15th February came and went, and the worst of ads are either gone (or soon will be) from the Chrome users’ online experience. We were all fed this rhetoric for the past eight months.
It’s been a month since Chrome’s filter went live and the ads are still here, and they are just as annoying.
So they removed pop-ups. Big whoop! No one uses them except spammy sites that only the internet n00bs would visit anyway. But what did you expect: We have advertising’s biggest proponents trying to put a check on ads. That’s like letting a bunch of lazy grad students grade their own papers.
But the point of the Chrome ad filter wasn’t to put a check on ads—that was just an unintended side-benefit that was played up to look good. The real goal is much bigger and makes a lot more sense. To understand, let’s retrace the steps from the beginning.
Eliminating Bad Ads—or Competitors?
Google, along with the biggest ad tech vendors, advertisers, agencies, and trade bodies, created the Coalition for Better Ads.
Members pay between $20,000 and $100,000 to belong to the coalition.
— Jessica Davies (Digiday)
The goal was to “improve consumers’ experience with online advertising” so more people won’t be driven to install AdBlock just to avoid the online ad clutter.
This group surveyed more than 22,000 users (in North America and Europe) to find how they perceived ad formats—in an effort to “develop and implement new global standards for online advertising that address consumer expectations”.
Then they decided that the worst ones must go:
- From Desktop as well as Mobile
- Autoplay video with sound
- Prestitial ads with countdown
- Large sticky ads
- Furthermore, from Mobile
- Flashing animated ads
- Full-screen rollover
- Poststitial ads with countdown
Other criteria included no more than 30% ads limit and restricting sound on autoplay ads based on how the user engaged with media content on that site before.
Chrome, as the one with over 50% global market share among browsers, was in a perfect position to enforce these standards with a very large stick: Publishers must remove the annoying formats or all their ads (even the ones that are standard-compliant) will get blocked from Chrome.
Note that AdX and AdSense ads aren’t exempt from this. But since Google doesn’t allow most of it on its advertising platforms anyway, it felt like Google was, “enforcing a phony policy to cut other networks out,” as one network executive puts it.
The Fine Print about “Filtering” Ads
Google wasn’t about to take a lit matchstick to its ad revenue just to make ads less annoying for half the online population. So it put down some ground rules.
In a statement released in December 2017, Google clarified the factors based on which Chrome will decide where it will block all ads:
In the first phase of the Program’s operation, the threshold for non-compliance for web sites will be measured according to the following percentages of page views assessed:
- 7.5% in the first two months following the Effective Date of the Program (15th Feb, 2018)
- 5% in the ensuing four months
- 2.5% in the months thereafter
This means that Chrome will ‘tolerate’ bad ads on 7.5% of total pageviews for the first two months, restricting it to 2.5% from August 2018 forward. The implication is that none of the annoying formats will be completely gone from Chrome, but they will become a lot less frequent. A publisher with 1,000 pageviews a month, for instance, can still serve ‘annoying’ ads on 25 of them and it will be a-okay.
Another policy update clarified how Chrome will block autoplay video ads w/sound.
“Autoplay video with sound will be restricted on the first page of user sessions if the user hasn’t previously shown interest in media content on the site.” Unmuted autoplay ads are not allowed on mobile unless the user adds the site to their home-screen.
One week before the February 15 deadline, Google revealed that barely 1% sites will be affected by the filter.
Google reviewed over 100,000 websites in North America and Europe since June as part of an ongoing audit of publishers’ ads to ensure they’re compliant with Better Ads standards. The sites are being reviewed to make sure publishers are aware of bad ads on their site so they can take quick action to fix them.
Of the 100,000+ sites surveyed, 0.5% were at the “warning” level of potentially being blocked. Only 0.9% were at the “failing level” and would be blocked.
Google says that 37% of sites found in violation of the Coalition’s standards have already fixed their advertising issues.
But enough of that. Here’s how it affected publishers.
“Hardly any impact,” say Publishers
Since Chrome’s filter puts the onus on publishers to refrain from serving ‘bad ads’, we asked some sell-side executives if they had seen an impact (warnings received, drop in yield, etc.) since the filter went live.
A UK-based gaming publisher says there was no impact. “But that’s because we refrain from crappy ad experiences and always have,” he adds.
A Germany-based automotive publisher reveals, “One of our demand sources with high-impact ads (expandable half-page) added a filter based on window-size before 15th Feb. There was about 25% less qualified inventory for them and a small revenue decrease due to it.”
It is worth noting that high-impact ads aren’t considered ‘annoying’ by Better Ads standards.
“It is a common format in Germany, and it literally unfolds to cover half the page. I know Axel Springer is a big publisher who’s doing it, and considering their Better Ads Standard involvement, I don’t know if it will be blocked or not,” says the German sell-side exec.
An Indian media executive attests to the popularity of the formats. “The publishers here make the bulk of their money from high impact ads; standard formats are dirt cheap.” He also reveals that Google has approached Indian publishers to come up with a standard for blocking which will be acceptable to them – since it has no framework for blocking ads on Indian sites yet.
Google has its own repository of high-impact ad formats available to DoubleClick advertisers. It’s safe to say no one will be considering these formats ‘annoying’ anytime soon.
“High impact solutions which refrain from being irritable (with auto-expanding/audio) will be okay,” says Sanjot Singh, associate director of programmatic partnerships at Affle. “Stitch up your ad formats to ensure they aren’t too flashy, be within Google’s line, and you should be good to go—at least until Google has another change of heart.”
More Than Ads, the Filter Aims to Throttle AdBlock
The Register’s Andrew Orlowski goes into detail about how Chrome’s big move was utterly ineffectual. The filter wouldn’t convince the loyalists to turn their adblock off, which is why at least three Coalition members—Google, Taboola, and Criteo—already pay AdBlock Plus to have their ads whitelisted.
On the part of the Coalition, it was never about fighting adblock head on. It’s a small, measured sacrifice of inventory on their part to draw in the bigger game. The bulk of focus is on making ad experience better on mobile, because the real objective is to prevent AdBlock’s growth on mobile the way it took over the desktop. As more vendors join the program, the standards might evolve to include more ad formats or be enforced by more browser vendors.
It’s a step towards ensuring that the publishers won’t be closing shop from failing earnings reports. It could mean users won’t be denied access to content because they were trying to preserve their bandwidth, or were concerned about malverts, or were annoyed by the endless barrage of ads.
If the Coalition succeeds, it could mean that the content remains free and unrestricted on the web. It could mean publishers stay in business without annoying their audiences. That’s worth aiming for, even if the journey there is led by companies who turned the web into a swamp of crappy ads in the first place.
The Chrome ad filter is available to users across the world, but currently filters ads on sites based in Europe and North America only.