Enrique Dans
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Enrique Dans

Google has a plan to fix the online advertising crisis… but will it work?

On Thursday, February 16, as part of its Coalition for Better Ads, Google launched an offensive it says will rid the internet of the worst of the many intrusive publicity formats the advertising industry has inflicted on users for years.

My impression is that Google is pretty much reprising its 2003 decision to introduce a function on its navigation bar to block pop-ups, thus protecting its main revenue stream, advertising, from short-sighted irresponsible companies. Advertising agencies, advertisers themselves, and many media, over time, have opted for anything goes strategies, utterly disregarding respect for a general public it assumes will put up with anything to get to the content we want. We can only count our blessings that some smart-assed developer didn’t come up with a way for ads to reach out of the screen and grab us by the throat, because some advertisers would undoubtedly have used it.

In 2003, the pop-up took us to a point of no return: by then, abuse of that format had made web browsing a misery. More recently, abuse of other intrusive formats and continuous tracking of users has prompted more and more people to install advertising blockers such as German Eye/o’s AdBlock Plus.

At the beginning of last year, the number of devices with advertising blockers installed already exceeded 236 million computers and 380 million smartphones worldwide, representing the largest boycott carried out by consumers in human history. Something had to be done, so Google went to work.

What’s changed since 2003? These were different times, and also a different Google.

  • In 2003, Google was a “nice” company, enjoying strong growth, with an incipient advertising model and a a positioning that allowed it to make its own decisions. Fifteen years later, Google is now the leading search engine, and along with Facebook, dominates display. Like a bull in the china shop of advertising, it tends to break things when it moves. Hence, its decision to take action has been carried out through the Coalition for Better Ads, the body it has set up bringing together ad agencies, advertisers and media to prevent an advertising apocalypse.
  • In 2003, Microsoft’s Internet Explorer was the main browser, one controlled by a company that, at that time, was anything but “nice”: it was engaged in a crusade to redefine web standards, to exclude competitors, and it noticed how some companies, Google among them, were dominating categories it wanted for itself. All Google could do was to develop a navigation bar that any user could install in their browser with certain blocking functions. Today, Google’s Chrome is the leading web browser, and so can pretty much do what it wants, and knowing that its actions will be felt immediately.
  • In 2003, Google was practically alone in trying to defend users from abusive advertising formats. Moreover, from what I know about the company, I firmly believe that the pop-up blockade was not entirely about protecting its revenue stream, but also by a genuine desire to improve the experience of its users. In 2018, the user landscape is completely different: those of us able to install an ad blocker consider Eye/o and other companies are allies in the fight against intrusive ad formats, vastly improving our browsing experience. Google’s relationship with Eye/o is bittersweet: on the one hand, it has financed it by paying for the inclusion of its advertising on the company’s white lists, while on the other, it has not asked it to join its Coalition for Better Ads and sometimes refers to its practices as “blackmail”.
  • Eye/o knows perfectly well that an advertising blocker is nothing without a good block list, and keeping that list updated requires costly supervision, charging whoever it can to meet those costs. Eye/o initiatives to define good practices in advertising have done much more for users than anything Google has done so far, and are much more tougher than the Coalition for Better Ads’ proposals. If you really appreciate your browsing experience, take my tip: keep your ad blocker installed both on your computer and your smartphone.
  • Google now finds itself in a position where, in 2018, it is being forced to negotiate with agencies, advertisers and media before making a move. It’s looking for a balance between these players and users, a balance that should have a much greater impact on practices that go beyond annoying formats. We will all appreciate being freed from formats such as the one above, aberrations such as pop-up, the interstitial, videos with preactivated sound or large and persistent advertisements, although some advertisements with animation or with distracting formats will remain, because many of the players in the coalition still believe in their heart of hearts that if an ad doesn’t annoy you, it’s because you haven’t noticed it”. And they will continue to install trackers for everything and at all times, because Google itself does. In short, for online advertising to really change, we need all parties to change their thinking.

Is Google going to be an honest broker here? Is it a good idea to have the largest advertising seller (whose global online ad business is bigger than the next five biggest combined), using its position as the owner of the largest web browser (four times the market share as the nearest competitor), to determine which ads are fit to be seen or not?

Despite what some say, I think it is a good idea. This is a pragmatic decision by a company interested in preserving its line of business, in making it sustainable in the long term. Is Google dumb enough to apply double standards regarding its advertising? I doubt it very much, mainly because to do so makes no sense and would lose it the public’s trust and, quite possibly, in the eyes of the regulators too. Is Google’s initiative a good idea? Obviously: it’s about time something was done, and it will allow many people who have no idea how to install a blocker to improve their browsing experience. Is it enough? As far as I’m concerned, it needs to go further.

(En español, aquí)

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On the effects of technology and innovation on people, companies and society (writing in Spanish at enriquedans.com since 2003)

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Enrique Dans

Enrique Dans

Professor of Innovation at IE Business School and blogger at enriquedans.com

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