After seven months of work, the biggest digital advertising companies think they have a solution to the existential threat of consumers blocking online ads. Google, the biggest player in this world, is at the center of the plan, although the company and its partners are keen to present the initiative as a group effort.
The Coalition for Better Ads published a list of undesirable online ads earlier this year. Google plans to add a feature to its Chrome web browser that would disable those ads. The feature is designed for publishers, rather than a tool for consumers, and would operate the same way Chrome already filters ads that are undesirable in other ways like those that drain computer batteries, according to people familiar with the plans.
The Wall Street Journal first reported on Google's potential decision earlier this week, sparking criticism that the search ad giant was again exerting too much control over the market for digital ads. Now industry partners are stressing that the plan is a group effort and not finalized. They also distanced Google's tool from the existing ad blockers that prompted the initiative in the first place.
"There is no ad-blocker that's going into a browser," Randall Rothenberg, head of the Interactive Advertising Bureau trade group, said, although he wouldn't offer further details on the tool. "What we want is something that's industry-wide, that can demonstrably improve user experience and that's embraced by pretty much everyone."
Rothenberg helped set up the Coalition for Better Ads in September. Beyond Google, members include some of the largest marketers, ad agencies, media organizations and Facebook Inc. In March, the group issued its list of ad units -- including those that takeover entire screens or videos that start automatically -- that it claimed are most likely to prompt people to download ad blockers.
The Chrome option is different from current ad-blockers, which are downloaded as mobile apps or web browser plug-ins to zap most marketing messages, according to people familiar with the plans. Instead it may look like similar tools that Google builds into its browser. Last fall, Chrome began automatically disabling ads that use multimedia Flash players, citing computer battery drain. People in the Coalition said they expect Google will also hold its own search, display and YouTube ads to the same standards it imposes on the rest of the industry, although the terms have not been finalized. The people asked not to be identified discussing private matters.
Alphabet Inc.'s Google declined to comment on potential Chrome features. However, the company emphasized that its plans are part of a group effort. "Google alone cannot solve for the incentives users have to install ad blockers," a company spokeswoman said. "We need an industry approach that is data-driven and endorsed by everyone."
Getting broad support is hard. The ad industry has diverse interests and Google is still facing a backlash over its failure to quell offensive videos on YouTube. Some of the types of ads derided in the Coalition's list, such as full-screen takeovers and automatic pre-roll video ads with sound, can deliver three to four times higher ad rates for publishers, according to Matt McGowan, president of marketing software firm Adestra Ltd. Many of these media companies are already suffering declining revenue as digital ad spending moves increasingly to Google's and Facebook's dominant platforms.
Stuart Ingis, a lawyer for Venable LLP who counsels the Coalition for Better Ads, said the group is still months away from issuing policies on "acceptable" ad standards. "All the options are on the table," he said.
An attempt from Google, the largest digital ad-seller, to limit other companies' ads through its browser could open the company to further antitrust scrutiny. Margrethe Vestager, the European Commissioner for Competition, wrote on Twitter that she would "follow this new feature" closely. She is already overseeing a multi-pronged antitrust case against Google.
As ad-blocking tools spread, Google has plotted ways to curb the potential impact on its primary business. Scott Spencer, a veteran director of its display ad unit, is in charge of its efforts and he sits on the Coalition board. In the past, Google has reportedly paid the makers of consumer ad-blocking tools to keep Google's ads off their blacklists. Owning a filtering solution, such as a built-in Chrome feature, would help Google avoid this. It also addresses the company's longstanding obsession with eliminating any obstacle between it and its users.
"The situation tweaks the most paranoid part of Google's culture -- to never be disintermediated," said Ari Paparo, a former Google ad executive who runs ad tech company Beeswax. Chrome was launched in 2008 so Google's search engine would not be at the mercy of browser providers of the time such as Microsoft Corp.
Leaders of the ads Coalition said other tech companies, like Microsoft and Facebook, will be involved in setting standards. "Something that's only one browser is not really worth it," said Rothenberg.
Yet, while the group is large, it is not comprehensive. Apple Inc., which controls the Safari browser on iPhones, and The Mozilla Corporation, which runs the Firefox browser, are not members of the Coalition. Firefox includes a browser setting that blocks ads and Apple began allowing third-party tools that block content on its mobile browser last year.
"Not everyone is going to be involved at the same time," Rothenberg said. "This ain't the UN."