The quiet fight against browser noise pollution

Are you tired of noisy videos playing when you visit a Web page? Yeah? Well so are some of the biggest browser makers. Here's a look behind the page.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

If only Don Draper could see us now! What would the lead character of Mad Men, set in the 1960s, think of advertising in the age of broadband? TV watching is still popular, but according to Statista, more people in the coveted 18-44 demographic get their news online than from TV, radio, or newspaper. More people subscribe to Netflix than all of American cable TV.

What makes advertising so different today than it was in Don Draper's time is the fact that viewers are no longer captive audiences. Instead of just CBS, ABC, and NBC to watch, we can click to anything - and YouTube has something for everyone. Instead of a few local papers, media consumers have the entire Web to surf across.

From the point of view of content producers (like us here at ZDNet), the competitive landscape is vastly more crowded. If you're going to read something on ZDNet, you're going to do so because you're a regular visitor or, more likely, you found a headline in social media or in some search results that caught your interest.

While some modern media outlets have been successful with paywalls (where you pay to read articles), most people simply click away to the vast online treasure trove of free information.

Here, then, is the paradox of content-based media. Those producing the media need to be paid, and those consuming it don't want to spend anything.

The need for advertising

This, by the way, is not a new challenge. As Mad Men showed, advertising has been a powerful force for a long time. People paid for newspapers and magazine subscriptions, but so did their sponsors, the advertisers. Until the advent of cable, people bought a TV set, but got all their TV programming for free.

Today, the bulk of Internet content is supported by advertising. This is an unpopular reality. People like the idea of getting things for free. Many people have told me that content providers should somehow produce this content for free, whether for "exposure" or for the mere love of the craft. That's so not practical.

Almost all the content producers who create substantial content with reasonably high production values do so for a living. It is a full time job, not an avocation. As much as we love our audience, we also need to pay the bills.

That's why we have advertising. It's actually a virtuous cycle. Vendors make products that provide benefits to their customers. In order to let prospective customers know about those products, they buy ads. Those ads support us, and all the other media producers, as we create our content. Then you get great content from us, and are made aware of products and services that can help you out, whether it's finding a solution to an IT problem or a more reliable laptop.

So, advertising provides value. But let's be honest here. Advertising can also go too far. This, too, is part of the paradox.

Ad formats designed to capture attention

Advertisers pay a lot of money to run ads on major sites. In return, they want to see value for their money. After all, why wouldn't they? The problem is, many of us have become inured to ads. We see so many of them that they generally vanish from our awareness - unless something grabs our attention.

In a quest to increase attention, both advertisers and the sites they advertise on have tried a wide range of tactics. We all came to know the nearly ubiquitous and universally-hated pop-up back in the days before most browsers merely blocked them as a matter of course.

Beyond regular text and display ads, we still have pop-up ads, but they're used less and less. Advertisers also use large interstitial ads (basically, you don't get to see what you want until you click through the ad), ads that take up most of the page, and videos that play automatically with sound.

It's this last - videos that play automatically with sound - that I'll be discussing in the rest of this article. I'll be honest with you.

We, too, want the increased engagement that such videos produce, because that provides more value to our advertisers. That's good for our overall income. But even though we're doing it, some our our readers don't like it, and - more to the point - it's a practice that may find itself producing value only for a few remaining months.

The curse of the ad blocker

As has always been the case in the technology world and on the Internet, when something doesn't work the way some folks want, they find a way around it.

For those people who truly dislike ads, a category of add-on emerged some time ago: the ad blocker. The rise of the ad blocker is understandable, particularly for those who need to use some sites that spam readers with particularly intrusive ads. Some ads are so intense they slow browsers down to a crawl. This is even worse on mobile sites, because ads often don't resize properly and make some sites unreadable.

But while ad blockers may be necessary in the worst case conditions, if ad blockers became universally used, they would kill the web. After all, without ads, those of us who make our living producing ad-supported content would need to find other jobs.

Ad blockers aren't terribly common, but they're not a scarcity either. According to PageFair, a company that specializes in advertising strategy as it pertains to ad blockers, about 11 percent of the worldwide Internet population use ad blockers.

Personally, I don't use ad blockers. I've made my living from ads, either directly or indirectly, for the past 20 years. It just doesn't seem right to bite the hand that feeds me. Besides, I derive so much incredible value from all the content produced online, I feel its important that all its intrepid producers be supported so they can keep making great stuff for us to read and watch.

