Google has announced several initiatives in support of the Better Ads Standard’s efforts to improve online ads. In a live, in-depth Webinar Wednesday, two Google team members shared detailed information on this coalition and adblocking.

Jeff Buchan heads up global industry relations and strategic partnerships at Google, while Kelsey LeBeau is in charge of product partnerships. The two discussed research on ad annoyance and blocking, as well as how publishers can assess their own sites and clean up the digital ad experience.

In early 2018, Chrome will filter ads on a publisher’s site if the publisher has “significant violations” in displaying ads that do not meet ad quality standards established by the Coalition for Better Ads. Google is helping sites evaluate compliance of their ads with an Ad Experience Report.

Google also launched “Funding Choices,” a messaging framework to publishers with compliant sites to offer users the option of turning off third-party adblocking or paying a fee (revenues split between Google and the publisher) to have an ad-free experience.

Building better ad experience for users to sustain the free and open Web

Buchan began the Webinar by saying that not everyone is as thoughtful and strategic as INMA members are when it comes to Internet advertising. Too many organisations have annoying ads that bombard and intrude. Adblocking is a symptom of this. One bad ad experience ruins things for all publishers.

“As more and more users go through this process, it becomes more and more problematic for publishers,” Buchan said.

Google has been monitoring adblocking levels for some time and has been alarmed by the data. The huge spike in adblocking took place between 2015 and 2017, and today there are 615 million devices with adblockers. The growth rate is astounding: In 2015, mobile devices exceeded desktop for the first time in use of adblocking.

“Europe seems to be the epicentre in desktop adblocking,” Buchan said, presenting a slide that showed the adblock penetration in Europe approaching 30%. The penetration rate for other regions is:

  • United States: 18%
  • Canada: 25%
  • Brazil: 6%
  • Indonesia: 58%
  • India: 28%
  • China: 13%
Adblocking penetration rates across various countries.
Adblocking penetration rates across various countries.

“We fundamentally need to ask ourselves two questions,” Buchan said:

  • How can we prevent more people from implementing adblockers?
  • How can we re-engage and hopefully win back those who are already using them?

No one company can solve this on its own. Buchan believes that the Coalition for Better Ads (CBA) is an answer. Its mission is to develop and implement new global standards for online advertising: “One reason Google is such a big fan of the coalition is because from day one, it’s chosen to take a very data-driven and user-centric approach.”

The CBA takes data from ads around the Web and rates them from least annoying to most annoying. The CBA then issues guidance that all the violating formats should no longer be used. The current CBA standards cover North America and Europe for desktop and mobile Web. The desire is to expand the CBA globally and to additional platforms such as video.

Initial Better Ad Standards

The Coalition’s research identifies the ad experiences that rank lowest across a range of user experience factors and that are most highly correlated with an increased propensity for consumers to adopt adblockers. In this “Initial Better Ad Standards,” four types of desktop Web ads (six tested ad experiences) and eight types of mobile Web ads (12 tested ad experiences) fell beneath this threshold. 

  • Desktop: Pop-up ads, prestitial ads with countdown, auto-play video ads with sound, and large sticky ads.
  • Mobile: Pop-up ads, prestitial ads, auto-play video ads with sound, poststitial ads with countdown, density of more than 30%, flashing animated ads, large sticky ads, and full-screen scroll-over ads.
Better Ads Standard identified the ad experiences that fall beneath a threshold of consumer acceptability.
Better Ads Standard identified the ad experiences that fall beneath a threshold of consumer acceptability.

Insights from the Ad Experience Report

LeBeau then took over the presentation to share these insights, which identify a set of ad experiences that are not compliant with the Initial Better Ad Standards. “Now that we have the information on what users find most offensive, we can work to improve the ad experience by eliminating those,” she said.

“We’re trying to help publishers be as cognizant as possible of the ad experience violations that are being identified,” LeBeau said. “If you have a violation flagged, you can submit for re-review once you’ve fixed it. You will want to do some self-auditing before this, as the review will audit the entire site. Those who don’t fix their violations are at risk of Chrome filtering.”

The majority of violation ads being reported are pop-ups, she said.

Jeff Buchan and Kelsey LeBeau of Google shared insight into adblocking and the Better Ads Standard.
Jeff Buchan and Kelsey LeBeau of Google shared insight into adblocking and the Better Ads Standard.

Starting February 15, Chrome will filter all ads on sites that maintain a “failing” status in the Ad Experience Report for 30 days: “We don’t want to filter any ads; we wanted to get publishers as prepared as they can be, and that’s why there is the 30-day opportunity to clean up the ads before filtering.”

