Publishers that have fretted about Google’s plans to unleash an ad-blocking version of Chrome in 2018 can now see if their own sites’ ads will be blocked by the tech giant.
On June 1, Google rolled out its Ad Experience Report, a tool it’s using to evaluate and score websites based on their ad creative and design. It provides screenshots and videos of ads that have been identified as annoying to users, such as pop-ups and autoplaying video ads with sound, and “prestitial” ads with countdown timers.
So far, Google has identified about 700 sites as warranting corrective action out of around 100,000 sites it’s reviewed so far. Half of the roughly 700 got a “failing” status and the other half a “warning.” Pop-ups were the most common problem Google found, accounting for 96 percent of violations on desktop and 54 percent on mobile.
Most of these sites are out of the mainstream, such as entertainment sites checkthesevideos.com and full-serie.biz. But a couple dozen are a who’s who of traditional media. Those listed as failing include Forbes; Tronc-owned Orlando Sentinel, Sun-Sentinel and Los Angeles Times; Bauer Xcel Media’s Life & Style and In Touch Weekly; The Wrap; Chicago Sun-Times; Tribune Broadcasting’s Fox 13 Now; and Sporting News.
A similar number of mainstream sites got warnings. They included Kiplinger, Gizmodo Media Group’s Lifehacker, The Jerusalem Post, The San Diego Union-Tribune, Cox Media Group’s WSB-TV in Atlanta, Tronc’s Baltimore Sun and Chicago Tribune, The Christian Science Monitor, the U.K. Independent, The Daily Caller, Reader’s Digest, All You, Smithsonian, New York Daily News, Salt Lake Tribune and CBS News.
Google underscored that it hasn’t hashed out all the enforcement details yet. One aspect of the plan that may raise alarms with publishers is that Google hasn’t ruled out filtering all of a failing site’s ads — not just the offending ads. Google also didn’t specify what exactly would lead a site to be labeled “failing.” It said “warning” would apply to publishers with “two or more violations” but that these sites wouldn’t be blocked.
Once the new version of Chrome with the ad filter launches next year, Google said it would pull ads from failing publishers’ sites if they don’t fix the violations within 30 days. Google is using the Better Ads Standards set by the Coalition for Better Ads, an alliance of heavy-hitters in advertising and media such as Unilever, GroupM and The Washington Post that was formed to clean up digital advertising. Google is a founding member of the coalition.
The tool is meant to give publishers a way to fix their sites well before Google launches its Chrome ad blocker and to give advertisers and their representatives a way to avoid having their ads run on sites that have a poor user experience. Google also said publishers can use the tool to request a new review after they fix their sites and report if they think they were unfairly identified as having violations.
Along with Google’s ad blocker news, Apple recently said it would update its Safari browser to block video ads that autoplay and stop ad tracking. The platform giants’ moves are seen as a response to users and a way to ward off ad blocking, but publishers see them as a way to solidify control over the platforms’ own digital ad market share, which has grown at the expense of publishers.
Critics also say Google shouldn’t be the arbiter of how publishers monetize their sites (while protecting its own revenue by leaving alone its ads on YouTube and by paying the popular ad blocker AdBlock Plus to make sure its own ads aren’t blocked). No one would argue that users enjoy autoplay video, but the concern is that clamping down on it has a disproportionate impact on independent publishers. It’s worth noting that many of the flagged sites belong to single-title companies or are legacy publishers that are struggling to modernize. Tronc’s digital ad revenue has been dwindling. The Daily News is said to be losing millions a year.
So far, publishers would seem to have little choice but to do what Google wants, though. Ben Gerst, Tronc’s svp of product development, said the company was focused on a better experience for users and advertisers and that it was working with Google and implementing changes to meet the Coalition’s standards. Grant Whitmore, evp of digital at the Daily News, said the paper’s warning status was related to an ad tech partner and in-image ad that was supposed to meet industry ad standards but was somehow getting flagged, and that the publisher was working with Google to resolve it.
A spokesman for Lifehacker, meanwhile, raised the specter of misidentification, however, saying: “Our Kinja publishing platform has always taken a very audience-centric approach to how we integrate advertising and we believe that practice will ultimately benefit our sites ahead of any upcoming changes in the market, including the new version of Chrome. We don’t believe Lifehacker.com is currently out of step with existing U.S. better ad standards.”
All publishers are embracing the user experience mantra, but getting there is another matter. Paul Likins, vp of revenue operations at American Media Inc., whose Men’s Fitness and National Enquirer sites were cited for violations, said it’s not always clear from Google’s tool what the violation is, making it confusing for publishers trying to fix them. And fixing them means replacing the revenue generated by offending ads, which isn’t easily done. Google’s approach feels “heavy-handed,” but publishers have to comply, lest they risk not just repercussions from Google but advertisers, who used to clamor for “disruptive” ads, he said.
“We’re all trying to fix this, but we’re moving from a vendor-based business model,” he said. “It takes time, money and resources.”
Paul Vincent is founder of Neuranet, a tech company that helps publishers comply with Interactive Advertising Bureau specs for fast-loading, non-invasive ads. He said an unintended consequence of a company like Google being the arbiter of the web is that small publishers may just throw up their hands and hand over more of their tech needs to Google, thinking that’ll at least ensure their sites won’t be blocked.
“It’s gotten too much power over what’s acceptable,” he said of Google. “When it makes these releases, it can have a massive effect across the industry and sometimes contributes to its dominance because of the confusion.”