Google, Apple Leave Publishers in the Dark on Ad & Cookie Blocking Browser Updates
Today, if you wanted an ad blocker to be operational on whichever browser you most often use to surf the web, you would need to go through the somewhat arduous process of actually turning it on. For many of us, that process would involve a fair bit of downloading and Googling, and perhaps a little trial and error.
Of course, the fact that ad blockers are by default set to "off" is good news for publishers who count on digital display ads to bring in a decent portion of their revenue. And yet according to Becky Nagel, VP of digital strategy at 1105 Media, that's all about to change.
"The browser manufacturers have realized that they have the power," Nagel said. Previously, browsers put the ball in the user’s court, requiring them to take action in order to block display ads or remove cookie tracking. Now, they’re changing these ad-limiting features from default off to default on. "And they're changing it now," said Nagel.
Nagel, who spoke at the recent FUSE Media summit in Philadelphia, explained that the three major browser changes publishers need to be aware of are coming to both our desktop and mobile devices soon. And yet perhaps the biggest frustration, she said, involves the lack of concrete details from the browser companies themselves.
No one seems to know exactly when the browser updates will arrive, for instance. Nor have the browser manufacturers in question shared specific details about how publishers can make sure they're in compliance. All publishers really know for sure, Nagel said, is that these changes will be built in, they'll be turned on by default, and they're definitely on the way.
Google to Launch "Default On" Ad Blocker
"The number one thing that my team is concerned about," said Nagel, "is Google's built-in ad blocker that's coming to Chrome [in desktop and mobile]." And because Chrome is the browser of choice for between 40% to 60% of all desktop users and 50% of mobile users, she said, the implications will be significant.
According to Nagel, the following are facts she's been able to verify through multiple primary sources: Chrome's built-in ad blocker will indeed block all ads automatically if it doesn't like what a publisher is doing with them.
"That doesn't mean it's only going to block the ads that are offending," Nagel said. "And it's not going to just block the page where the offending ad is. If Google doesn't like what you're doing with your ads, it's going to block all ad impressions on Chrome."
"Obviously," she added, "the business revenue implications for this are pretty high."
What We Know (And Don’t Know)
As far as a potential timeline for the updated browser's release is concerned, Google has confirmed that it will be coming out sometime next year. Google also said it would give publishers at least six months to prepare for it.
We also know that on August 8, 2017, Google released a tool that will review the ads on a particular site, and will indicate which ads are in violation and which aren't. Using Google's preparation promise of six months as a clue, Nagel suspects that February 8, 2018, is the earliest date the automatic ad blocker could be released. That is, of course, little more than an educated guess. The ad blocker was briefly made available in Chrome's pre-release Canary app, but has since been pulled, meaning publishers still don’t know how exactly the blocker will affect their sites.
Google has also released an ad-reviewing tool called the Ad Experience Report. After Google reviews a publisher’s site, the report will detail whether the site status is passing, warning, or failing, and what type of ad experiences led to a warning or failing status.
Nagel pointed out that Google hasn’t made clear what the penalizations might be if a site and its ads fail a scan. What if a site passes a scan, Nagel asked, during a period when a potentially problematic ad -- an ad that launches with automatic audio and video, for instance -- isn't running? Will the site be scanned again? And will it fail if the problematic ad in question is running during a subsequent scan? Will the penalizations be harsher the second time around, or more lenient? "I don't know how this is going to work," Nagel admits. "There's so many open questions to this."
What Publishers Can Do Now
"You've got to figure this out," Nagel said, addressing publishers who will undoubtedly be affected by the coming browser regulations. "You need to know as soon as possible what the implications are going to be."
But given that no one yet knows when the changes are taking place, not to mention how to shift into compliance, what exactly should publishers be doing right now to prepare?
"You can go to BetterAds.org," Nagel said. "This is the site Google points you to, to show you which ads will cause you to fail Google's check. Some of it is really good, detailed information," she added. "A lot of the mobile ads that everyone finds really annoying, they're all there. So if you run a lot of those ads, those ads are going to fail."
Publishers should also go to their Google Webmaster tools to see if their sites have perhaps already been reviewed by Google's Ad Experience Report tool, Nagel suggested. Unfortunately, however, it's not possible to force or even request Google to review your site. And although a FUSE Media summit attendee claimed to have discovered an API that did exactly that, internal testing conducted by Nagel and her team revealed that "if your site hasn't been reviewed yet, the results come back blank."
Safari Plans To Do Some Ad Blocking Of Its Own
Google isn't the only digital behemoth with ad-blocking plans. Apple's Safari browser will soon be blocking all automatic video and audio. And while ads with auto features will certainly be blocked, so too will certain webinar software, or any other applications that use the same sort of auto-play technology.
Nagel expects this feature to go live very soon, likely sometime this fall. Interested developers, she said, should be aware that the blocking feature is already default on in High Sierra beta, which is currently live and available for download.
Clearly, this is a change that could have serious negative implications for publishers with significantly large mobile audiences, since the Safari browser, built into all iPhones, is the browser of choice many mobile users. The bottom line: "[Your ads] are not going to run as expected," Nagel said. "So you need to download [Safari Sierra] and you need to look at it. Anything you have based on autoplay technology, you should have your devs looking at, and you should be seeing how it's going to run."
Apple Introduces Intelligent Tracking Prevention to Safari Sierra
What's more, beneath the banner of a program known as "Intelligent Tracking Prevention," Safari will also soon be blocking ad cookies by default on the client side. "Any browser-based ad or other tracking technology, aside from site logins, will no longer work in Safari," Nagel said. "So targeted ads won't work. Retargeting won't work. Personalization ads won't work. And this is not the user saying they no longer want to be tracked," Nagel insisted. "This is default on."
It's currently unclear, Nagel said, whether or not other browsers will eventually follow suit and block ad cookies themselves. What is clear, she said, is that Safari's blocking plans are not a bluff. Indeed, this feature is already default on in the beta version of Apple's High Sierra operating system. Nagel's best guess for the feature's full rollout is sometime this fall, with October being a likely bet.
There is, however, the possibility of a positive impact that could result from Safari's ad cookie block. Considering that both Facebook and Google advertising are dependent on cookie tracking, imagine what might happen if Microsoft and Firefox followed Apple's lead: Google and Facebook ad sales would undoubtedly go down. And as a result, one has to assume that programmatic selling would take a dip while publishers' direct ad sales would see a boost of some sort.
"Think about it," Nagel suggests. "If Apple does this, if Microsoft does this, if Firefox does this, there are some real implications there. There's some interesting stuff going on. If other people follow suit and it gets bigger and bigger, it could get really interesting."
Related story: How Publishers are Solving the Ad Blocker Problem
Dan Eldridge is a journalist and guidebook author based in Philadelphia's historic Old City district, where he and his partner own and operate Kaya Aerial Yoga, the city's only aerial yoga studio. A longtime cultural reporter, Eldridge also writes about small business and entrepreneurship, travel, and the publishing industry. Follow him on Twitter at @YoungPioneers.