On February 15, Google Chrome will start blocking ads on intrusive sites, and mainstream ad companies aren’t particularly upset about it. In fact, they helped Google make this happen.
But you know what ad companies are upset about? Apple changing Safari to block unwanted tracking. Seriously: ad companies are furious. An open letter called the privacy feature “sabotage,” and Criteo, an ad firm that heavily tracks users, claimed the feature will cost them hundreds of millions annually.
Why are ad companies actively helping Google block ads, only to complain loudly about an Apple feature that merely blocks tracking? It’s less confusing than it sounds.
Google Is Hoping to Stem The Ad Blocking Tide
Google itself is the biggest advertising company on earth, so you might think it’s odd that they’re blocking ads in Chrome at all all. But Google and several other ad companies are part of the Coalition for Better Ads, a group that chooses categories of “annoying” ads that should be blocked. Sites that use these sorts of irritating ads—auto-playing videos with audio, prestitial ads with a countdown, and full screen rollover ads, to name a few—will eventually see all their ads blocked by Google Chrome.
Odd as it sounds, blocking these ads could actually be good for the ad industry. If websites that regularly serve up annoying ads are punished for it, fewer sites will feel tempted to use those sorts of ads. This should lead to a less annoying internet, which means fewer people will go through the trouble of installing a separate ad blocker. This could also mean better prices for the less annoying sorts of ads.
Make no mistake: this is an ad blocker designed to benefit advertising companies. Consumers will also benefit from seeing fewer annoying ads, but that’s not the reason the feature is being offered in Google Chrome.
You’re Being Watched. Constantly.
It’s this sort of tracking that Safari’s Intelligent Tracking Prevention is designed to stop. Basically, only cookies from sites you visit directly regularly are saved by your browser; the rest are deleted regularly. Unless you make it a habit to visit the homepages of ad networks regularly, that will include most ads.
Ad companies think this is unfair, as they stated in an open letter:
Blocking cookies in this manner will drive a wedge between brands and their customers, and it will make advertising more generic and less timely and useful.
Apple, for their part, say that ad companies have simply gone too far. To quote a company spokesperson:
Ad tracking technology has become so pervasive that it is possible for ad tracking companies to recreate the majority of a person’s web browsing history. This information is collected without permission and is used for ad re-targeting, which is how ads follow people around the Internet.
There are reasonable arguments to be made for both sides here, but basically both companies are arguing for their economic best interest. Ads supplemented with information about your browsing history are way more profitable, so of course ad companies are going to argue for them. Apple, meanwhile, increases customer’s trust by blocking the kind of tracking that users find creepy, so more people will buy their computers and phones—all without costing Apple much of anything.
Apple Doesn’t Care About Ad Revenue
Google might sell hardware, but they’re an advertising company first and foremost. That’s how Google makes the vast majority their money, so it’s unlikely Google would ever do anything that would actually hurt advertising revenue.
Apple, meanwhile, makes basically all of their money from selling hardware and services, and next to nothing from advertising revenue. This means they see advertising less as a source of revenue and more as a potential annoyance for their users. To quote Matt Rosenberg:
Apple doesn’t rely on an ad business, so they are prioritizing user experience. The fact that it is a choice between ad tech and user experience doesn’t speak well for what ad tech has been doing.
Advertisers have gotten used to knowing basically everything that you do online, so they see features like Apple’s privacy feature as a threat. And they’re right: this will cost them money. Way more than Google actually blocking some ads.
Which is all to say that it’s worth thinking about how the various tech companies you interact with make money, because it basically impacts the sorts of things they value. Google wants the internet to be free and ad-supported, whereas Apple wants their customers to feel like someone has their back. Both of these are legitimate strategies, and you can decide for yourself which is better aligned with your interests.
Photo credit: Jeramey Lende/Shutterstock.com
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