Gear up for Chrome’s push to begin blocking resource-draining ads!
As direct buying and selling of ad inventory gave way to programmatic automation and header bidding, publishers lost control of the ads being served on their sites and watched page load times grind to a crawl.
Now as fed-up users enter an ad-blocker arms race at unprecedented rates, tech giants like Google and Apple are cracking down on sites whose resource-heavy ads destroy user experience.
In order to save users’ batteries, data plans, and provide them with a quality user experience, Chrome will now begin blocking abusive ads that covertly leach users CPU resources, bandwidth and battery. In the face of this level of pressure, publishers are finally shifting their focus toward where it should have been all along: user experience.
We get it – the financial impact of shedding ad units is more immediately felt than the downstream benefits of improved user experience. But as you’ll see, prioritizing UX drives changes that equally benefit users and publishers – from the editorial to the bottom line.
Chromes Move To Protect Users Against Resource-Draining Ads
When Google announced that Chrome will begin blocking the most data-and CPU-sapping ads in the digital ecosystem, the news was neither particularly surprising nor particularly controversial. After all, the move is consistent with Better Ads Standards, which are positioned as an important means of protecting users from poor experiences with intrusive ads and ad units.
Better Ads Standards are created by the Coalition for Better Ads, of which Google is a key member. This move seems unsurprising and, on paper, sensible.
And yet, while blocking these undeniably user experience-killing ads is a good thing for users, Chrome’s decision creates another mess for publishers to clean up. And it underlines how blocking bad ads is not the final step in keeping publishers’ pages safe and clean, if they are to monetize their content and traffic properly.
How Chromes Solution Can Help– Or Hurt User Experience
First, let’s explain what resource-heavy ads are and what exactly Chrome will be doing here.
On the Chrominium blog, Chrome Project Manager, Marshall Vale claimed “We have recently discovered that a fraction of a percent of ads consume a disproportionate share of device resources, such as battery and network data, without the user knowing about it,” “These ads (such as those that mine cryptocurrency, are poorly programmed, or are unoptimized for network usage) can drain battery life, saturate already strained networks, and cost money.”
Chrome found through research that 0.3% of digital ads are so taxing on resources that they use 27% of the network data and 28% of the CPU power that all digital ads use, taken together as a whole. It’s a very lopsided equation.
There are multiple reasons why this small percentage of ads performs so poorly – they’re built to low standards, they’re not optimized for data or battery usage, or (most troublingly) they’re cryptomining attacks.
Chrome used those findings to set a threshold for the resources an ad can use – up to 4MB of data, or 15 seconds of CPU usage in a 30-second span, or 60 seconds of CPU usage total. This protects the user from some malvertising attacks, preserves bandwidth, helps limit data overages, and helps pages load more smoothly.
The twist is that when Chrome blocks an above-the-threshold ad, it will replace it with an error message in the ad slot. The message says that the ad has been removed, and adds a simple text link to “details.”
In other words, this is a strategy that preserves user experience while diminishing user experience. And for the publisher, it de-monetizes that ad slot.
The Irony of Chromes Ad Blocking Solution
It’s ironic that the solution itself looks like an alert, and invites the user to investigate and disengage from the content.
It’s safe to say that a white box with an error message is not consistent with the look and feel of most publishers’ sites, and it subverts the publisher’s efforts to make page content and ad content feel like a unified piece. See the image below.
In short, it’s a disruptive experience that premium publishers should aim to avoid. It’s lost revenue to the publisher upfront, and it carries the risk of more lost revenue if the user navigates away from the page or comes to distrust the site because of some perceived security risk.
Solutions like these go only part of the way toward actually solving problems, and they essentially punish the user for being preyed upon by at best irresponsible and at worst, malicious advertisers.
This is familiar territory for publishers, unfortunately. Bad ads, including ads that are not up to spec, enter the ecosystem at various points along the supply chain. The average user knows nothing of the intermediaries on the chain, and blames the publisher for the effects of bad ads.
