On December 19th 2017 Google published a small yet very important article on its corporate blog about ad serving policy that could have a very big impact on the online advertising industry if implemented in its entirity.
In the specific blogpost it is being mentioned by Google that “we announced Chrome’s plans to support the Better Ads Standards in early 2018. Violations of the Standards are reported to sites via the Ad Experience Report, and site owners can submit their site for re-review once the violations have been fixed. Starting on February 15, in line with the Coalition’s guidelines, Chrome will remove all ads from sites that have a “failing” status in the Ad Experience Report for more than 30 days.”
This basically means that Google will not show ads, including those served by Google itself, on websites that are not fully compliant with the Better Ads Standards. Given that the Chrome browser has a global market share of 58% on both desktop and mobile, this is not a small deal. It is not something that can be ignored easily.
Having a closer look at the Better Ads Standards immediately leads to the conclusion that this will have a very big impact on the revenue streams of site owners on one hand and media buyers, affiliate networks and ad networks on the other. The following ad types are classified by the Coalition for Better Ads – and hence by Google – as “falling beneath a threshold of consumer acceptability”.
- Pop up/under ads with or without countdown timer are not allowed. Still allowed: (1) Ads appearing in images or interactive content (videos or games) and that take up 30% or less of the image or interactive content (2) Exit pop up ads that occur after a user has ceased active engagement with content, and which occur (a) when the user starts to leave the page (without interfering with the user’s departure); (b) if the user has been inactive or idle for more than 30 seconds on a page that does not contain video content; (c) once the user has reached the end of the first article on a page; or (d) if a user purposely navigates to another tab and then returns to the open page.
- Auto-playing video ads with sound are not allowed. Still allowed: video ads that appear before (“pre-roll”) or during (“mid-roll”) video content that is relevant to the content of the page itself.
- Prestitial ads with countdown timer are not allowed. Still allowed: prestitial ads that can be dismissed immediately.
- Large sticky ads with the following sizes are not allowed: sticky 970×250 ad on the bottom, sticky 580×400 ad on the bottom. Still allowed: All other formats of sticky ads.
- Pop up/under ads with or without countdown timer are not allowed. Still allowed: same as on desktop (see above).
- Prestitial ads with or without countdown timer are not allowed. Contrary to Desktop policy regarding this topic (see above), there is no mentioning in the Standards about whether or not prestitial ads that can be dismissed immediately are allowed.
- Ads with a densitiy higher than 30% of the total screen/content size are not allowed.
- Flashing animated ads with rapidly changing backgrounds and colors are not allowed. Still allowed: animations that do not “flash” do not fall beneath the Better Ads Standard (Side note: this standard seems rather vague and subject to personal interpretation).
- Auto-playing video ads with sound are not allowed. Still allowed: (1) Ads that require a click to activate sound and (2) video ads that appear before (“pre-roll”) or during (“mid-roll”) video content that is relevant to the content of the page itself.
- Postitial ads with countdown timer are not allowed. Still allowed: Postitial ads with countdowns that can be dismissed immediately.
- Full screen scrollover ads are not allowed. Full-screen ads are defined as ads that take up more than 30% of the page and float on top of the page’s main content, obstructing it from view.
- Large sticky ads are not allowed. Still allowed: sticky ads that take up less than 30% of the page.
What concrete consequences will this have for publishers?
Google will send a violation notification to the publisher. From that moment the publisher will have 30 days to stop displaying the ad formats specified in the aforementioned notification. Then the publisher will have to submit their site for review and approval by Google. Users that visit the non-compliant website(s) with the Chrome browser will not be able to see nor click on the ads.
What should publishers do?
The best strategy in my opinion, taking into account Chrome’s huge market share, is to study the Better Ads Standards and Google’s Abusive Experiences carefully and to use ad formats on your website that Google accepts.
In general there’s a few important “philosophical” points here to think about as well.
Firstly, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. If the content on a site is free for the user, it means its being paid for by ads. It is obviously important and crucial for the advertising industry to safeguard and improve the general user experience and to find the right tradeoff between maintaining a free internet and acceptable online advertising. Ads are an absolute necessity to keep the internet free and democratic (i.e. accessible to and for everyone and not just for the happy few who can afford to pay for it).
Secondly, Google is a powerhouse and can (ab)use its dominant market position to strongarm an entire industry in an adapt-or-die position. But they have a clear conflict of interest between supposedly protecting the end users’ best interest and pushing their own ads forward while eliminating competition. I don’t think big publishers are going to accept this without a (legal?) battle because their revenues are going to be severely impacted. In general, its never good for one company having so much control on the entire ad industry and the standards it can set.
Thirdly, It will be very interesting to watch how this situation evolves. What workarounds and bypasses will the industry find? What will the impact be on Chrome’s market share if suddenly big sites don’t show their content anymore in Chrome as a counter reaction? How strict will Google implement the Better Ads Standards? How will advertisers and ad networks react? Time will tell.