enough to dissuade users from ad blockers. In a choice between a less-annoying browser, and a completely ad-free one, it's not hard to imagine a majority of users siding with the latter regardless. Further, 26 percent of web users in the US are already using a web blocker - once users experience the web ad-free, is it possible for Google to sway them back?

At this point, we can only leave these questions hanging. Is Google's ability to filter ads for half the world's internet users a problem? Will the extension even be effective, considering the continued presence and reach of ad blockers? For now, we won't see these ambiguities resolve until the extension launches early next year.

The debate over whether ad-blocking is an ethical practice for consumers is heated, long-running, and far from over - and also far too expansive to get into for the purposes of this post. But for now, know that web publishers and marketers are in a difficult spot because the web is populated with annoying ads that have driven users to cut off ads entirely. And as enormous and impenetrable Google can seem, they wouldn't have created an ad filter with the express purpose of preventing ad block adopters if they weren't in the same spot themselves. For more on social media, SEO, and digital marketing best practices, visit us here.