Recommended actions

LeBeau said that the coalition recommends that publishers take the following actions:

  • Self-audit: News media companies should review the Better Ads Standards against their own ad experiences to confirm compliance.
  • Review Ad Experience Report: Access Ad Experience Report (check open API to monitor compliance as well).
  • Fix violations: Change ad experiences from non-compliant to compliant ones.
  • Submit for re-review.

“It is in your best interest to avoid these kinds of experiences,” LeBeau said. She also pointed out that in many ways, users need to be educated about the value exchange of ads. “We think it’s important to lead with messaging to remind users,” for example, notifying users that they have an adblocker installed and giving them the choice to remove it for viewing certain content that may be of interest to them.

Funding Choices successes so far

With Funding Choices, now in beta, publishers can show a customised message to visitors using an ad blocker, inviting them to either enable ads on their site, or pay for a pass that removes all ads on that site through the new Google Contributor.

  • 30% of adblocking visitors who saw a hard wall whitelisted the site.
  • 15% of adblocking visitors who saw a soft wall whitelisted the site.
  • Less than 1% of adblocking visitors who saw a wall opted into Contributor (inline with expectations).

LeBeau concluded by inviting INMA members to let her and Buchan know if they are interested in participating. Currently, Google is working with organisations in the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, New Zealand, and Australia, and will be adding more global coverage soon.

Questions and answers

INMA: How far can best practices take us, if even good ad experiences still have a 30% block rate?

LeBeau: It will take time to reduce the demand for adblocking, as users start to realise that ads are getting better. As users start to see that, we’ll see these percentages go down.

INMA: What’s the timeline for making this a global standard?

Buchan: The coalition has been discussing this. We would like to get it in place as soon as possible. The sooner we can expand this to the rest of the world, the better. There’s no set timeline right now, but it’s actively being discussed and hopefully will be soon.

INMA: It’s very difficult to calculate the ad density for any story. It requires a developer; will Google be providing a tool at some point to help calculate this?

LeBeau: We will take that back as feedback for a potential tool. The idea is that you want to avoid having a large ad on any short article.

INMA: When we check our domain, do we then have to check all sub-domains?

LeBeau: The ad experience report just looks at the domain, not sub-domains. If there are third-parties putting ads on your domain, you need to make sure your partners are compliant and understand these guidelines, because that could put your site at risk.

INMA: What’s the alternative if adblocking continues? What’s Plan B?

Buchan: We see ad annoyance as the top cause, even if it’s not the only cause, for adblocking. It’s a starting point, but it’s not an end point. The coalition is very data-driven and that will continue. As Chrome filtering and other things step in, we will be monitoring and evaluating very closely if this is working.

INMA: What is Google’s stance on ad recovery technology?

LeBeau: We do think that messaging is the right approach to begin with. In our research, there are some audiences that won’t respond to messaging, so ad recovery may need to be used as well. We don’t have anything in market right now, but it is something we are considering.

Buchan: Adblocking is a symptom of the problem, not the problem itself. So we have to get to the root of the problem. That’s why we’re starting with things like funding choices because that addressed the root of the problem.

INMA: Do you know how Microsoft and Apple look at the coalition? Considering that those customers largely use Internet Explorer and Safari.

Buchan: Microsoft recently joined the coalition, though I can’t speak for Apple.

INMA: What about variants on style and advertising; for example, would sponsored content be included?

LeBeau: Noting on the 30% density piece, that looks at ads within the content portion; but anything below the article wouldn’t be counted as ads in the piece. So anything below the actual content the user would see wouldn’t affect the density for flagging. As far as native advertising, the content itself is the ad, so we wouldn’t mark that for violation because the user is specifically choosing to read that content/ad.

The idea is, are your users’ experiences interrupted? If they have to search for the article within the different ads, that is what’s being addressed with density. If the ad is at the bottom, after the content consumption is finished, that isn’t part of density results.

INMA: How can I see if our sites are in an area where CBA is active?

LeBeau: The Ad Experiences report will show what region it’s in; “unknown” would be showing for outside North America and Europe. But if you do have any readers in the United States, for example, we would recommend you adhere to the standards for that market.

“The spirit behind the warning phase is that we would much rather have people evaluate their site and make changes, so that no filtering will take place at all,” Buchan concluded. “The goal of the coalition is to differentiate between good and bad ads, which will reduce the demand for ad blockers. If this is done well, it will have significant impact on the ecosystem.”