At the beginning of August, Google revealed the findings of its first ad-quality evaluation campaign. The Mountain View firm reviewed over 100 000 websites and assessed much their ads impacted the reading experience. This is a first step towards an early-2018 rollout of a new Chrome version, which will most likely include native ad-blocking. This isn’t only Google though, Apple has similar plans with an even shorter timeline.
We decided this was the right time to have a look at how ads impact news reading experience, and at what publishers should expect for the future.
A case study in ad-blocking
The LA Times’ website is often referenced as a textbook case of how ads can worsen a user experience. So we decided to head there with our measuring tools. Using easy-to-find Chrome extensions Disable HTML5 Autoplay and uBlock Origin, we compared the loading time and data usage with ads and autoplay off, and then on. You can see how both options look below:
With ads and autoplay blocked, a typical article page took 3.2 seconds to load, and used a total of 58.7kB of data. With all the ads and video enabled, these values increased to 22.53 seconds and 5.5MB, which is to say 7 times longer and nearly 100 times more data. When all was said and done, a total of 12 ad-spaces, 86 trackers, one autoplay video, and one full-page pop-up had loaded.
Now factor in that 32% of digital readers are likely to abandon a page that takes longer than five seconds to load, and you quickly realise how an over-abundance of advertising content can have a negative impact on your readership, and why 24% of worldwide internet users have turned to ad-blocking to improve their browsing experience.
What may change in the coming months
Google insisted that its goal isn’t to block ads, but only to filter those that deteriorate the reading experience. Mountain View’s requirements on this topic haven’t been clearly laid out yet, but full-screen pop-ups, autoplaying videos with sound (which Facebook just started using) and countdown-augmented ads which can only be blocked after a certain amount of time will most likely be part of the list of “violations”.
Sites with several violations will not be blocked by the browser though, but will rather be issued a warning. If they do not comply within 30 days, their publishers can expect the non-complying ads to be blocked, though Google hasn’t ruled out blocking all ads on the non-complying sites. This will of course translate into a major loss of ad-revenue, in a context where this type of revenue has already dwindled in the past years (89% of online ad revenue now goes to Google or Facebook).
We mentioned Apple had similar plans, though on Cupertino’s side, things are a little less extreme: intrusive ads are not being targeted at the moment, but autoplay is, together with cross-site tracking. Things are happening faster than on the Google front, too. The feature was already implemented on Safari mobile, and is coming to desktop with the next High-Sierra update, in the coming weeks.
How can publishers respond?
To say that these announcement by the two tech giants sparked mixed feelings amongst publishers would be an understatement, especially considering Google’s own ads will, unsurprisingly, not be affected by the filtering.
Nevertheless, this change of context may be the opportunity for publishers to once-again re-focus their main sources of revenue, from an ad-funded model whose sustainability can be questioned, towards a paid model using in-app purchases, subscriptions, or even memberships. All these methods have proven to be on the rise, and to provide a steadier, longer-lasting stream of revenue.
Does this mean the ad model is dead? Of course not, but as Andrew Casale, CEO of from Index Exchange puts it, re-centering the ad-model on higher-quality, less intrusive content is “long overdue, and it is the browser’s job to fix it”.
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