Reaction to Google’s ad block research debacle

Buyers aren't worried that Chrome's supposedly coalition-backed blocking guidelines were developed with the ad giant's own research.

News that Google initially went uncredited as the research partner driving an industry-wide ad blocking initiative evoked questions about the propriety of that research as Google’s Chrome browser begins raiding websites for intrusive ad formats. But industry reaction suggests not only does the research point the industry in a good direction, most believe data has been properly vetted by outside experts.

Google faced heightened industry scrutiny this week as it updated the ad blocking policies for its popular Chrome browser, which had an estimated 56% market share in January 2018, according to StatCounter. Since Thursday, Chrome has been rating websites based on whether they contain ad formats deemed intrusive by the Coalition for Better Ads. The coalition said it conducted consumer research to determine a watch list of 12 intrusive formats. Chrome is now blocking all ads on a site if they fail an analysis based the use of those formats.

That naughty list includes pop-ups, flashing animated ads on mobile, auto-play videos with sound and others that generally interfere with access to content.

However, Ad Age and The Wall Street Journal report that the research that determined the watch list came from Google exclusively, a fact that initially went undisclosed by the coalition. At a time when digital media transparency is being questioned by marketers, the issue initially raised questions of whether Google has out-sized influence in the digital media sphere. (Google currently faces a US$21 million fine from India’s anti-trust watchdog for “search bias” and a charge abusing its dominant position.)

When asked to respond to the Ad Age story and concerns of Google’s influence over the digital ecosystem, Scott Spencer, director of product management and sustainable ads at Google, told MiC that the tech company did not seek to make these ad blocking changes on its own.

“We made a conscious effort over a nearly two-year process to work with the industry, and to only take actions that were the result of consensus from the coalition and its members,” Spencer said. “Our overarching goal is to do what is best for the ecosystem, to make sure that the ad-supported web continues to be a good experience for both users and publishers.”

The Coalition for Better Ads’ members include several international divisions of the IAB, Facebook, brands such as Unilever and Procter & Gamble and several industry associations, among others.

Canadian industry reaction to the the news that Google’s research went undisclosed as the guiding hand behind its own browser changes has, so far, been a bit of a shrug. While buyers MiC spoke with agree that scrutinizing a player as large as Google is a good thing, most see banning these ads is a positive step for online advertising regardless.

The ads the Coalition has targeted as being rating most-annoying by users.

The ads the Coalition has targeted as being rating most-annoying by users.

“I understand the concern from an industry perspective… it’s always good to be a little cautious around Google, just because of how big they are,” said Karel Wegert, SVP of digital media systems at Media Experts.

“But however they arrived at those standards, the industry agrees with them that these ads are bad,” he said. “These ads are why people install ad blockers… For me, it’s pretty reassuring that the IAB is backing it,” Wegert says.

When asked if he sees potential for Google to benefit from shaping what ads are on the coalition’s watch list, Wegert says it deserves investigation, but in the end Google is just as exposed as any other ad service by these Chrome changes.

After all, a site that runs too many banned ads will see every one of its ads blocked on Chrome, even ads from Google itself. And those standards are applied to Google properties such as YouTube just like any other site.

As for how Google’s research came to shape the coalition’s watch list, Google says the coalition asked all its members in October 2016 to share its independent research on consumer ad reactions. It had conducted such consumer research in late 2015, and said it submitted that work for consideration. According to Google, a board made up of coalition members agreed to use Google’s research as the groundwork for future initiatives, which would be vetted by a coalition research subcommittee. The coalition then did its own research in “late 2017,” according to Google.

Google and the coalition position the browser blocking changes as beneficial for both users and media owners because they remove clutter from the digital landscape.

“Intrusive ads have the potential to derail the entire web – not just the sustainability of the digital advertising industry but also the content producers, hosting providers, web designers, developers and many other companies that make up this diverse economy today,” said Google, in a statement. “We remain committed to improving the online ad experience, working in collaboration with the advertising industry through the Coalition for Better Ads.”