Google Chrome’s new ad-blocking browser update isn’t quite a nothingburger, but for all the fanfare and discussion, two weeks after the launch date its effects are essentially invisible. This is in part because the roll-out is gradual, but also because, for the vast majority of digital marketers, the impact is nil anyway.
To misuse the words of Douglas Adams: Marketers, don’t panic.
First of all, it’s not exactly an ad blocker, at least as we commonly understand the term. Google refers to it as an ad filter, but that’s not precisely it either. Chrome won’t simply block the ads that don’t meet its criteria; it’s identifying websites that display these offending ads and blocking all ads on those sites. Since most of these sites are publishers that rely on ads for revenue in order to keep their content free, a zero-tolerance policy is not an idle threat.
Google is basing its criteria on the Coalition for Better Ads’ standards, which identify advertising practices that “fall beneath a threshold of consumer acceptability.” These are the worst offenders on the sliding scale of obnoxious ads that more sophisticated marketers have been shying away from anyway.
Google isn’t cracking the whip immediately: Site owners can query Google to see if they pass and use Search Console to review specific violations. After a notification of violations, sites have 30 days to prove compliance before Chrome starts blocking their ads.
Image attribution: Headway
In short, not a heck of a lot.
The onus here is primarily on the sites displaying the ads, not the brands behind them. While certain violations have to do with the content of the ads themselves—think video ads with auto-play sound—most have to do with how the ads are displayed. Further, chances are good that the threat of non-compliance will prompt host sites, ad networks, and ad exchanges to take steps to identify potentially offending ad content, creating multiple layers of checkpoints. Even brands that rely heavily on programmatic advertising can leave almost all of the dirty work to the other parties.
Not only does the onus fall mostly on publishers, but the repercussions largely fall on them too. A brand whose ads violate Google’s standards will lose a handful of impressions—and with brands diverting budget away from ad spend in response to a long decline in efficacy, brands are relying less on those digital ads than in previous years anyway. Non-compliant publishers, in contrast, lose their primary source of revenue.
In a blog post immediately following the release, Oli Gardner of Unbounce astutely pointed out a concerning gap in Google’s communication on the subject. For the purposes of Chrome’s ad filter, he asks, what constitutes an ad?
The narrowest interpretation is, happily, the most likely: Per the Coalition for Better Ads, an ad is “promotional content displayed on the web as the result of a commercial transaction with a third party.” Since Google is using their recommendations as its criteria for identifying intrusive ads, they are almost certainly using their definition as well.
That said, there is a sliver of a chance that Google is interpreting “ad” more widely. If, as Gardner points out, Google considers marketing content from the host website itself to be an ad if it is displayed in the same manner as a third-party ad, then marketers could have cause for concern. Normal lead capture practices that the average digital marketer does not abuse—subscription pop-ups or sticky bars, for example—have the potential to be considered “intrusive” ads under this interpretation.
Gardner reached out to the Coalition for Better Ads and to Google for clarification, and though the former responded, the answer is still not clear. That said, given just how widespread these lead capture practices are, it’s extremely unlikely that Google would use such a broad definition without providing any warning whatsoever.
Out of an excess of caution, marketers may still wish to ensure their site is compliant using Google Search Console. And from a broader perspective, reconsidering the site experience in light of the spirit of the recommendations—do your marketing practices actually interfere with the user’s engagement with your content?—isn’t a bad idea.
Image attribution: John Schnobrich
It’s this broader perspective that ultimately matters. Google’s actions may make the web a better place—but they are also a reaction to consumer-led changes that have been underway for years. Despite Google’s self-laudatory language, behind this decision is an entirely understandable business objective: to give web browsers a reason not to use ad blockers. More comprehensive ad blockers mean that Google, the world’s biggest seller of ads, loses an opportunity to monetize users. To be crude, Google is cannibalizing itself before other ad blockers do it for them.
But just because Google wasn’t acting out of charity doesn’t mean that they aren’t on to something. Consumers are more empowered than ever to avoid marketing practices they dislike, and ad blockers are only one manifestation of this trend. Ultimately, the brands that succeed in an ad-blocking, commercial-avoiding, marketing-skeptical world are those that don’t simply avoid practices consumers dislike but instead actively create experiences that consumers will seek out and engage with on their own terms.
In that light, Google’s actions—for once—are kind of beside the point.
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Featured image attribution: Štefan Štefančík