Can an ad blocker in Chrome really solve intrusive advertising?

In case you missed it, rumours are rife that Google will soon introduce an ad blocker in Chrome. Understandably, there's concern about the power that would give Google over the advertising industry and its competition. As a member of said competition, I am equal parts concerned and supportive of an ad blocker in Chrome.

It’s certainly an interesting story. On first thought it’s a little ironic, in that a company which makes a large proportion of its money through advertising revenue is not only giving users of its browser the ability to block ads from appearing, but turning it on by default too. If the rumour is true, the addition of an ad blocker in Chrome could limit the reach of ads to over half of the world’s internet users overnight. That’s a big change, and in many instances it’s needed.

As it stands, ad blocking is a growing trend that the ad industry has minimal control of. According to eMarketer, in the UK, 20.9 per cent of internet users use an ad blocker. In the US, ad blocker penetration stands at 27.5 per cent. But by viewing ads consumers are participating in a value exchange. The internet is largely free because of advertising - users often pay for their use of a website by viewing ads. But by removing those ads, ad blockers endanger this unwritten agreement between user and publisher, potentially destroying a business model that a large proportion of the internet is based on. 

Paying for whitelists

So far, what ads are blocked and what aren’t have been left largely in the hands of the companies creating these ad blocking tools. There’s often whitelists, so that some ads can still be seen by users with ad blockers, but these are commonly pay-to-play, rather than purely quality-based judgements. It’s reported that Google pays to have the ads it serves on Ad Block Plus’ whitelist, for example.

Adding some form of formal process and public scrutiny of what is and isn’t blocked is much needed, and could be incredibly beneficial to all parties - users, brands and the industry.

But let’s look at the cause of these ad blockers.

Ad blocking is really a result of poor quality, irrelevant ads being allowed to be served in the first place. Without relevance to the user, ads aren’t fit for purpose - they annoy users, and that annoyance is ultimately associated with the advertiser. Ads should serve a purpose for both the user and the advertiser. They should bring about a positive emotional response from the user to a brand or product. Yet it has all too often been the case with display advertising that a negative emotional response arises.

It’s because many ads have been designed to steal attention and encourage a click. In too many instances, ads haven’t been created with the benefit of the brand at heart. They’ve been created in order to perform against the attribution models that have been assigned to them, rather than generate true return on advertising spend. Right now, many online ads benefit neither user nor brand. In fact, they often have a negative impact on both. Some practices of ad-retargeting further exacerbate this annoyance, as irrelevant ads often chase users around the internet. 

Of note in the rumour is that any built-in ad blocker in Google Chrome would filter out the most intrusive ads to users. Now, depending on how this concept plays out in reality, putting a stop to some of the most annoying ads out there is likely to hold a great deal of value to users, brands and the advertising industry, of which publishers are a part of. Google has already stated that they are "working closely with" the Coalition for Better Ads, and it’s thought that their Better Ads Standards might play a part in determining which ads would be deemed to be the most intrusive. It goes without saying that responsible ad solutions - Google and Conversant included - don’t offer the intrusive ad formats that the coalition recommend against.  

Solving the quality problem

But putting a stop to certain ad formats doesn't necessarily solve the quality problem that has played a large part in the rise of ad blockers. Yet to stem user desire for the blanket banning of adverts, ad quality needs to be addressed.

Writing for Digiday, Jessica Davies and Lucia Moses note readers should not "expect a half page of ads at the top of a search results page to get dinged [penalised], no matter the third-party Google officially christens as the standard bearer.” And that, in essence is where the issue lies for many. Though it is still rumour, and even if Google does hand over the decision of what is blocked and what isn’t to the Coalition for Better Ads or any other third party organisation, the power that Google will hold over such a third party only increases the likelihood of Google’s ad business interests benefitting from touted decisions on quality. It’s this concern that has raised eyebrows at the European Union, with Margrethe Vestager, European Commissioner for Competition tweeting: “We will follow this new feature and it's effects closely.”

Ultimately, it’s a question of who is determining the level of intrusiveness, and the process behind that determination. From my experience, that’s a gauge that can differ widely from one person or organisation to the next.

Should Google be in a position where it could potentially be holding a degree of control on the rules that all advertisers might have to abide by in order for their ads to be seen by a large proportion of internet users? Probably not. But in general, if it’s a solution that can improve the general quality of ads found online, then such a measure has the potential to be good news for advertisers and consumers alike.

By limiting the audience of low quality and irrelevant ads, adverts that destroy a user’s trust in advertising are likely to disappear. Therefore, consumer confidence in digital advertising is likely to increase. But it’s not simply a discussion on ad formats - the content of the adverts needs to be considered too, as the higher the relevance of content to the user, the more beneficial an ad is to both user and brand. This is a factor I see every day. By personalising adverts and the cadence of delivery to consumers, the relevance of adverts increases, thus increasing consumer confidence, and the return on investment of digital advertising to brands.

Intrusiveness, and the future of digital advertising isn’t just about limiting certain ad formats. To generate actual return on investment, adverts need to relevant to the user. And conveniently, greater relevancy in advertising is also the best solution to ad blocking that I know of.

Robin Davies, MD Operations EMEA, Conversant
Image Credit: Pinone Pantone / Shutterstock