As advertising has become more intrusive in recent years, hundreds of millions of web users have installed ad-blocking software to ward off full-page pop-ups, blaring video pitches that start automatically and large ads with unstoppable countdown clocks that obscure the content you actually want to see.
On Thursday, Google did something about the problem: The company updated its browser, Google Chrome, so that it bans such ads by default on mobile devices and desktop computers.
The change will probably improve the average person's internet day ” and give the tech giant an even greater role in shaping the web. The update to Chrome, first announced last year, is not a universal ad-blocker, the company insisted, but a filter. It will affect only those websites that allow four types of desktop ads and eight types of mobile ads that violate the standards established by a group called the Coalition for Better Ads, of which Google is a member (as is Facebook).
"By focusing on filtering out disruptive ad experiences, we can help keep the entire ecosystem of the web healthy, and give people a significantly better user experience than they have today," Rahul Roy-Chowdhury, a Google vice president, wrote in a blog post on Feb. 13.
"We believe these changes will not only make Chrome better for you, but also improve the web for everyone."
For the most part, the update has been embraced by the industry. After all, it seems like a win for publishers, quality advertisers and users alike. But Google did not become the creator of the world's most popular browser and a dominant advertising force by running its business in a manner that did not serve its own interests.
With the Chrome update, the company hopes to come out ahead by lessening the temptation of web users to install more comprehensive ad-blocking software. In other words, Google is betting that ridding the web of especially intrusive ads will render it more hospitable to advertising in general ” and more profitable for advertisers and Google itself.
The new filter will be rolled out gradually to the browser's hundreds of millions of users. Website operators had a few months before the launch to become compliant; going forward, those who violate the standards will be given 30 days to get in line.
If they do not, Google will demonstrate its leverage not by simply removing offending ads from a noncompliant site, but by disabling all of its ads. Revenue to the offending websites would presumably plummet as a result. Utilizing Chrome's popularity in this way is yet another example of Google's singular position in the modern web.
"Chrome literally exists to protect Google's advertising business," said Mark Mayo, a vice president at Mozilla, the company behind the web browser Firefox, a competitor to Chrome.
"Google has done a tremendous amount of stuff ” their products are web-based ” and probably most of it positive, but what we've also seen, obviously, is a tremendous centralization."
The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit digital rights organization, issued a statement on Friday that said the Google Chrome update"fails to address the larger problem of tracking and privacy violations" on the web.
It also criticized Google and the Coalition for Better Ads, calling it a trade group that"lacks a consumer voice."
"Google exploiting its browser dominance to shape the conditions of the advertising market raises some concerns," the foundation said.
It took some time for Adblock Plus, which makes popular ad-blocking software that can be installed on Google Chrome, to figure out which types of ads, exactly, Google would be filtering, according to a company spokesman, Ben Williams.
Once Adblock Plus had a firm idea, it determined that the update will not risk losing the interest of the tens of millions of people who use its ad-blocking software. Chrome will not block ads that run before videos on sites like the Google-owned YouTube, for example. Such ads, which can be blocked by Adblock Plus, lay outside the scope of the recommendations made by the Coalition for Better Ads.
"It's laudable, what they're doing, getting rid of the worst of the worst formats," Williams said,"but I don't think it will cause people not to download ad blockers or to uninstall them."
Adblock Plus makes money, however, by accepting payments from major companies to"white-list" them ” those who pay, that is, do not get blocked. Among those paying for the kind treatment: Google.
Likewise, Mozilla, which is paid by Google for traffic sent to its search engine through Firefox, depends on the company for much of its revenue.
As of Friday, Google said that 65 percent of the sites with ads that were out of compliance with the new rules had already made changes to go along with them. Scott Spencer, a director of product management at Google, said the company is sensitive to consumers' growing awareness of its power.
"Google is not neutral when it comes to the open web," he said."We're a search company, we want to ensure that there is a healthy and sustainable web for people to be searching and getting information from. We're also obviously an ad-serving company."
He framed Chrome's ad filter as the latest in a series of the browser's positive innovations, spanning back to the pop-up ad blocker in its original incarnation a decade ago and including more recent security protections against scams and malware.
Spencer compared the web to a series of roads crowded by people trying to get to work."At some point someone has the idea that we need to put in some traffic lights," he said.
"Nobody likes waiting for the light, but everyone appreciates not getting stuck in traffic." Google is in a position to install and operate the traffic lights ” with outside input, of course.
It also raises questions about what sort of actor Google is on the web. Is it a government? A budding monopoly? A reluctant leader? All three?
"We don't want to be doing this alone," Spencer said."We understand the concerns that exist, and we want to make sure that other voices have a channel and are being heard."