All Ads Are Equal, but Some Ads Are More Equal Than Others
This past quarter, Alphabet Inc., Google’s parent company, reported revenue of over $24 billion, with nearly all of that money coming from Google search, display, and video advertising. This month, Google has announced it intends to bring native ad filtering to Chrome, the most popular browser on the planet.
Here’s Google SVP of Ads and Commerce, Sridhar Ramaswamy, in a blog post titled, “Building a better web for everyone”:
We believe online ads should be better. That’s why we joined the Coalition for Better Ads, an industry group dedicated to improving online ads. The group’s recently announced Better Ads Standards provide clear, public, data-driven guidance for how the industry can improve ads for consumers, and today I’d like to share how we plan to support it. […]
Chrome has always focused on giving you the best possible experience browsing the web. For example, it prevents pop-ups in new tabs based on the fact that they are annoying. In dialogue with the Coalition and other industry groups, we plan to have Chrome stop showing ads (including those owned or served by Google) on websites that are not compliant with the Better Ads Standards starting in early 2018.
At face value, this seems like a win for users. Many online ads are a terrible experience. By having ad filtering built-in to Chrome, my grandmother won’t need to go install a separate ad blocker just to browse the web in peace.
But this news should be met with extreme skepticism and concern, not celebration. Chrome isn’t run by the Coalition for Better Ads, it’s run by Google; a company that made over $20 billion in advertising within a single quarter. Additionally, we’re not only talking about ads. We’re talking about Google using Chrome to block web content. Ads may be a particularly annoying type of content, but they’re content all the same. By creating a precedent for filtering the web at their discretion, Google will have orchestrated a colossal change in how users view information on the internet.
Google operates the world’s #1 browser, #1 ad platform, and #1 search engine. This change to Chrome will extend Google’s influence beyond search result rankings and into every site you visit. Given Google’s market share and control in the three aforementioned areas, this news should be grounds for antitrust violation discussions.
The news regarding Chrome is only the latest in a series of steps Google’s taken to further convert the open web experience into a proprietary one.
It begins with search results. A high pagerank in Google is coveted, and being the top result can make an enormous difference in the success of your business. An entire industry exists around Search Engine Optimization (SEO), and there are countless blogs and hypotheses surrounding how to appear higher in the results particular sets of terms. However, finding a way into the top listings of a Google search doesn’t bring inherit safety with it.
In 2009, Google introduced Rich Snippets; a way of providing Google with additional data (ratings, locations, etc.) that was relevant to your page. Today, instead of asking you for additional relevant information, Google pulls this content automatically, and then displays the information in, what it calls, Featured Snippets. These snippets reside at the top of a search results page and attempt to answer questions before the user clicks on any individual result. Searching for “what temperature should turkey be cooked to?” results in a prominently displayed paragraph from Butterball’s website, without me needing to visit
Although this helps users get information faster, Featured Snippets have been known to surface incorrect or partial answers. Consequences are limited when you’re only getting incorrect instructions on how to caramelize onions, but when Featured Snippets relay blatant lies about political or world affairs, the ramifications can be damning. As voice-powered AI assistants like Google Home become more popular and our trust in their responses grow, the keeper of the underlying data wields a terrifying amount of influence.
This is all without mentioning the impact Featured Snippets has on the sites (like Butterball) themselves. Since the user doesn’t actually visit a webpage, the websites that created the information are robbed of page counts and ad impressions, sometimes to a disastrous degree.
Then there’s Google’s Accelerated Mobile Pages, better known as AMP.
AMP attempts to deal with the issue of bloated webpages by providing publishers with a lightweight template that Google can cache and serve up nearly instantaneously through search results. Unfortunately, what using AMP actually means is that publishers cede control of the entire reading experience, down to the URL of the content.
Yet, these tradeoffs don’t seem to deter publishers. Making your content accessible via AMP page is safe way to ensure you’re doing things the Google Way™, which ultimately puts you at a lower risk of losing search traffic.
Finally, even if a user makes it to a webpage from a Google search, there’s nothing to stop them from installing their own third-party ad blocker, and many do. Adblock Plus, one of the most popular Chrome extensions, has well over 10,000,000 user installations.
However, even for a third-party ad blocker, the amount of money on the table makes it hard to remain focused on the original goal. Last year, ironically, Adblock Plus opened its own market for selling ads, which were, naturally, whitelisted for all Adblock Plus users. Ghostery, another popular ad blocker, didn’t sell its own ads, but it did sell information about which ads you blocked back to the advertisers.
Eventually, if history is any indication, even the best of ad-managing and user privacy intentions eventually soften.
Taken without historical context, the idea of building advertisement filtering into Chrome sounds like a good idea. 1 Other browser vendors are doing similar things, too. At this year’s WWDC, Apple announced new features in Safari to prevent advertisements from tracking you around the web. Mozilla and Microsoft will inevitably pursue similar features, if they haven’t started already.
However, unlike Google, these companies don’t bring in a majority of their revenue from an advertising platform they own.
Google controls the searches, the ads, and the window through which a majority of us see the internet. I find it hard to see this ad-focused change to Chrome as anything other than a gross misuse of market share and power, which will ultimately be used to help secure and protect an exceedingly profitable advertising business. In a way we haven’t seen since Microsoft in 1998, Google’s potential, resulting competitive advantage will be nearly insurmountable to any upstart or established player.
The question is no longer if Google’s monopolistic influence over the web is growing, it’s whether anyone will care enough to stop them.
It’s worth noting that every major browser currently blocks one form of web content: the pop-up. I consider this a special case though, because rogue pop-ups could easily wreck and overwhelm the entire browsing experience, leaving little recourse for the user. With ads, even the in your face interstitial ones, the content is sandboxed to a single browser tab, which a user can easily dismiss. ↩︎