How Ad-blocking Spreads Conflict In A Free For All Ecosystem
Last year in September, the release of iOS9 shifted the ad-blocking debate to a new level, not only because general public is becoming increasingly aware of ad blockers, but also because one of the world’s largest tech giants openly supported ad-blocking by implementing the functionality. For Apple, the move made all the sense for Apple, since ads aren’t its core business. Apple has a tight control over its ecosystem, the main aim of which is to provide excellent user experience to drive device sales. But defining a precise public stance towards ad-blocking at Google is more complicated due to its dependence on advertising, weaker control over its mobile ecosystem and its relationship with key partners:
A few days ago Samsung announced it was implementing support for ad-blocking into its default browser. Adblock Fast, the first app released to support ad-blocking in the Samsung browser, quickly climbed to become the top free Productivity app on Google Play. But now Google has decided to pull it from its Play Store, stating that it violates one of the sections of Android Developer Distribution Agreement. The section it refers to prohibits apps from interfering with ‘’the devices, servers, networks, or other properties of any other third-party including, but not limited to, Android users, Google or any mobile network operator.”
Crystal, another ad-blocking app also submitted an update and was declined on the same grounds. But the ad-blocking browser Adblock Plus is still on the Google Play store, although they have not yet submitted an update since the recent news.
So for now it seems that Google is supporting browsers with ad-blocking capabilities, but not apps that block ads. This illustrates that Google is still figuring out how to strike the right balance in its approach to ad blocking. Ads are important for Google, but so is the user experience and the relationship with key manufacturers that account for much of Android’s distribution.
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Google’s relationship with Samsung is hugely important because Samsung is the largest distributor of Android devices. Furthermore, their relationship goes deeper than just that. For example both companies agreed to share a 10-year access to their patent portfolios as they pave the way for further collaboration in the future. Samsung, just like Apple, is a hardware company. User experience plays a key role for their sales. If Samsung’s biggest rival, Apple, makes a step that clearly improves user experience (via data cost saving and faster load times), it is only logical that Samsung wants to match that improvement. Though advertising is important for Google, preserving a good relationship with Samsung is crucial. And in this case it is worth taking the moral high ground instead of pushing back, because the Samsung browser has a miniscule user base, compared to Safari or Chrome, so blocking ads there is unlikely to impact Google in any meaningful way.
One of the most popular ad-blockers, Adblock Plus (ABP), which remains on Google Play for now, also operates as a standalone browser. Furthermore, Google reportedly pays ABP substantial amounts in order to participate in its acceptable ads program. Though the importance of Google’s positive relationship with Adblock Plus is connected mostly to the traditional web, not pushing back on mobile helps foster that relationship. So Adblock Plus is also ‘acceptable’ for Google.
Limiting its ad-blocking tolerance to standalone browsers is currently working for Google. The bottom line is that Chrome’s sheer size means that most standalone ad-blocking browsers will not gain enough mass to meaningfully harm Google (except Safari, but that’s largely outside Google’s jurisdiction). In fact the value Google is receiving from its strategic partnerships is likely to be far greater than the potential ad revenue cannibalisation resulting from them. For this reason Google is able to let its strategic partners operate ‘freely’ for now.
However, not allowing the precedence of standalone apps that block ads outside their own silos is important for Google; and apparently where it has chosen to draw the line at the moment. If Google allowed apps to block ads elsewhere than within the app itself there is nothing stopping this app to come up with updates that extend to blocking ads in channels that are more significant to Google’s revenue. The last thing Google wants is to further loosen its control over its mobile ecosystem or have to succumb to another expensive partnership with an ad-blocking software. Furthermore, sole-purpose ad-blocking apps appearing in the top charts adds an extra element of publicity for ad-blocking in general, something Google has no interest in spreading further either.
While making this division is logical from Google’s point of view, it will have to be careful in defining the thin line of what it considers ‘acceptable ad-blocking’. Google’s rather vague distribution agreement clause mentioned above gives it a reasonable manoeuvre room for now to justify its decisions de jure. But in the longer term, a more detailed explanation might be required. Otherwise, Google risks finding itself under scrutiny for creating the reputation of taking a double-standard approach to ad-blocking.