Premium publishers understand the responsibility that comes with being the last link of the chain, and they understand that most intermediaries simply don’t have the same incentive to keep their platforms clean of substandard ads.
Advertising As Part of the User Experience
Premium publishers are well aware that resource-draining ads are detrimental to user experience, and to their own revenue.
Publishers need to feel empowered to control the types of ads that appear on-site, so as to avoid damaging the effort that goes into crafting editorial content.
Oftentimes, the discussion around heavy ads focuses on file size and page load. After all, the effects of page load are more immediately noticeable to the user – and because slow load can potentially drive users from the page and prevent the publisher from monetizing that session, page load lends itself to the discussion rather naturally.
In a set of studies run in collaboration with SOASTA Research, Google found that increasing mobile page load from one second to three seconds increased the likelihood of user bounce by 32%. That bounce likelihood grew to 90% when load increased from one second to five seconds, and to 123% when load increased from one to 10 seconds.
By comparison, that’s a larger share of users than those who will stop engaging with the content if certain page elements like links and buttons don’t work properly (45%) or if the content renders poorly (34%).
Heavy CPU and data usage are more subtle than that, even if their causes are sometimes related. Part of why Chrome is now focusing on ads that overuse CPU and data is that they often can be harder for the user to detect in the moment.
Google and the IAB both set guidelines for the share of CPU that a display ad may use: Google says 40% of CPU, IAB says 30% per actively viewed ad. But there is typically less discussion in the digital media industry about what these guidelines mean than about page load or other more immediately obvious performance metrics.
Tracking Resource Draining Ads: Finding the Source
Now let’s turn back to the present – to the types of resource-draining ads that Chrome is aiming to block.
Because GeoEdge categorizes ads by vertical in order to give publishers the power to accept or block ads that are suitable for their audiences, we can see which verticals these resource-heavy ads fall into. The category where these ads are most commonly found Is in the “internet” vertical.
This is a fairly general category, compared to more recognizable and specific categories, like shopping or auto. Perhaps not surprisingly, the “internet” vertical is one where GeoEdge commonly finds ad security and quality issues.
It’s often in the best interest of bad actors to give away little indication of who they actually are and some portion of these resource-draining ads are indeed crypto-mining attacks. In this category, we see ads that use up to 75% of CPU – the worst of the worst offenders.
In-banner video ads are also very demanding of CPU and data, because they often make many requests to many different exchanges in order to find the highest/best bid possible. As it stands, a very large number of premium publishers already consider IBV undesirable and do not run it by choice. IBV is a common arbitrage tactic, and many premium publishers for years have taken steps to stop arbitrage – implementing ads.txt and ads.cert are, in part, among those steps. However, IBV persists on the programmatic market, and some publishers continue to run it willingly as a revenue grab.
Boosting Revenue & UX- With and Beyond Chrome
While resource-draining ads have no place on a premium publisher’s page, they cannot be willed away by an industry standard. Publishers need to communicate their specs, their expectations, and their specific needs to their partners along the supply chain. They also need to plan for the inevitability that resource-draining ads will be blocked.
Publishers need more effective solutions, including the ability to replace a blocked bad ad with another ad that is already verified as suitable for the page and the audience.
Publishers deserve to monetize quality content, especially when they exercise due diligence to keep their pages safe and clean. One obvious way to do that is to have a safe ad loaded up, ready to replace a bad ad. Ideally, that ad would be specific to the publisher, who understands their content, their design, and the habits and expectations of their audience. This would ensure monetization and seamless user experience
Creating A Holistic User Experience
Perhaps most importantly, publishers need to protect their users against ad quality and security issues like malicious or deceptive ads, as well as operational issues like latency, which can drag down the user experience and bring it to a screeching halt.
GeoEdge has long worked to make websites safe for publishers and their users, and free of nuisances that corrode the user experience and the trust publishers work so hard to build. Unfortunately, publishers don’t have complete control over everything that appears on their sites, and for those whose revenue derives from the unruly world of programmatic, violations aren’t always directly their fault. The new regime is strict, and the updated standards could force publishers to reimagine large portions of their advertising architectures.