Google Chrome’s new ‘heavy ads’ blocker catches some publishers by surprise

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Google Chrome this week began rolling out a new feature designed to block ads that use an “egregious” amount of network bandwidth or battery power — an update that has caught some publishers on the back foot.

Four senior programmatic managers and executives at global publishers contacted for this story said they hadn’t heard about the new Chrome filter — or hadn’t received information about it from their Google reps about it since the Chrome announced the rollout was coming in May. Two of those executives, plus other industry observers, said there were still unanswered questions about the potential impact and other technical aspects of the update. Meanwhile, two other publishing executives at separate companies said they were aware of the developments.

Announced in May on the Chromium and Google Developers blogs, the new heavy ad intervention feature “unloads” ads that use up more than 4MB of network data; or 15 seconds of CPU usage in any 30-second period; or 60-seconds of total CPU usage — suggesting the filter will primarily affect video ads. In place of the filtered ad will be a grey square, with the label “ad removed.” Publishers can test how the Heavy Ads Intervention will affect their pages in versions of Chrome 84 and upward by following the instructions on this page. Writing on Github last year, a Chrome engineer said the intervention is designed to discourage practices like ads that mine cryptocurrency and ads that “perform expensive operations in javascript, such as decoding video files, or CPU timing attacks,” among other bad user experiences.

A programmatic manager at a global publishing company said they hadn’t heard anything from Google about the heavy ads intervention update — despite being in touch with a Google account manager just a few days ago.

“Sometimes I’m secretly quite grateful for moderately tough deadlines for things like this to get things moving, but this is a bit too tight to say the least,” the programmatic manager said.

A person who oversees ad operations at a separate large publisher said they too would have appreciated more lead time: “We are all for improving the user experience on our site: This one just came up so abruptly we couldn’t get ahead of the solution and warn our advertisers.”

The ad operations executive said it’s difficult to determine just by looking at an advertising asset how “heavy” it might be and whether it could be blocked under the new filter — a situation made more difficult when certain campaigns have different renditions to suit multiple devices. They added that while Google has a reporting API that notifies publishers when interventions have taken place, it would be useful to have more granular details as standard about which line items are causing interventions without having to deploy their own internal developers. And, they said, it’s unclear whether an ad subject to an “intervention” — but rendered as a grey box on the page — would still count as an impression on Google Ad Manager.

Spokespeople for Chrome and Google declined to comment on the record.

In the May blog post, Chrome said only around 0.3% ads exceeded the “heavy ads” threshold in May — though that’s still a nontrivial amount given Chrome’s 69% share of the global browser market, according to NetMarketshare.

A spokesman for video advertising platform Teads said while the update was officially released on Tuesday (Aug. 25) “nothing had been impacted yet.” It usually takes around 10 days or more for users to update their browsers to the latest version. Still, Teads had anticipated the update would be a “nonevent” for its business because the company had for years focused on file-size compression in order for ads to load quickly, said Jeremy Arditi, the company’s chief commercial officer. And since the May Chrome announcement, Teads has also been rolling out tools for its publisher partners that automatically detects noncompliant ads and fixes them via compression and other means.

“Clearly there were quite a few distractions going on between May and August” for media and advertising companies as the coronavirus crisis continued into the summer, said Arditi. “Did this miss [some companies’] radar a bit? Potentially.”

Experts said most premium industry players had already been working for some time to reduce the number of ads that use a disproportionate share of device resources and that provide a shoddy experience for users. It’s been four years since a group of companies and trade bodies including Google, GroupM, Procter & Gamble, the Interactive Advertising Bureau and the World Federation of Advertisers formed the Coalition for Better Ads in a bid to rid the web of intrusive ad formats. Chrome introduced a filter in 2018 to automatically filter out pages with ads that don’t meet the Coalition’s standards.

Still, the Chrome heavy ads update is likely to “hurt all the less sophisticated more invasive players who have large ad payloads and haven’t done a lot of optimization — mostly the in-ad gaming providers,” said Harry Kargman, CEO of ad tech firm Kargo. 

The heavy ads intervention update comes as advertisers, publishers and ad tech companies are preparing for Chrome ending support for third-party cookies, set for 2022. 

Tom Kershaw, CTO at ad tech company Magnite and chairman of the open source Prebid industry organization, said the heavy ads intervention update could serve as a concerning harbinger for how Chrome is thinking about third-party cookie replacements as part of its “Privacy Sandbox” solutions.

Previously, Chrome’s filtering had focused more on “URL-based blocks” versus dynamically calculating the impact of individual ads, according to Kershaw. The issue, he added, is that there isn’t a clear methodology or adjudication system for publishers or platforms to dispute Chrome’s decision making over what constitutes a “heavy” ad. 

“I don’t disagree that ads that destroy people’s machines shouldn’t be shown,” said Kershaw. “My concern is that Chrome is starting to build out increasing ad awareness into its tech stack as part of a self-proclaimed mission to be the sole judge and jury and policing entity of the ad industry.”

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