The idea that Google, the web’s biggest advertising company, is reportedly preparing to launch an ad blocker sounds absurd on its face. It’s a bit like a jewelry store hiring a ring of diamond thieves or the postal service unleashing a pack of roving neighborhood dogs.
But it’s more understandable when you consider one fundamental truth about ad blocking companies: They don’t exist to block ads — they exist to serve as middlemen between ads and consumers. The biggest ad blockers charge the biggest advertising vendors to let their ads pass through their software. They’re better described as ad filters than ad blockers.
The mere existence of ad blockers highlights a big part of the problem. If you’ve spent any time online, you know advertising is a mess. The industry knows this, too. That’s why ad blockers are terrifying to most, but looked on by some as a possible blessing in disguise.
Conceptually, ad blockers aren’t all that different from advertising platforms like Google which can (and do) filter ads. Both parties ultimately make money by showing people ads.
In that sense, Google can beat ad blockers at their own game, using its own ad blocker to nix the most annoying and harmful ads — which Google already avoids selling — until people no longer feel the need to download ad blockers at all.
Doing so within the world’s most widely used browser would add muscle to the industry’s modest efforts to clean up its act in the face of the growing threat of ad blockers.
“There’s been fits and starts of these seeds of progress,” says Eric Franchi, cofounder of the ad network Undertone. “But there are two ways it could rapidly accelerate: One is a move like this from Google.”
The other would be a hard-line stance on ad quality from a big marketer or agency, which Franchi admits would be less impactful.
But many in the online ad industry are also weary about an ads standard-bearer with a huge business stake and an inordinate amount of market power.
If Google follows through with its plans as reportedly stated, it will hurt certain publishers and companies.
“Look to what Google is saying could be blocked and you’re going to see where there could potentially be some losers,” Franchi said.
Lesser of evils
As the rest of the ad industry was attempting to shape up, Google was exercising its own influence to improve ads by banning some of the more grating formats from its platforms.
But at the same time, it was also quietly paying off Eyeo, the company behind the world’s most popular ad blocking service, AdBlock Plus, to give its ads a pass.
That made for some cognitive dissonance in the IAB, which has denounced ad blockers as “terrorists” and “highway robbery,” while Google, its biggest member, funded them.
As recently as last November, Google also maintained that it wouldn’t pre-install a blocker in Chrome.
Now that it reportedly is considering an ad blocker, the company obviously can’t just shut out all non-Google ads; such a decree would be blatantly anti-competitive, and Google’s Chrome blocker would likely face scrutiny from the Federal Trade Commission as it is.
Instead, Google will let the rubric determined by the Coalition for Better Ads inform its software, an arrangement many in the ad industry seem to find agreeable.
“This is a positive development for the industry,” Michael Korsunsky, chief marketing officer at ad network MGID, said in an email. “At the end of the day, agreeing on and enforcing objective advertising standards, with inevitable participation from the Interactive Advertising Bureau, will be significantly more likely than allowing one private company to determine what makes an ad acceptable.”
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