Industry Responds to Google's Move Against 'Aggressive' Ads

Industry Responds to Google's Move Against 'Aggressive' Ads
Stephen Yagielowicz

LOS ANGELES — For many in the ecommerce world, Tuesday, Feb. 15, was a day like no other — a day of anticipation and trepidation, which some advertisers and publishers referred to as “Adageddon” and “The Ad-pocalypse” — out of fear that their ad revenues and traffic volumes could potentially plunge, as Google’s new rules against “Abusive Ad Experiences” took effect.

Created in the hopes of boosting the quality of the internet user experience and enforced by a long-awaited update to its market-leading Chrome browser that began blocking “aggressive” ads on this date, the new ad format restrictions affect both adult and mainstream marketers alike — including affiliates with certain live cam and other promotions, such as those using iframes with audio feeds, and pop-under ads, along with paysite operators that offer auto-playing video previews on their sites’ tours, and other rich-media raconteurs who sought an edge that has now turned into a liability.

Indeed, many merchants, network operators, webmasters and more, began their busy day by downloading the latest version of Chrome and then dialing up their favorite sites to see if everything is OK — but despite the advanced warning, ample advice, and easy, free testing tools, for some disappointed operators, the answer was “no.”

Although the new rules will only impact an estimated one percent of internet advertising, they target the worst of breed: ads harmful to the internet ecosystem as a whole — abuses leading to calls that “something is done.” Increasingly, that something has been the rising rate of installation of ad blocking software that prevents all ads from being displayed — not merely the most offensive ones. This is where Chrome’s approach diverges from that of AdBlock and the like, by allowing “good ads” while barring “bad ads,” based not upon their content, but upon the way that they are displayed, in accordance with standards set by the Coalition for Better Ads.

To get a handle on how the always-innovative adult industry is responding to these changes, XBIZ sought the insights of a range of experts, who commented on a wide variety of factors, including the propriety of Google imposing ad guidelines and penalizing publishers for non-compliance; the possibility that a much better online content and advertising ecosystem could result; how their company will adapt to these changes; and what steps they are taking to assist clients in this process.

The following are their views, which reflect a realistic standpoint that reveals optimism in terms of how any improvement in user experiences yields better sale conversion ratios — and that is good news for all.

TrafficStars partner Rémi St-Maur told XBIZ it is important to remember that we are all essentially on the same side in this “war” against misleading advertising, and with Chrome having such a massive market share, Google is enforcing its standards on everyone.

“Ad blockers are becoming an increasing issue for all of us in the industry, with the technology becoming more advanced and the number of users downloading [ad blockers] increasing daily,” St-Maur said. “Google is trying to stabilize this shift in the marketplace by accepting that there is mistrust that is causing users to download such software. As such they are trying to create a fair, level playing field, with clear guidelines on how we can all work towards regaining this trust, industrywide.”

“Whether we want to or not, advertisers and publishers both have to adapt,” added St-Maur, noting that ad networks are adapting as well. “Our focus is, and always has been on quality, and although we understand the new changes are frustrating for some, we are working closely with our advertisers and publishers to make the transition to the new standards as easy and pain-free as possible.”

St-Maur said TrafficStars has been aware of and preparing for the evolving guidelines for some time, so it is fully equipped with the support, tools and knowledge to help.

“TrafficStars is in a very powerful position to do this, as we have a lot of insight into how to interpret the new standards by working closely with our partner, xHamster.com which has been verified as fully compliant,” St-Maur concluded. “This allows us to test and learn about how the standards are being implemented and enable us to continuously adapt our internal compliance regulations. We are also offering new, safe and compliant ad formats, which are the perfect solution for publishers and advertisers to monetize their traffic while adhering to Google’s new standards.”

The TrafficStars team told XBIZ the industry won’t need to wait too long to see the impact these changes are bringing.

“Publishers have already begun to receive notifications from Google notifying of failures to comply with the new guidelines, [so] we are working closely with publishers and advertisers, using our Compliance Flagging Tool to help make sure all our clients and partners remain compliant,” said Peter Rabenseifner, TrafficStars’ managing director. “For advertisers, we are aware that there may be some fluctuations in performance with their campaigns, which is why we’re encouraging all advertisers to also use our fully compliant alternatives.”

Among the solutions offered by TrafficStars are native ads, which the company characterizes as “the best alternative to banner ads,” as they are often safer and less intrusive than other ad formats while maximizing click-through and conversion rates. Also of note are video pre-roll ads and a planned rollout of postitial ads.

