Publishers Weigh Pros and Cons of Potential Google Ad-Blocking Feature

By Jack Marshall Features Dow Jones Newswires

Online publishers and media companies are trying to discern the potential impact on their businesses if Alphabet Inc.'s Google proceeds with a plan to introduce an ad-blocking feature in its popular Chrome web browser that would filter out certain types of unacceptable ads.

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On the one hand, such a feature could help weed out the types of irritating ads that drive consumers to avoid online advertising in the first place, they say.

But on the other, it could give more power to an entity that already controls much of the advertising on the internet, and against which they compete for advertising revenue.

As The Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday, Google is considering launching an advertising filter in the mobile and desktop versions of Chrome, which would strip out certain online ads deemed to provide bad experiences for users, people familiar with Google's plans said.

Google has declined to comment on any ad-blocking plans.

Unacceptable ad types would likely be those identified by the ad industry group the Coalition for Better Ads, the people said. The ad-blocking feature could be switched on by default within Chrome.

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Such a move could have repercussions for ad-supported websites and services, advertising technology companies, and advertisers themselves, depending on if and how it is implemented.

Industry observers and executives took to social media Thursday morning to debate Google's potential motives and the effect such a feature could have on media industry dynamics more widely.

Some publishing executives say they are reluctant to jump to conclusions and are eagerly awaiting information from Google regarding its plans. The move could have upside and downside, they say.

"If this is something that takes concrete steps to clean up the most offensive stuff on the internet, then I think that's very good news for us," said Neil Vogel, chief executive at IAC's About.com Group. "People install ad blockers because low-end publishers violate their trust. If Google can stop egregious ads that make people want to block ads in the first place, that will be a good thing."

But that doesn't mean a Google intervention doesn't raise concerns. In addition to producing web browsers, Google also operates a mammoth online ad business complete with its own set of interests.

"The risk here is this could concentrate a lot of power in the hands of one organization that is not neutral and has vested interests in all sides of this," Mr. Vogel said.

Indeed, publishers are often reluctant to speak their minds about Google publicly because of the power they already feel the ad giant has over them. Many publishers rely on Google to drive traffic to their sites and to help them sell advertising.

"From the beginning we have avoided the kinds of ads cited as the target of the Chrome ad-blocker concept -- pop-ups, pre-roll ads etc.... It's clear there are a lot of very onerous experiences out there that have led to the understandable rise of ad-blocking," said Jay Lauf, president and publisher of online news site Quartz, in an emailed statement.

"We can't comment on Google's approach given what has been revealed thus far, but I think a more surgical approach is needed -- deploying a sledgehammer approach to the ad ecosystem could have harmful implications," Mr. Lauf added.

Jason Kint, CEO of online publishing trade body Digital Content Next, said his group is committed to the Coalition for Better Ads as the forum for addressing consumer concerns around online ad experiences, and said Google's potential ad filters appear to focus on enforcing those standards.

But until details emerge regarding exactly if and how Google might implement its ad filter, Mr. Kint said he, too, is reserving judgment.

"The world of ad blocking is as murky as they come. Friends and enemies can easily be confused, good and evil often mistaken and interests aren't always as they appear," he said.

The Interactive Advertising Bureau, a trade group that says it empowers the media and marketing industries to thrive in the digital economy, has been extremely outspoken about companies that offer ad-blocking technologies and attempt to profit from them.

"Ad blocking is a war against diversity and freedom of expression," IAB CEO Randall Rothenberg famously said during a keynote address at the IAB's annual leadership meeting a year ago.

The IAB declined to comment on Google's potential ad-filter in Chrome, referring questions instead to the Coalition for Better Ads, of which the IAB is a member.

A spokesman for the Coalition for Better Ads declined to comment on Google's potential plans specifically, but said, "We are working with multiple technology companies for support in implementing these standards."

Google is a member of both the IAB and the Coalition for Better Ads, alongside companies such as Facebook, AppNexus and other online publishers and advertising technology companies.

Write to Jack Marshall at Jack.Marshall@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

April 20, 2017 17:03 ET (21:03 GMT)