Adpocalypse Now! Google blocks popups in Chrome

“And that’s when I realized it. I had been overwhelmed by the ads.”

On July 9th 2019, Google pushed a new default-on Chrome functionality to users all over the world. With this new functionality, Google’s Chrome browser now automatically blocks popups and other ad formats that damage user experience. But this system isn’t entirely new – it has been default-on for Chrome users in North America and Europe since February 2018.

But now it’s a global standard for Chrome.

This is all part of an ongoing project at Google to bring the majority of internet advertisements in line with the standards recommended by the Coalition for Better Ads.

Why is Google so concerned about bad ads?

As the dominant player in digital advertising, search, and browsing, user experience all over the web reflects back on Google. Whether you’re browsing the news with Chrome or just searching for funny videos, you’re usually no more than a hop, skip, and a jump from a Google service. As such, when a user has a bad experience online this can negatively affect their opinion vis-à-vis a Google product.

This is one of the reasons that, more than any other company, Google would benefit from better, more aesthetically pleasing, and subtler web advertising. With a more standardized and user-centric approach, Google hopes its users will have an overall better experience. And that they’ll then spend even more time using Google’s services.

But that’s not the main reason.

It’s all about Adblockers

More important is the increasing popularity of ad blockers. By simply downloading a simple, easy-to-install plugin, a user can avoid the majority of internet advertisements. And, as the biggest player in both search and online video advertising, this is a huge threat to one of Google’s most lucrative businesses.

This is why Google has a unique interest in facilitating the transition to these newer, less obtrusive, more aesthetically pleasing ad forms. They hope that it will keep users away from adblockers.

People are often driven to finally find and install an adblocker by obtrusive and annoying ad formats (like flashing popups). But adblockers are totally indiscriminate. Not only do they block the most annoying ads, they also often block ads that didn’t bother the user at all.

So, as a result of adblockers, the whole industry suffers due to users’ annoyance with a tiny minority of ads.

In order to change things, Google took matters into its own hands. Google’s Global Strategy Lead, Kelsey LeBeau, echoed this in so many words:

“Ad blocking is bad news for everyone in digital advertising, including publishers who depend on ad revenue to fund content and advertisers trying to connect with audiences. But ad blocking is really a symptom of a broken user experience — one that marketers, agencies, publishers, and ad technology providers must work together to help fix.”

The power of Chrome

With 65.9% of the browser market, Google’s Chrome is leagues ahead of its closest competition (Firefox at 9.5%). Using this dominant position, Google is trying to force advertisers and publishers to conform to the Coalition for Better Ads’ “Better Ads Standards.”

The idea is actually relatively simple. Google’s browser dominance via Chrome allows it to coerce essentially everyone into following these new standards. In turn, this will help them combat one of the main things undermining its most lucrative businesses: adblockers.

In other words, Google is trying to beat adblockers by blocking ads.

Why new ad standards?

The Better Ads Standards are the result of significant research done by the Coalition for Better Ads. This wasn’t just your average survey; their research was extremely comprehensive. It involved “more than 66,000 consumers to date in countries representing 70% of global online advertising spending.” Their research was designed to help identify what ads formats fell beneath a certain threshold of “acceptability.”

Beneath this threshold, the experience starts to become rather negative which can hurt brands, drive people away from publishers, and, as Google believes, drive internet users to adopt adblockers.

Through market research and communication with internet users, the Coalition for Better Ads researched, categorized and identified the ad formats that elicited the most negative responses. Once they identified the most and least acceptable ad formats, they created a series of standards taking these into account. The new Standards discourage the use of the worst-performing ad formats (in terms of user experience).

That is to say that ads like popups, prestitial countdown ads, and other intrusive ad formats must be greatly curtailed if one wants to be considered compliant.

The Standards were first published in 2017 and certain advertisers and publishers immediately began adopting them of their own accord. Though adoption was significantly boosted when, in February 2018, Google Chrome started automatically blocking non-compliant ads in the US and Europe.

But just what are these new standards?

The Coalition for Better Ads’ research focused on identifying the ads that elicited the worst reactions from users on both desktop and mobile. On the desktop, the lowest-ranked ads were: popups, auto-playing ads (with either audio or video), prestitial ads with a countdown, and large sticky ads (ads anchored to the bottom of the screen that take up 30% or more of the window).

Publishers are to avoid these ad forms if they want to be in compliance with the Better Ads Standards. That is to say, if they don’t want all of their advertising to be blocked by default for anyone using Chrome.

There are, however, some exceptions for certain ad formats. For example, one can use prestitial ads on desktop and remain in compliance with the Standards provided the ad can be “dismissed immediately.”