“[‘Native ads’] are ads that are delivered in a way that is consistent with the form, style and voice of the site they appear on. Therefore, they are less disruptive to users and in line with the industry-wide shift towards less misleading advertising and the Better Ads Experience Program,” Rabenseifner explained. “[‘Video pre-roll ads’ deliver] a video that plays before the content and allows the user to skip the ad after a number of seconds. This perfectly fits in line with Google’s ad formats on YouTube and therefore is considered to be non-intrusive and user-friendly.

“The postitial ad format is a full-screen ad (a 900x600 banner on desktop or a 300x250 banner on mobile), which will be served between two pages of content, so it will appear after the click on a link and before the desired page loads,” Rabenseifner revealed. “This ad format is also fully compliant with the new ad standards.”

Ada Llorca, head of publishing at ExoClick, told XBIZ Google’s new restrictions are a mix of eliminating abusive ad experiences by blocking ads that mislead users, and ad formats that annoy users.

“At the end of the day the initiative is to ensure that users have an excellent browsing experience on Chrome,” Llorca offered. “This is a positive aspect for advertisers to really get creative and explore other ad formats in order to convert users to their offers.”

As for what alternative ad formats publishers can use for their ad zones, Llorca suggests that in addition to compliant banners, publishers should introduce pre-roll in-stream video and native ad formats into their ad zones, calling these formats “totally compliant with Google.”

“Publishers can monetize our pre-roll in-stream video via CPC or CPV (cost per view). A view is considered to be achieved after a user has watched 10 seconds of the video ad before skipping,” Llorca illumined. “Our native ad widget allows publishers to insert this format into their ad zones in a variety of different formats with options to ensure that the native ad appears exactly like the content of a publisher’s site. Native ads can be monetized as CPC or CPM.”

Llorca underscored that ExoClick has made it easy for publishers to ensure their sites are fully compliant with Google guidelines with a one-click solution.

“In our admin panel under ‘Sites & Zones > Ad Blocking,’ publishers can enable ‘Google Ad Compliance,’ which blocks all banners and pop-unders that contain blinking elements, auto-sound and misleading elements, making their site 100 percent compliant with Google,” Llorca told XBIZ, adding, “‘Misleading elements covers ads that imitate Antivirus Alerts, Browser/System Alerts, Close or Cancel Options, Download or Play Buttons, Site Pagination, Video Players, Chat Boxes and Chat Notifications.

“The purpose of this gives publishers the flexibility to apply this function to specific geos or devices, or across all of their sites,” Llorca determined. “Additionally, thanks to our platform API, our ‘Google Ad Compliance’ enabling can also be automated, which is particularly useful to publishers who have a large network of sites.”

Juicy Jay, founder of three-time XBIZ Award winner JuicyAds.com observed “the reality of it is that nobody likes pops.”

“JuicyAds was reluctant to adopt pops as an ad type,” Jay told XBIZ, “but provided them with the belief that publishers can make their own decisions.”

Jay said the Chrome updates represent a dangerous move by Google from several angles, which he believes will ultimately be decided in court.

“We do not agree with the decision and believe that publishers hold the right to make their own choices regarding what experience they want to provide their visitors,” Jay elucidated. “Google as an advertising company has such obvious conflicts of interest and should not be removing the basic functionality of selected websites just because of their choice of advertising type.”

Jay also tipped his hat to Google, however, because this move may significantly reduce the actions of some publishers who believe more ads means more money. 

“Greed, abuse and malicious advertisers (with lack of quality and safety standards) are what has led not just to this blow to the adult industry, but to the advertising industry as a whole,” Jay opined. “JuicyAds has strived to be a clean network with a high standard of quality especially for pops, and we will be releasing new solutions in line with our strategy, to the benefit of our publishers.”

Grand Slam Media CEO Luke Hazlewood told XBIZ this is not the first time the market has seen a disruption and it will not be the last.

“Good companies will adapt and find ways to earn while not crossing Google’s line,” Hazlewood predicted. “To be honest, it’s quite exciting because it forces legitimacy within the traffic environment and will lead to publishers, advertisers and networks working closer together to innovate and drive ROI.”

Hazlewood has discussed the issue with other leading networks and said they are all ready to collaborate and work together to achieve greater success.

“It’s interesting as well to see what creative ideas will come from this,” Hazlewood pointed out. “Here we have another example of what will lead to more market consolidation and the legitimacy of the players involved.”

“We’re absolutely complying with the Google protocols,” xHamster Vice President Alex Hawkins told XBIZ. “While it’s more work in the short-term, we think this pushes the industry forward.”

“We want the experience for our users to be as seamless as possible, and if that means developing technology and ways of communicating that are more effective and less intrusive, we’re going for it,” Hawkins unveiled. “We’ve always thought that good quality content, and a technically adept website, are a more important way of getting viewers. We want xHamster to be a media company for the 21st century.”

