Will Chrome’s changes to ad blocking impact YouTube?

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Google recently announced that it will be cracking down on video ads this August. This follows the search giant’s decision to make the Chrome browser’s ad blocker fully available around the world in 2019. This might all sound a bit odd. Google, after all, owns YouTube. ou know, YouTube; that brilliant source of video content that is forever throwing ads in your face. So, what are they going to do about that, then? As great as their desire to ban crap ads might sound, surely this will impact their own service and, therefore, revenue? As you’d expect, all is not what it seems…

Firstly – what is adblocking?

Good question. Ad blockers have actually been around for years and can be found baked into web browsers and even smartphone operating systems. Their job is relatively simple: remove those annoying banner ads that blight the user experience during a web browsing session. They’re not perfect and can be fooled, but the net result is a far more pleasurable experience once those pesky ads are blocked. Understandably, the presence of ad blockers has caused great concern in the advertising community and for content creators. Much of the web’s free content is paid for by advertising, but if ad blockers remove those ads from most people’s screens, there’s no chance of click-throughs and therefore no advertising revenue to be had. Ad blockers are controversial because, on the face of it, they appear to remove an advertiser’s right to provide a service. It’s a bit like placing bananas in petrol pumps (although, arguably less messy); without ad revenue, the advertisers and content creators themselves will struggle to make money. If ad blockers become too prevalent and powerful, they could put content creators and advertising platforms out of business entirely or force the former to implement pay walls. This is presumably why ad blockers haven’t quite achieved the prominence some organisations and standards agencies had been hoping for. It’s also why some ad blockers are no longer turned on by default and why you’ve probably already seen your fair share of ads online already today.

What sort of video ads will be targeted?

Google refers to these naughty ads as ‘intrusive’. The YouTube owner relies on the Better Ads Standards to determine exactly which ads fall under that category, but they can be roughly defined as three distinct types:
  1. Mid-roll ads that interrupt the viewers experience by appearing in the middle of a video.
  2. Long pre-roll ads that can’t be skipped. These can be single ads or groups of ads that last for 31 seconds or longer (the standards state that they should be skippable within the first five seconds).
  3. Text or image ads that appear during the video. If they cover more than 20 percent of the content or sit within 1/3 of the video player window, they’re deemed naughty.
The mandate states that any websites showing ads like the above should stop doing so over the course of the next four months. If they don’t, there’s the very real chance they’ll lose the ability to advertise entirely. Chrome will stop showing all ads of this kind on websites in any country that repeatedly break the rules.
Elephant in the room

That’s cool. But, come on – what about YouTube?

It’s the elephant in the room, still, eh? Don’t worry; YouTube is also in the firing line. The Coalition for Better Ads group states that Google’s video sharing platform will be “reviewed for compliance with the Standards”. Google’s advertising platforms (AdSense and DoubleClick) will also need to have their product plans updated to ensure conformity. Google, as you’d guess, are pretty regimented with their response, claiming that they’ll “update our product plans across our ad platforms, including YouTube, as a result of this standard, and leverage the research as a tool to help guide product development in the future”. However, there’s actually an argument to suggest that YouTube is already compliant.
YouTube Adblocker 5 seconds

How can Google already be compliant with the standard?

Think about it: which platform was one of the first to offer users the ability to skip ads after exactly 5 seconds? Which platform places graphic-based banner ads at the bottom of the screen? Is it the same platform that only allows mid-roll ads during videos that last ten minutes or longer? Yep. That’d be YouTube. But, does that get them off Scott free? Probably not, you’ll be glad to hear.
YouTube's Approach may legitimately be frowned upon

How might YouTube be impacted?

I think there are a couple of areas in which YouTube could be forced to make significant changes to its ad platform. Firstly, those pre-roll ads. Yes, YouTube allows you to skip them, but only after five seconds. The standards suggest that pre-roll ads which last longer than 31 seconds should be skippable within the first five seconds. That’s quite a big change if Google’s hand is forced, because it will enable users to immediately skip ads, thus reducing the chance of them being engaged by the advertiser and subsequently clicking through. Secondly, mid-roll ads. Yes, YouTube limits these to videos that last ten minutes or more, but the more you research these new rules, the more you realise that there is a fair degree of ambiguity about exactly how this will play out in practice. Ambiguity means YouTube’s approach may legitimately be frowned upon by the standards agency. For instance, if mid-roll ads are eliminated entirely, where would that leave YouTube?

Wrapping up

One thing is clear – these new rules are somewhat bendable, no matter which side of the fence you sit on. The fact we’re even having this discussion is a positive, though, because we’re rapidly approaching an era where online video advertising becomes just as irritating as website banner ads. And no one wants to end up there, do they? We’ll keep an eagle eye on the progress of the new standard and report back post August when Chrome’s ad blocker makes its final assault on ads it deems to be intrusive. In the meantime, if there is anything you would like to add to this discussion, or any feedback, please leave a comment below.

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