Tuesday 12 December 2017

Steve Dempsey: Google ad-block and news switch will put 'truth' in its hands and hit publishers

'This week Google updated its search algorithm to make fake news harder to find, and authoritative sources more visible.' (stock photo)
'This week Google updated its search algorithm to make fake news harder to find, and authoritative sources more visible.' (stock photo)
Steve Dempsey

Steve Dempsey

Google is flexing its muscles at the moment, in an effort to cut down on bad ads and fake news. It has changed its search algorithm to combat fake news, and is reportedly going to add ad blocking to its Chrome browser. People searching for news online should be shown more reliable stories, and they should be less likely to have to wade through pop-ups and pre-roll ads to consume it. It's win-win, right?

Well, certainly for Google and probably for users too. However what Google's up to illustrates two changes - each at opposite ends of the digital news ecosystem that illustrate the dangers of one company having so much influence. Who gets squeezed in the middle? You guessed it - the publishers.

Let's take Google's latest plans for its Chrome browser. Last week reports emerged that Google planned to add an ad-blocking feature to the mobile and desktop versions of Chrome - by far the most popular browser on the planet, according to NetMarketShare. Ad blocking would be switched on by default, meaning Chrome users would no longer see unacceptable ads. So what ads are unacceptable, and who makes that call?

The answer is the Coalition For Better Ads - an industry group comprising big brands, publishers and ad tech companies. Facebook, Newscorp, Omnicom, Digital Content Next, and the Washington Post are all onboard. So too is Google.

The coalition has found four types of desktop ads and eight types of mobile web ads that should be axed. These include auto playing video ads with sound, pop-up ads, and large sticky ads.

In theory, this should be good news for publishers. The less annoying their ads, the more likely they are to retain users. And across the board, if the online advertising industry stops peddling crappy ad experiences, surely those with the most to gain are the biggest websites. But the most irritating ads are often the most effective ones from an advertiser perspective. This is especially if advertisers are measuring success through basic metrics like viewability and clickthroughs and not considering the quality of their campaigns - which is often the real reason why online ads are such a poor experience. One other point of note. It's unclear how the Chrome ad blocker will function. It may block any ad formats that have been blacklisted, or it's also been suggested it may block any sites which carry blacklisted ads. Websites with any offending ads, therefore, could be blocked entirely on Google's browser.

Let's forget about ad blocking for a minute and move over to fake news. This week Google updated its search algorithm to make fake news harder to find, and authoritative sources more visible. Links to false and offensive stories will be lower down in search results and Google's army of raters that assess the validity of search results are now flagging "low-quality" content. Google has also updated its auto-complete function. This feature which completes search queries based on popularity will no longer generate offensive search suggestions, and users will be able to flag problematic search suggestions.

But here's the thing. Google hasn't gone into any specifics. There's no detail on how a page is deemed to have more authority on one subject than another. The algorithm will decide what's most relevant, most authoritative and most true. And the algorithm is a mystery. Here's how Ben Thompson, who writes brilliantly on technology and business strategy, put it : "The single most important resource for finding the truth, one that is dominant in its space thanks to the fact that being bigger inherently means being better, is making decisions about what is true without a shred of transparency."

Despite the lack of transparency, online news publishers may have reason to celebrate. You'd expect them to be given a leg up by Google when it comes to deciding on authority. But here's the thing: what happens when Google starts prioritising one source - say an outlet with a particular editorial bias - over other websites? How will Google differentiate between different versions of the truth?

The net effect of Google's ad blocking and algorithm updates is this: Google is increasing its control over the ads that are served to users, while at the same time it has a virtual monopoly on the technology that publishers use to serve those ads - almost all news publishing sites use, and pay for, Google technology to serve their ads. At the same time it is upping its influence on search results for news related searches, but with less and less transparency. Google is turning the dials at either ends of the news business - changing how consumers find the news they search for on the open web, and changing how publishers can monetise their audience through advertising.

The search giant is doing nothing wrong here. Indeed, it has users' interests at heart. But the algorithm update and the change to Chrome illustrates how much control Google has over the news industry. There may be unintended consequences for publishers which rely on Google for both reach and revenue. Smaller niche publishers may find it harder to survive. Larger publishers may see revenues fall. Others may become more reliant on the likes of Facebook as a distribution channel. Media plurality may suffer. When Google sneezes, some news organisations may freeze.

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