This future-forward outlook reflects a reality that going forward, Google will continue imposing guidelines and penalizing non-compliant publishers.

TrafficJunky Sales Manager Graham Collie told XBIZ that regardless of how one feels about Google utilizing its unique position in the market to impose rules across the internet, there’s an obvious appetite for a better ad experience from users given the growth of ad block year-over-year.

“Google is simply trying to counter the growth of ad block by removing the types of ads which are most likely to lead to users installing ad block — ads with misleading elements, rapidly flashing colors, etc.,” Collie noted. “We’d all prefer reduced ad block growth, so we’ll keep a close eye on whether this achieves the desired result.”

As for actual results, it remains unclear whether or not Google’s actions will create a better online advertising ecosystem, or if fans of “aggressive” advertising will continue these practices — moving to even more aggressive, but as yet un-blocked, ad techniques, continuing the ongoing arms-race between ads and ad-blockers.

Collie believes non-compliance will not be an option if the rules are being enforced at the browser level on a domain.

“If a particular advertiser wishes to circumvent these rules, the implications will affect every ad on a publisher’s site,” Collie said. “Chrome is disincentivizing the continuation of these practices and outsourcing the enforcement of compliance to the publisher. Advertisers will have to adapt because publishers simply won’t want to take the risk.”

Fortunately, help is available for clients coping with these changes.

For his part, Collie reassures clients by underlining that TrafficJunky responds to various stakeholder guidelines as necessary, to “ensure that our advertisers are aware of them to protect their campaign spend, the revenue of our publishers and the user experience.”

Fresh from his Visionary Keynote address at the 2018 XBIZ Show in Hollywood, Gian Carlo, founder of mobile performance powerhouse BitterStrawberry.com and premier paysite network PornDoe Premium, tells XBIZ the intrusive ads that are now limited by Google were delivering a bad experience or misleading the user and making him either stop browsing or install ad blockers that remove all ads.

“Google’s initiative for a better web experience has huge benefits for both users and publishers,” Gian Carlo explained. “By not losing ads in this process, publishers will be able to continue using their marketing strategies, even if they might lose some short-term income in the process.”

Gian Carlo said it is well known that consumers are more and more frustrated when ads disrupt their experience and expect their digital experience to be fast and seamless.

“50 percent of users that have been surveyed said that they would not return to a page that had an abusive ad,” Gian Carlo remarked. “Consequently, the only way publishers will be able to keep their audience on their website is to support valuable content that addresses the consumer’s expectation.

“Your user experience can be considered good only if people aren’t installing AdBlock to be able to go through your website without annoyances. This is why we will adjust our messages accordingly, making them: alluring, fast and relevant,” Gian Carlo concluded. “By removing the negative ad experience from the site, by making the native ads blend with the content, which is still king, by speeding up their loading time and by designing and delivering messages based on the user’s interests, we prove that we respect the time and the experience of the users and this way we’ll have more chances to engage them in the future.”

Like other experts XBIZ spoke to, CrakRevenue’s Chief Strategy Officer Axel Vézina understands why Google is taking a stance against aggressive advertising, noting that there have been numerous cases of intrusive ads which have been used by webmasters for years — and there was simply no reason to break the habit.

“I’m not going to lie: this might hurt our Media Buy operations in the short-term because there are numerous spots that are probably going to be blocked by Chrome,” Vézina surmised. “But overall, I really see this as an awesome opportunity to innovate furthermore with the help of quality content and new advertising technologies.”

Vézina thanked CrakRevenue’s design and marketing teams for being ahead of the curve by already having begun testing new ad formats and exploring new advertising avenues that appear rather promising, in addition to being fully compliant with Google’s new Better Ads Standards goals.

“To tell you the truth, I think it’s the part I love most about my job — finding new ways to adapt and succeed each time new rules are introduced to the web advertising playing field,” Vézina stated. “And in our case, the writing’s always been on our office wall — literally. We actually have a poster in one of our conference rooms that reads, ‘When the wind of change blows, some build walls, others build windmills.’ And you know what? I love building windmills!”

Vézina’s “windmill” analogy is a perfect fit for the flexibility that marketers thrive upon and that today’s e-commerce balancing act demands, where the notion that “you can’t fight city hall” now extends to “you can’t fight Google” — and perhaps you shouldn’t, when the company is correct.

While “adapt or die” may seem terribly trite in 2018, it is the name of the game for top-tier players that spend their days maneuvering around a changing landscape, where the quality of the user experience is receiving the prominence it deserves — paving the way to profits for those who offer porn worth paying for.