Google’s ‘heavy’ ad block coming into effect on publisher sites

Via Pixabay

A feature that blocks resource-intensive ads is being rolled out in the latest version of Google’s Chrome browser. But with publishers largely unaware of the changes, there are concerns that the tech giant has too much power in dictating which ads meet its standards.

The takeaways:
  • In May, Google announced that its Chrome browser would be taking steps to ‘address ads that most people find unacceptable’. They particularly looked to target ‘heavy’ ads – ones that drain battery life and network data – having seen an increase in ads that mine cryptocurrencies, were poorly programmed, or not optimized for mobile usage.
  • Chrome will limit the resources a display ad can use before the user interacts with it; more than 4MB of network data, or 15 seconds of CPU usage in any 30 second period. When an ad reaches its limit, the frame switches to a greyed out error page, with a message saying, “This ad used too many resources for your device, so Chrome removed it.” 
  • The blocker has rolled out with the latest Chrome 84 browser. Now, it has been spotted in action on publisher sites, including the New York Times.

Leading the charge: This is far from the first time a browser has taken the decision to block invasive experiences for its users. In fact, most of the positive evolutions in advertising have been driven by the browsers. 

  • Opera was the first major browser to block pop-up ads in the early 2000s, followed by Mozilla’s Firefox. Now, pop-up ads are a thing of the past.
  • Firefox and Apple’s Safari announced they would be adding options to disable third-party cookie tracking back in 2019. Google then followed suit with its own announcement in January 2020 that it would be phasing its usage out by 2022.

It’s in the best interest of the browsers to provide as good a user experience as possible, especially with the rise of mobile browsing. Heavy ads on mobile have a bigger impact on mobile data and battery life, and can be very frustrating for users. Browsers will do what they can to improve the experience in order to retain users and market share.

  • Publishers have historically not been incentivized to improve ad experiences by themselves, with the interests of ad tech and sales teams overriding that of editorial and user experience teams.

Yes but: Many people have raised concerns that, as the browser with the biggest market share, Google is able to make arbitrary decisions over ads that are acceptable or not which then end up having a big impact on those reliant on them.

  • Larger publishers have teams dedicated to ad experiences, but smaller publishers end up being disproportionately affected as they lack the resources to optimize ads, or stay up to date with actions from Google
  • “Even though the makers of clunky ads don’t make for sympathetic victims, this is still Google unilaterally blocking a financial arrangement between two other companies,” said Nieman Lab’s Joshua Benton. “It’s one thing for a user to decide to block ads; it’s another for Google to do it.”

The last word: This is a classic ‘good for users, bad for publishers’ case, in the short term. Historically, browsers making these decisions has led to better web and ad experiences all round.

But the timing – in the middle of a pandemic with a decimated ad market, and the end of third party cookies in sight – will be difficult for publishers already fighting revenue struggles on multiple fronts.

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