Why the battle against online advertising pollution is being fought by web browsers

A Google logo is seen at the entrance to the company’s offices in Toronto September 5, 2013. REUTERS/Chris Helgren (CANADA – Tags: MEDIA BUSINESS LOGO)
A Google logo is seen at the entrance to the company’s offices in Toronto September 5, 2013. REUTERS/Chris Helgren (CANADA – Tags: MEDIA BUSINESS LOGO)
Image: Reuters/Chris Helgren
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Next year, will see a major offensive from Google and Apple against the worse parts of the advertising world. It will be tricky for Google, bound to appear as judge and jury. Expect many casualties. But the entire ecosystem will benefit from these initiatives.

To put it bluntly, the ad community has less than a year to clean up its mess before browsers take matters in their own hands.

In early 2018, Chrome and Safari, which together achieve a 68% worldwide market share for browsers, will deploy major features aimed at restoring a decent user experience.

Last week at its 2017 Worldwide Developers Conference, Apple announced that the next version of Safari will let users block auto-play video (technical details from Apple here). The move will eliminate a major annoyance: you scroll through a page and suddenly a promotional video starts at full volume. We all hate this, but intermediaries continue to sell the feature, extolling maximum visibility—and monetization. Always hungry for short-term revenue, and indifferent to user frustration, many publishers jumped at the autoplay opportunity.

The other big announcement last week is Apple’s plan to block advertisers’ ability to track users from one site to another (details here). Called “retargeting,” the tracking feature is a powerful booster for advertisers. As an example, you search the web for a pair of running shoes, spending time on various e-tailer sites. This creates a kind of footprint, no pun, and, for several weeks, almost anywhere you go, you’re bombarded by ads for sneakers—even if you actually did buy a pair—because the system has no way to know if and when you completed the transaction. This is one of the most potent boosts for ad blockers.

As for Google, leveraging its dominant ad market position, the company is beefing up its efforts to clean up the ad ecosystem with two initiatives: the integration of an ad filtering system, and the deployment of a new system called Funding Choices, which is an iteration of the Contributors program. Both are experimental ways to compensate publishers for the loss of ad revenue stemming from the deployment of ad blockers—a great idea that suffered from a shaky implementation (I will detail these features in a coming Monday Note).

Google’s determination to clean up the advertising ecosystem is of critical importance for the future of the company and, consequently, for the revenue stream of publishers.

Let’s consider this stunning figure: 80% of ad networks applying to join Google’s advertising platform DFP are rejected because they present a risk of fraud.

To put it differently, if tomorrow Google removed all the safeguards that protect the 30 billion ads it serves daily, its giant ad network would be swamped by a flood of fraudulent ads, literally in a matter of minutes.

Users (and regulators) tend to forget that Google monitors everything on the internet and strives to protect its integrity. I remember a few years ago, a large website I was supervising in France was cut off from the web by Google for several hours. Its anti-fraud system had detected one suspicious file, located in a remote sub-directory of a server operated by a third party ad-supplier we had never heard off.

Google knows better than anyone else the true state of the internet. And it’s ugly.

That’s why one of its top priorities is cleaning up the open web. (Facebook, operating in a walled-garden environment, has to deal with multiple concerns, but not this one.)

To that very purpose, Google joined—some say initiated—the Coalition for Better Ads, a large group of advertisers, media buyers, and publishers, committed to improving the ads ecosystem. Ironically, the CBA also included the Internet Advertising Bureau, whose job was supposed to warrant the integrity of the system (the IAB, created in 1996, had some time to think about the problem…).

Recently, after a couple of years of research (mostly done by Google) the CBA came up with its recommendation: a set of formats deemed to be bad, according to a panel of 25,000 consumers. (Download the gallery here.)

For Google, the logical next step is to enforce this widely-accepted recommendation. Hence the deployment of an ad blocker that will be included in Chrome early next year. It will be aimed at blocking ads that don’t abide by the CBA good behavior recommendations.

Even if it has a clear path, Google is walking a thin line here. From a public relations perspective, the move will be tricky to manage as Google will inevitably be seen as judge and jury.

Already, scores of pundits whine that Google is leveraging its position to filter ads in order to reinforce its dominance. They conveniently omit that the Coalition for Better Ads corrals dozen of members, including Facebook, most media buyers, as well as scores of large publishers.

My thesis is we are just at the beginning of a massive cleansing of the advertising ecosystem that will have far-reaching consequences:

  • Scores of players in the ad-tech business will take a severe hit. Those who built businesses, sometimes large ones, at the expense of the user experience are on a deathwatch. It is definitely time to short some ad-tech stocks. I made my own list (I don’t play the stock market)—make yours.
  • In the same fashion as users installed ad blockers by the millions, many will vote with their mice. As NYU Stern’s marketing professor Scott Galloway recently said: “Advertising had become a tax that the poor and the technological illiterate pay.” Adding: “Technology is allowing us to opt out of advertising.” Twelve months from now, whether it will be a default setting or a feature activated by a single click, everyone will be able to get rid of ad pollution.
  • In the next eighteen months, browsers will compete to include features aimed at delivering better and faster navigation on both desktop and mobile.
  • We’ll see scores of publishers finally settling for the most reliable part of the news publishing business model and proposing ad-free subscriptions.

In the next Monday Note, I will look at the impact for publishers of “Funding Choices,” another initiative announced last week by Google as a remedy to ad pollution.