December 8, 2020

Google Makes a Couple Moves That Affect Publishers

It’s been a longtime coming, but we’re finally starting to see examples of Google’s ad blocking in action. Back in May, Google announced that it would be blocking advertisements that were, in terms, too heavy.

To determine the threshold limits for the unloading, we extensively measured the ads Chrome sees. We targeted the most egregious ads, those that use more CPU or network bandwidth than 99.9% of all detected ads for that resource. Chrome is setting the thresholds to 4MB of network data or 15 seconds of CPU usage in any 30 second period, or 60 seconds of total CPU usage. While only 0.3% of ads exceed this threshold today, they account for 27% of network data used by ads and 28% of all ad CPU usage.

It’s best illustrated in the chart below:

With the proliferation of ad tech, site speeds have severely slowed down. We went ad free at CoinDesk for a while and the change in site speed was remarkable—and we weren’t really dealing with the heavy ads that Google is talking about here.

Heavy ads were a small percentage relative to total share so we hadn’t really started seeing it in action. Last week, though, an NYT reader finally saw the block take place.

This presents an interesting debate. On one hand, should Google be telling publishers what type of advertisements they can or cannot run? On the other, would publishers ever do what was in the best interest of the reader if the choice was a tiny bit of money or a better user experience?

Here’s how it boils down in my mind. It’s the right move by Google to block these ads. There’s no way to say that in any other way. It’s a fraction of the business and for users that experience those ads, it’ll be a nice surprise for them.

On the other hand, it sets a dangerous precedent. How much say should a browser have in what is displayed on the website, especially when the owner of said browser generates the bulk of its revenue through advertising?

It’s a fine line over whose user it is. If someone comes to A Media Operator on Chrome, are they my customer or Chrome’s?

Probably both, right?

If Google then wants to make changes to what is displayed on my site to our customer, it should have to pay for that. Any time Google opts to block a heavy ad, it should have to pay publishers something.

This becomes difficult for a variety of reasons. How much should they pay? How do they pay if you don’t already have a commercial relationship? Who even enforces those payments? Are they actually worth it for 0.3% of all ads?

Even if that did happen, though, it wouldn’t change the fact there’s a bigger problem at play here. Should Google, which has 70% of browser market share and is the largest ad-driven company in the world, be deciding the policies for advertisements?

Because publishers are so dependent on Google for audience, ad trafficking, quite a bit of revenue and the list goes on, this sort of “ad policing” leaves me a bit worried. In the immediate sense, 0.3% of ads being blocked won’t matter. But if 4MB of network data cuts to 2MB of network data—see criteria above—then what?

Putting my tinfoil hat away and thinking about this logically, the reality is actually pretty simple. The vast majority of publishers are going to put a good ad experience out there; or, at least, a decent one. And they’re likely never going to run into a situation where they are negatively impacted by this ad blocking.

But let’s ask ourselves: why do we, as an industry, wait for Google to come up with these rules? Why don’t we take seriously the relationship with the reader? We abuse it. And then we lament that no one wants to come to our sites and do business with us.

We’ve all seen this image going around the internet, I’m sure:

What a hunk of junk. Let’s do a better job so a massive, ad-driven company that also happens to own the largest browser doesn’t tell us what to do.

It’s something to think about…

News Showcase

Moving to a different part of Google, the company made several announcements last week about News Showcase. This was a new product launched when Google say it would be investing $1 billion in partnerships with news publishes.

But now the company says it will start offering some paywalled content in the mix. In the announcement:

First, we’ll soon start offering people access to paywalled content in partnership with select news publishers. Paywalls are a crucial part of some publishers’ revenue strategies. To support that goal, we’ll pay participating partners to provide limited access to paywalled content for News Showcase users. In return, users will register with the news publisher, providing a way for the publisher to build a relationship with readers. 

It always seems to come back to this. The platforms want access to content that is behind the paywall and publishers are dangling a carrot to get that content.

Google’s plan, at least, is a bit more publisher friendly. Even though Google is fronting the bill for the paywalled content, users will still need to register for the actual publication. This has, historically, always been a sticking point to me for these “platform subscription” products people talk about. Publishers need to own the relationship with the reader. It’s the most important thing.

It’s one of the many reasons Apple News+ is such a bad business. The relationship is between Apple and the reader and the publisher has no real involvement. In this scenario, the publisher still has an involvement and cash is being paid behind the scenes.

In theory, Google’s approach is fine. They want to front the bill for readers to gain access to paywalled content, all the power to them.

In reality, it’ll flop. Here’s why… $1 billion for global news is, frankly, just not a ton of money. Like most things, this $1 billion investment is a PR stunt. It’s one that Google obviously feels it needs to do considering it brought out the CEO for this one, but it’s still a stunt nonetheless. At some point, Google will redirect resources elsewhere.

Publishers are going to have to be prepared for that because it will happen. And when it does, publishers will need to start marketing to these free registrants and convince them that they should be signing up for a subscription.

To be honest, that should start even before the money dries up. Publishers should start trying to convert these free people into paid subs as soon as possible. It’s possible that they might have a higher propensity to subscribe because they’ve sought out an app called News Showcase.

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