Why Google wants to block ads

The largest vendor of online ads is building an ad-blocker

It might seem like just about the most unlikely move imaginable for one of the world’s foremost advertisement vendors — indeed, for a company that has made, and continues to make, its vast fortune from the selling of ads — nevertheless, Google is purportedly planning to include ad-blocking functionality in their Chrome web browser.

This will apparently be true of both the desktop browser and the Android app (presumably with an equivalent function for ad-blocking on iOS using Apple’s recently introduced content blocking API) and has many people pondering the endgame behind the move.

However, looking at the bigger picture, things do start to fall into place. Google isn’t just a vendor of advertisements after all, it’s a vendor of many web-based services and apps, all of which serve to make businesses and people discoverable online.

Google is the search platform that the vast majority of internet users trust to find them good results, and to retain that large number of users, Google needs to continue offering the best results and indeed the best user experience. Google also has a direct financial incentive to keep their user experience slick, and that’s because one of the opportunities they have to show advertisements and sponsored information is within their own search engine via Pay-Per-Click results.

Web versus native

All of that is academic if the web itself as a platform is undermined by a poor user experience compared to what a user can expect to enjoy from an all-encompassing app like Facebook. Facebook might not seem like it’s in the same league as Google, but you have to remember that many people already use Facebook as a content discovery gateway, without searching via Google at all.

Facebook is already playing host to news stories as well as people, businesses, chat and games, so for many the need to search something on Google is removed. They can just search for it on Facebook while they chat to their siblings or their best friend. And all the while, Facebook is making money showing advertisements and charging news vendors to boost their posts’ visibility.

Google has other threats as well — iOS on Apple mobile devices is very much geared to keep you away from the browser if at all possible, as long as there’s an app for whatever you want to do or discover. Apple News is another walled-garden approach to the consumption of news media, and iOS is host to apps like Facebook, Messenger, Whatsapp, Snapchat and countless other ways to consume media without touching Google.

Embrace, extend…

The reality may currently be that most iOS users will do a lot of their media and ad consumption via the web using a web browser, but nevertheless the threat does exist, albeit in its infancy. That’s why Google creates native apps, which might also seem to be an unnecessary exercise, but it’s about creating a Google mindset within the consumer by also providing the best apps when necessary. GMail/Inbox are well regarded in the app space for email handling (remember, the GMail app can integrate with more than just GMail accounts); Google Maps has received far more praise than Apple or Microsoft’s efforts; even Google Drive, though less flexible than GMail (you need a Google or G-Suite account to use Google Drive) is well regarded in its sphere.

That’s not to say that Google’s apps are always the best or the be-all and end-all, since many people would sooner use Microsoft’s Outlook email client, OpenStreetMap and Dropbox, but they’ve made a real effort to offer strong competition on what is ultimately a secondary platform to the web in Google’s overall strategy. The point is that Google is a name that consumers trust, in spite of what many privacy-conscious people have to say about Google’s data-gathering practices.

The ad paradigm

Google has influenced a huge number of other platforms, particularly in the social media space, with its focus on delivering a great user experience punctuated by advertisements to bring in revenue. It’s not necessarily the best strategy for every startup, some of which will have too few users to sponsor the expansion of the business through advertisements alone and require a subscription-based model, but it’s a popular option for startups with big userbases like Facebook and Twitter.

Such companies have so many consumers using them that businesses are likely to pay big money to get themselves into the spotlight. Twitter has not fared well, but Facebook Ads is proving to be a good earner for Facebook, and with many businesses extolling the virtues of advertising on Facebook, Google has to think about answering the long-term threat this could pose.

With businesses seeing good ROI on Facebook Ads and with Facebook almost being a viable alternative to the web browser as a means to consume content shared on the internet, it’s hardly surprising that Google wants to do what it can to protect the web as an open platform, and that means policing the way adverts are implemented.

Fig 1: a chart displaying findings by the Coalition for Better Ads, showing that desktop users are strongly opposed to popup and sticky-ad-at-bottom-of-viewport formats. (Source)

The Coalition for Better Ads is a group dedicated to the establishment of standards for the displaying of advertisements to consumers, of which Google is a member. The group’s formation has precipitated the conducting of research into which adverts are the most acceptable to the consumer and which are truly irksome.

The results are not really surprising: videos which automatically start playing, adverts which result in significantly slower page loads or reflows, and adverts preventing user interaction or consumption of media are the most loathed by consumers, while adverts which occupy little screen space and do not slow down the page’s loading time or require a strong, unlimited broadband connection are not regarded as too harmful.

Fig 2: a chart displaying findings by the Coalition for Better Ads, showing mobile users distaste for popup ads and ads occupying large swathes of a mobile device’s limited screen real estate. (Source)

There have been several studies (though not by the Coalition for Better Ads) conducted on page abandonment in relation to page loading times, and it has been estimated that a second delay can result in a 7% drop in conversions. After another second, this number doubles to 14–15%. Unsurprisingly, that number doesn’t get any prettier with even larger delays. According to one survey, 16% of those surveyed stated that they would wait only up to 5 seconds before abandoning the website; 30% said they would allow up to 10 seconds to elapse. These studies should be a cause of concern for online businesses which rely on the consumption of ads alongside their content to make money, because ads are a significant factor in the page speed equation. Most advertisements require heavier assets like images or even video and audio files, not to mention additional HTML, CSS and JavaScript code, all of which adds to what may be an already unwieldy page size given the tendency for websites to use JavaScript libraries like jQuery or React, or to display a lot of images and videos as part of their content offerings.

