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- A new Chrome browser update that will automatically block certain kinds of ads has some people in the digital-ad world on edge. Google says the new ad restrictions are driven by research conducted by an industry-wide group called the Coalition for Better Ads, which examined the kinds of ads that most annoy consumers. But many in the industry aren’t clear who’s driving the plan to eliminate certain ads – Google, the coalition’s leaders, or someone else. That’s led to confusion. Still, some publishers are applauding Google’s move to rid the internet of ads that bother people and encourage ad-blocking software, which hurts business.
Angst is running high in digital media as Google plots a change to its Chrome browser that could cut off certain types of ads. Many in the ecosystem are unsure about what’s going to happen and when. They’re also asking a surprising question: Who is behind all this?
To review: Google plans a new Chrome browser, coming next year, that will automatically block certain ads, such as video ads that play automatically with sound. Google says it’s acting on the recommendation of a cross-industry group called the Coalition for Better Ads, which it says has identified 12 ad types that people find highly annoying. The coalition says publishers and ad-tech companies need to ditch them fast.
The accusation – you could call it a conspiracy theory – that’s being leveled by more than one ad-tech executive is that Google is leading the coalition, funding it, and driving its agenda. In other words, they say, Google decided which ads to target and then acted on that unilaterally – blowing up business models along the way – and used the coalition as cover for its decision.
What’s the problem if Google makes the experience of surfing the web less annoying for Chrome users? Well, Google also has its own ad-tech business – using algorithms to place ads online and target users – and some of the companies that will be affected by the change to Chrome are its rivals.
Google denies all the conspiracy talk. It doesn’t have outsized power over the coalition that recommended the changes, it says. The coalition says the same. Also, plenty of publishers are applauding Google’s move to rid the internet of ads that bother people and only encourage ad-blocking software, which hurts business. But the animosity toward Google reflects its vast power in digital media. It soaks up a huge portion of ad budgets and influences how people surf the web, and for small ad-tech companies, that means Google dictates their business practices. For instance, the mobile-ad company Parsec said it would have to completely abandon its business model after the Chrome change.
It’s news like that that has nerves fraying in the business. “It’s a little Draconian, and there are too many combatants to talk to everybody,” said Jim Spanfeller, an industry veteran who once ran Forbes.com and founded the publication The Daily Meal, referring to the coalition’s goals and challenges.
Publishers, added Spanfeller, are “anxious and worried. They feel that this is being done to them, not by them. And the IAB [the Interactive Advertising Bureau, the leading digital-ad trade group] is a major player here, but they are fundamentally controlled by Google and Facebook. They pay the lion’s share of the dues. So it’s a fair criticism.”
All these moving parts and competing constituencies have made it hard to get a read on who’s in charge. “There is a lack of knowledge right now and a lack of information from Google,” said Gefen Lamdan, senior vice president at Celtra, which helps advertisers manage which ads run where on the web. “It’s uncomfortable.”
According to Lamdan, some of Google’s recent decisions surrounding Chrome “came as a surprise to the IAB. Even IAB members did not know. So we are getting a lot of questions from all around.”
“I really think this is a project the IAB should drive,” she said.
The coalition of the willing
The Coalition for Better Ads lists dozens of members, including the IAB, Google, the ad-buying agency GroupM, Procter & Gamble, and Thompson Reuters.
Who’s in charge? Officially, the coalition is overseen by a law firm, Venable. But, according to Venable spokesman Brendan McCormick, the coalition is a “member-driven organization” and neither the IAB nor Google runs the show.
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As for what ads are deemed as annoying and worthy of stamping out, the coalition’s work was all about responding to what consumers want, he said.
“This has been very well received,” McCormick said. Venable is educating the marketplace and helping publishers become compliant before the new Chrome update hits, he added.
However: “This is separate from what Chrome is doing,” he said. “[Google is] stepping forward. We want to accelerate marketplace adoption.”
McCormick said there were two tiers of dues-paying members and that Google is not, as some have suggested, funding the effort on its own.
“If you look at the breadth of the membership, it’s been very inclusive. All of our members have a voice in this.
“There is no specific timeline for the coalition,” he added. “Expect to hear more from us in the months ahead. Conversations are very active.”
What Google says
Google will give publishers and ad-tech companies a 30-day window before it starts blocking any ads in Chrome.
“Thanks to the Better Ads Standards, the ad industry has 12 ad experiences that we know annoy internet users and encourage people to opt out of ads entirely,” a Google representative said.
“Chrome has a long history of protecting users from annoying or harmful experiences. For example, like other browsers, Chrome blocks pop-ups in new tabs and shows warnings before malware pages.”
Yet Parsec CEO Marc Guldimann has been quick to say that Google’s own core ads, including its search text ads and preroll video ads, like those on YouTube, were not part of the coalition’s early rounds of tests. Who says people don’t find them annoying, he asks.
It’s also not lost on people in the ad industry that even as Google pledges to improve the ad experience for users, the company has acknowledged paying ad-blocking-software companies to make sure Google’s ads don’t get blocked, as Business Insider has reported.
Moreover, in Parsec’s case, Guldimann is convinced that the testing took place without permission. “Either they copied our code or took one of our tags,” he said.
According to the coalition, no specific publisher’s ads were used in testing, which might explain why Google’s core ads weren’t initially included. From its website:
The Coalition’s research supporting the Better Ads Standards was based on common ad experiences from around the Web. These ad experiences are generic in nature, and designed to represent the concept of the ad experience – not any specific ad experience from a particular vendor.
Who wouldn’t want better ads?
Some publishers and ad-tech companies are championing the efforts by the coalition and Google.
“We’re impressed with the level of detail and transparency Google is providing and are 200% behind this initiative,” said Troy Young, president of Hearst’s digital media, in a recent Google blog post.
Ari Lewine, co-founder and chief strategy officer at the ad-tech firm Triplelift, founded his company to make digital ads better.
“We’ve been on this mission from the moment we started,” he said. “We’ve raised our hand and said, ‘Ads don’t need to be annoying to work.’ The future of the internet depends on it.”
Lewine said that as Google and Facebook have become more dominant, they’ve focused on protecting consumer experience. “The rest of web is competing with them and they’ve gone in the opposite direction,” he said. “It’s created this greater wedge between a user-experience-driven internet and an ad-tech-driven internet, and at some point that needs to come to a head.”
Harry Kargman, CEO of the mobile-ad company Kargo, concurs that digital ads need improving. But he’s worried the coalition’s work could prove stifling. “We’re concerned, but we’re not making any changes at the moment.”
In his view, blocking certain ad types “allows for zero innovation,” he said. “Nobody knows how Google is going to implement this. The issue is, if you’re a publisher, one day when this goes live, you could have all of your ads turned off. You won’t know what’s going on.”
Lamdan agreed that there are reasons to worry about how Chrome’s technology will interpret certain ad types.
“When you look at the guidelines for better ads, what’s allowed is quite clear,” she said. “But when you translate them into machine language, in software it’s not clear.”