Publishers and internet users will have given a half-hearted cheer to last week’s news that Google is to build a form of advertising control technology into Chrome from 2018.
Cheering, perhaps, but each group will have been doing so for different reasons and with little enthusiasm.
Notice we said control – not blocking. But before untangling the difference, let’s acknowledge why ad-blocking has become so appealing: visiting many websites often means being swarmed by ad and tracking systems that noticeably slow browsing performance.
Publishers claim this is a fringe problem caused by aggressive companies getting carried away, but that’s not entirely true. There are plenty of mainstream sites that happily leave users in the slow lane.
Google’s top ad executive, Sridhar Ramaswamy, describes the outcome:
These frustrating experiences can lead some people to block all ads – taking a big toll on the content creators, journalists, web developers and videographers who depend on ads to fund their content creation.
So, people start using ad blockers which block out almost everything, encouraging publishers to deploy anti-blocking technology which simply annoys readers even more.
Without giving a history lesson, suffice it to say that the model’s futility occurred to ad-blocking companies, which also needed revenue. Their solution was to let some advertisers pay not to be blocked.
This went down badly with many publishers, who felt they were being extorted, an argument that continues to this day. Savvy users responded by disabling whitelisting anyway.
Google’s alternative is slightly different and has two elements. The first is to allow Chrome to control ads that don’t adhere to rules agreed by the industry Coalition for Better Ads.
Arguably, this isn’t blocking because it only stops ads that transgress in very specific ways, such as auto-playing videos, prestitial ads with countdown timers (which block a homepage for a given period) and sticky ads (which persist even after scrolling).
It won’t address the wider issue of the way ads drain performance or – the other reason ad-blockers became popular – stop users from being tracked across websites to the detriment of their privacy and, sometimes, their security.
Given this, the second element Google, Funding Choices, might be particularly galling. Still in limited beta, this is a way to charge users who refuse to turn off their ad-blocker. The revenue from this, stored in a Google digital wallet, will be split between the publisher and – you guessed it – Google.
Doubtless, a few publishers will see this as a handy revenue stream, assuming enough bother to enable it. It might raise pennies.
For most, however, it will stick in the craw for publishers to pay Google at all, the very company many privately blame for using its search engine algorithms, advertising system and dominance of mobiles to slowly drain their brands of importance – and revenue.
To date, only one other mainstream browser maker, Opera, has dabbled with integrated ad blocking. Google’s plans are more potent even if its ad control tech ends up as a halfway house that merely enforces sanity on publishers.
What it can’t yet do is stop people using ad-blockers without driving them away from Chrome itself. For now, ad-blockers remain the last stand of browser users who refuse to cede all control.