That said, here's what's worrying advertisers. Ad blocker use, according to PageFair, grew by 30 percent in 2016. As a response, some sites have set up so-called ad block walls. These detect if you're running an ad blocker and if so, block your access to the site until you re-enable ads to be shown.

PageFair's research shows adblock walls may not work. The company's analysis shows that, "74% of American adblock users say they leave sites with adblock walls." So much for those eyeballs.

But here's where it gets interesting. There's some evidence that most people who use ad blockers are actually just trying to block the most annoying types of ads. PageFair's research shows "77% of American adblock users [are] willing to view some ad formats."

That fact brings us to our next stop on our tour, the Coalition for Better Ads.

The Coalition for Better Ads

The Coalition for Better Ads is an industry group formed by advertisers, advertising agencies, and those who run ads. Their purpose is to maintain the value of ads for advertisers, while also reducing annoyance to readers. In other words, they're trying to find a way to guide advertising so it's not so intrusive that most site visitors employ the nuclear option of a full-on ad blocker.

While many of their members are ad agencies and advertisers, two member organizations may be particularly familiar: Google and Facebook.

This is a relatively new coalition, formed in late 2016. In March, the group issued what it calls "Initial Better Ads Standards," a listing of the least preferred ad experiences for desktop web and mobile web.

Smack dab in the middle of that list is our topic of discussion today, auto-playing videos with sound.

The writing on the wall

Speaking personally, and fully aware of the irony that my own videos benefit by auto-playing on ZDNet, I don't like videos that play with sound. I'm often writing or programming, deep in my thoughts, and when a video suddenly blares to life, it knocks me right off my train of thought.

It's been possible to mitigate this on a user-by-user level for a while. Back in 2015, when Google introduced Chrome 46, the ability to mute an individual tab was added. Just a few months ago, our own Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols posted an article that showed how to automatically mute web page sounds in Chrome and Firefox. If you're an Edge user, Ghostery will also block autoplay videos.

If it were only up to users who add plugins to their browser, I wouldn't have said that the practice of auto-playing videos with sound probably only had months to live. It's really that Apple and Google are about to raise their ban hammer and knock that behavior into oblivion.

Google was first to the party on June 1. In a blog post entitled, "Building a better web for everyone," Google's Senior VP for ads and commerce Sridhar Ramaswamy wrote about why Google joined the Coalition for Better Ads. He covers a number of topics in that post, but then raises his hammer high over his head with this statement:

In dialogue with the Coalition and other industry groups, we plan to have Chrome stop showing ads (including those owned or served by Google) on websites that are not compliant with the Better Ads Standards starting in early 2018.

Since yappy video ads are among those identified as not compliant, the astute reader will make the logical connection that auto-playing video ads with sound will be squashed by Chrome early next year.

For Apple users, that change is coming sooner. At WWDC on June 5, Apple software engineering VP Craig Federighi talked about what he called the new "serene browsing experience" in Safari. He described auto-play videos and sound as "loud audio and video that disrupts your whole reading vibe." He continued, "Now, don't worry about it, because we have autoplay blocking in Safari."

Apple will be releasing this feature in High Sierra, their new version of macOS that will be out in September. Given Apple's usually strong uptake for new OS releases, you can expect most active Mac users to have autoplay blocking enabled shortly after. So far, I haven't seen any mention of autoplay blocking on the iOS Safari, but I'm guessing it can't be all that far behind.

Where does Microsoft stand on all this? I asked our resident Windows expert Ed Bott, and he told me there's nothing he knows of that's on Microsoft's roadmap to block auto-playing video with sound.

This may be reason enough for advertisers to keep supporting auto-playing videos, but I'd caution them that, based on my browser share analysis from April, Chrome is by far the dominant player, by a factor of more than 2-to-1.

The bottom line for this ad format is that the writing is on the wall. It's unlikely to survive much into 2018. With Google aiming its crosshairs on noisy videos and other intrusive ad formats, if ads like our auto-playing videos remain on sites, they're unlikely to get nearly the engagement they're getting today.

In some ways, this is really unfortunate. It's getting harder and harder for content producers to make enough money to support hiring top notch writers and editors. Eliminating an ad format that was performing for sponsors will make that tougher, once again. On the other hand, what price can you put on peace and quiet?

Obviously, we'll be watching this closely here at ZDNet. As always, we welcome your feedback. You may have noticed we installed a new and improved comments system below. Please feel free to use it and share your opinion.

You can follow my day-to-day project updates on social media. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz, on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz, on Instagram at Instagram.com/DavidGewirtz, and on YouTube at YouTube.com/DavidGewirtzTV.

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