While the inclusion of at least some advertisements is necessary to generate revenue in many cases (though not with subscription/‘paywall’ models), going overboard or using adverts which are offensive to the user is just going to push your consumers to your competitors who might have a website with fewer ads and a consequently better user experience. It might even force consumers or prospective consumers to choose a competitor with a subscription model. Such websites are often dismissed by would-be users for being too pricey, but those same people can often be heard wishing they could simply pay a fee to remove advertisements from television channels or indeed websites.

However, while it seems like quite the balancing act, it’s not too difficult to get advertising right, just keep it unobtrusive. The problem then is to compete with user experiences which do not require advertisements and to deliver everything quickly.

If the web browser starts to lose popularity as the window to the internet, ads on websites lose value and Google finds itself in an unfavourable position. And so now the questions which might have precipitated Google’s decision to block advertisements can now be seen quite clearly:

How do you attract business owners to use your advertising platform?
By guaranteeing the best ROI for those businesses owners, which itself can only be guaranteeing the greatest footfall (figuratively speaking).
How do you guarantee the greatest footfall?
By ensuring that the web remains the foremost platform for the consumption of information and media, i.e. by ensuring that people are not pushed away from the web by substandard user experiences.
What constitutes a substandard user experience?
Anything that stands between the user and the content they wish to consume, be that slow performance, unresponsive or unintuitive UI, or indeed excessive advertising, which can be both a problem in its own right or a part of the cause behind the prior two problems.
What can be done to mitigate the problems of excessive or poorly engineered advertisements?
Restrict the control of advertisement developers over their output such that their output conforms to a set of stringent guidelines, in terms and conditions or more forcibly by imposing controls on output regardless of what those developers make.

Suddenly, Google’s mission to make the web a better place doesn’t seem quite so altruistic as the reality emerges: Google wants to make the web better for Google, and it just so happens that the needs of the consumer dictate the needs of the vendor in this case.

The AMP project

We must not also forget the Accelerated Mobile Pages project, an open source effort sparked by Google developers to make websites (primarily news websites) as performant and as slick as native app experiences through strict adherence to best practices. This was ostensibly to make sure that news websites could compete with Facebook Instant Articles and Apple’s News app, but in the long-term it also fits in nicely to the make the web better strategy we mentioned earlier.

To understand exactly how closely tied to this new strategy to officially block ads from the browser, we must examine how AMP actually works. Central to AMP is AMPHTML, a restricted subset of HTML5 that is not actually a standard dialect of HTML, but rather a set of Custom Elements, cooked up by Google developers and open source contributors, which are supposed to represent the most efficient ways of including, for example, images, videos, slideshows or advertisements in your web pages.

Once a web page meets the AMPHTML standard, it is then cached by Google on their servers to enable instantaneous delivery from their content delivery network (CDN), which Google is happy to do for content which is largely static in nature, and where it is dynamic, it is dynamic in a controlled environment so that the web page cannot (theoretically) end up slow or unresponsive.

The project has met with mixed views from developers and users alike. Many love the incredible speed with which content is served to them, which can be less than a second or two even on 2G/3G mobile data connections. Others are annoyed by what can be a jarring user experience, particularly on iOS, because rather than visit the website, you are actually just shown the article on the Google search results page, with touch gestures that can clash with iOS’s standard gestures in Safari (swipe left to go back, for instance, is made difficult because the same gesture is used to navigate between articles in the AMP results page).

Publishers are also understandably perturbed by the idea of Google soaking up their web traffic by never actually sending the searcher to the publisher’s website, but rather keeping them on Google instead. This issue has however been addressed in recent weeks.

Many developers seem confused by the fact that AMP exists, because they already create slim and fast websites according to best practices, and wonder why their performant websites cannot benefit from the same privileged placement in mobile search results just because they don’t use Google’s AMPHTML and AMP Custom Elements.

Most are in agreement, however, that had the idea been executed a little more openly and if Google had avoided a walled-garden approach, the AMP project would have been an entirely beneficial step for the web, which is filled with thousands upon thousands of websites that bombard users with adverts, popups and content stolen directly from another publisher’s website. Some degree of policing is needed — but from W3C rather than Google.

The other issue with AMP is that it only really makes sense for news vendors and blogs, and makes less sense for e-commerce websites and company websites. It’s also very much directed at mobile — desktop users do not have a means to view AMP pages instead of regular pages unless they know the URL to the AMP page already, so desktop users are still subjected to the original websites in their hideous, unusable forms. The opportunity to clean up their advertising network is a major reason why an officially sanctioned ad-blocker might make a lot of sense.

There is one other key aspect to this question of why Google should want to block ads, and that lies in Google’s modus operandi. Google has proven incredibly and consistently successful over the years because they’ve always gathered data on whatever they were doing. They’ve shelved many products over the years, some of which were much loved like Google Reader. Every time they’ve done so, they’ve collected a fortune of invaluable data about how people interact with their websites, which in turn informs their next set of apps and services.

The opportunity to get Chrome users to block ads and to study exactly which ads are considered worthy of blocking by users gives Google the perfect opportunity to refine its ads and to make sure that everybody using Google AdWords/AdSense display ads is restricted to doing so only in the ways that Google discovers to be acceptable to a majority of users. This is what I think Google’s true motivation is, because policing the internet through one web browser isn’t easily done, and the AMP project is much more effective at that job because AMPHTML works in most modern browsers.

Chrome is, however, the only web browser Google has direct control over and as such represents their best opportunity to study ad-blocking as a user behaviour, so that they can refine advertisement designs and make sure they can retain their advertising network without earning any more criticism or losing any more users. Google could also, if they wanted, block ads from other ad networks while leaving their own alone — though this is unlikely, as it would likely trigger an unhappy response from industry regulators and would also push people away from using the default ad-blocker and towards using a third-party ad-blocker like uOrigin or Adblock Plus.

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