Commentary

Google May Weaken Ad Blockers, But Too Early For Publishers To Rejoice

Riding the subways in New York City can provide a fascinating glimpse of human behavior that is tremendously relevant to understanding ad-blocking software.

As I read reports this week about Google’s proposal to limit ad-blockers in its Chrome browsing software, I was reminded of the time I saw a woman on the subway platform making a grandiose display out of gripping a magazine with both hands and tearing out all the ad pages before throwing them in a garbage can.

Every page showing carefully crafted images of cars, cigarettes, liquor and the latest fashions elicited a frustrated hiss as she shook her head and systematically hollowed out the magazine. The only ad pages spared from her wrath were on the flip side of articles.

It’s dangerous to make judgments about people on appearance alone, but her latter-day hippie attire and stagy shunning of consumerism weren’t entirely coincidental. Despite my urge to say, “Hey, you know those ads paid for all those articles you’re about to read,” I wisely checked my smart-assery. I’d seen enough altercations on the subways over the years to know better.

Her primitive form of ad blocking has carried over into the digital age with popular software that automatically screens out web ads. A survey by identity management company Janrain says 71% of respondents use ad blockers or some other tool to control their online experience.

Google this week proposed changes to its open-source browser Chromium that forms the basis for Chrome, the most popular web browser worldwide. Chrome’s usage has grown to 62% of all web users from 56% a year earlier, putting Google in a dominant position to control how web content gets displayed.

The search giant says the changes are intended to boost security and performance of Chrome and Chromium by hiding things like browsing history from developers who make software called “extensions.”

Google’s proposed changes sparked an outcry from companies that make ad blockers; they see it as another power grab.

“It would be nothing less than another case of misuse of its market-dominating position," ad-blocking company Ghostery stated. "If this comes true, we will consider filing an antitrust complaint.”

If history is any guide, Google’s proposed changes likely will spur ad-blocking companies to redesign their software to work within the new technical constraints. That will make ad-blocking a continued problem for web publishers that depend on display ads for revenue.

Publishers have contended with ad blocking in a variety of ways and will keep developing revenue models that lessen their dependence on ads. Ecommerce, native advertising and paywalls are some of the ways publishers are building new lines of business.

Like the woman on the subway tearing ad pages out of a magazine, a determined person can work to avoid seeing marketing messages. That kind of reader had better be prepared to pay up in other ways.

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