On mobile, a much larger array of ads do not fit into the Better Ads Standards. Popups, prestitial ads, mobile sites with 30% or more ad coverage, flashing animations, poststitial ads with countdowns to dismiss, fullscreen scroll over ads, large sticky ads, and videos that autoplay with sound all didn’t make the cut.

Again there are a few exceptions, so it is worth getting familiar with the new Standards. For example, mobile poststitial ads are deemed acceptable so long as they can be immediately dismissed. It is only those that require a timer to run out before allowing you to move on that are unacceptable.

How Google assures compliance with Chrome

According to Google, their system works something like this: In order to make sure that a site is in compliance, they take several sample pages from your site and automatically evaluate them for violations of the Better Ads Standards. Depending on how many violations these pages have, they give one of three grades: Passing, Warning, Failing.

The process of blocking the ads itself involves three steps. First the built-in adblocker checks the site against a database to see what its score is. If it’s Failing, then network requests are compared to a list of URLs associated with advertisers. These requests are then blocked if they are matched in that list. This results in all of the site’s ads being blocked, not just those that didn’t conform to the Standards.

It’s about the whole user experience not the individual ads.

When ads are blocked for this reason, the user receives a small notification that Chrome has blocked them. The user has the option to unblock them should he so wish.

How many advertisers are out of compliance

This functionality is relatively old news for the American and European markets and we can already start to judge its effectiveness.

The preliminary results of this effort have proven relatively fruitful for Google. In the US and Europe, the program launched in February 2018. By January 2019 over two-thirds of the publishers that had been deemed out of compliance had since become compliant. And less than one percent of websites experienced ad filtering through Google’s system.

This rapid mass adoption of standards seems to prove that Google’s strategy to force advertising practices to change has been largely successful. Now that the program has rolled out to the rest of the world, similar effects will presumably follow.

As a publisher, what happens if my site non-compliant?

Through the system described above, if Google determines that a site isn’t complying with the rules, it marks the site as “Failing.” Chrome then blocks all ads on the site, essentially removing over 60% of potential viewers.

But this only occurs if publishers ignore the signs.

Non-compliant sites will receive a warning first. This warning will be visible to publishers via the Ad Experience Report tool of Google Search Console. If publishers do not heed the warnings and make the necessary changes, then Chrome’s adblock system comes into effect.

So in reality, only a tiny portion of websites have had their advertisements blocked for violating these Standards. Naturally, most that did suffer this fate quickly brought their advertisements into compliance.

What’s next on the chopping block?

This isn’t the only major change to advertising that Google has up its sleeve.

Google’s drive to improve the quality of web advertising isn’t stopping with the enforcement of ad format standards. It seems like they’re also ready to throw their weight around regarding resource-intensive ads, too.

According to a recent Chromium development ticket, Google seems to be preparing to nix resource-intensive ads in a potential new feature:

“This intervention unloads ads that are in the .1% of bandwidth usage,
.1% of CPU usage per minute, and .1% of overall CPU time. The current
numbers are 4MB network and 60 seconds CPU, but may be changed as more data is available.”

In conjunction with the implementation of default-on automated blocking of non-compliant ads, it appears that Google is preparing to go a step further in the fight to find a balance between ad effectiveness and user experience.

It’s all about conservation

Perhaps the best way to understand Google’s relatively radical actions in this regard is to look at them from the perspective of a professional fisherman.

While there are billions of internet users out there and therefore billions of potential customers, companies like Google need to be careful to make sure that the waters aren’t “overfished” so to speak.

Sure, there are some nets and tools that would allow one to catch larger batches of fish more quickly. These tools, however, damage the ecosystem to such a point that all your other tools stop working and, eventually, there’s no fish left to catch.

So, like professional fishermen, advertisers need to use a certain level of restraint in order to protect the ecosystem on which their livelihoods depend.

It might hurt now, but it’s for the best

Although it might hurt at first to be essentially forced to give up certain ad formats – formats that could very well be among the best converting – it’s for the best in the end. If those effective ads are annoying to the end user, it’s better to get rid of them and keep access to that user.

These ad formats might generate significant revenue for some, but they also drive people to adblockers. And, in the long run, that threatens the audience and potential revenue of all advertisers.

These kinds of ads bring some short-term gains, but at a very high long-term cost. Advertisers and publishers simply must put more emphasis on usability and user experience if they want users to keep looking at ads.

Otherwise, users might just stop looking at them all together.

And that’s why Google is starting to enforce the Better Ads Standards around the world. It’s about protecting the ecosystem.

What’d you think? Feel free to leave a comment below or come learn more about the Mobinner DSP!

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