Clicks ’n Tricks: Google’s ad-blocking Catch 22
by Charlie Stewart (@CStewart_ZA) Ad-blocking was back in the news in early June 2017, when Google came out with a double-think announcement that would have made George Orwell proud: it was to include a blocker in Chrome to penalise publishers which flight low-quality ads on their websites; and it was going to penalise web visitors by creating a mechanism for publishers to charge those who use ad blockers.
The industry’s been relatively quiet on the topic of ad-blocking the past few years. Back in 2015, the announcement that Apple was introducing ad-blockers to iOS9 induced a frenzy of chest-beating and hand-wringing from the publishing community. It was going to go out of business, it told us. The industry even commissioned a report by PageFair and Adobe to show that ad-blocking would cost it US$22bn in lost revenue that year.
But, a couple of years on from the hysteria, it’s clear that ad-blocking didn’t portend Armageddon for publishers. While many consumers did install blockers into their browsers, I suspect most of us were just too lazy to do so.
Other ways to monetise content
And publishers, recognising that display revenues were in permanent decline, started finding other ways to monetise content. The FT’s been particularly clever with its native-content approach (allowing it to make more money from online that it does from print advertising), and platforms such as this have done really well with premium press offices.
By preventing crappy ads from showing on websites, Google’s putting the narrative where it belongs: people don’t visit websites to view ads — they go to view content. If the content they want to see is surrounded by a hotchpotch of flashing distractions, chances are they won’t revisit the site, so the publisher won’t make any future revenue from them.
As most people find websites through Google (and it’s terrified they’ll stop using its services if it sends them to irrelevant sites), it’s decided to wage war on low-quality publishers via Chrome, a browser that the majority of us use and it, conveniently, owns. The Chrome blocker prevents the ad being shown, which means the publisher won’t be paid. All told, it’s a pretty elegant fix.
So on to the second, and more-puzzling, part of its announcement. It’s created a programme called Funding Choices that seeks to compensate publishers by charging visitors who use ad-blockers.
Let’s get this right: Google wants to penalise crappy publishers by creating an ad-blocker installed in a browser we all use, but it wants to penalise any of us who are brazen enough to use it. If I were to mix my metaphors as much as the search giant’s done, I’d be inclined to say that’s a Catch 22 straight out of 1984, isn’t it?
The perverse part of it all is that the type of display advertising ad-blockers target doesn’t generate high-enough margins for publishers to risk alienating audiences: it’s typically used to build awareness rather than drive sales — as such, it’s low value (and its CPMs have fallen significantly since the advent of programmatic buying).
Most credible publishers spotted this ages ago and stopped flighting ads that would disrupt our reading experience. And most sensible web-users have come to recognise that ‘free’ content comes with some form of trade-off — and seeing an ad somewhere in the periphery of our vision is hardly an encumbrance.
So, while I laud Google for trying to clean up the interwebs, I can’t help thinking this issue’s likely to be self-regulating. Perhaps it should give up on the double think and shift its attention to dealing with a bigger web scourge — such as fake news.
Charlie Stewart (@CStewart_ZA) is CEO of Rogerwilco, a multi-award-winning independent digital agency best known for its expertise with Drupal, SEO and content marketing. A Scot by birth, he moved to South Africa in the early 2000s in his quest to support a winning rugby team — a search he’s reluctantly forsaken. Together with Mark Eardley, he co-authored Business to Business Marketing: A Step by Step Guide, (Penguin Random House, 2016) and may be found on LinkedIn. Charlie contributes the monthly “Clicks ‘n Tricks” column, which looks at how brands are using digital channels to engage their customers, to MarkLives.