A Refreshing Debate: Amending Google’s Anti Auto-Refresh Policy

The supporting argument for publishers auto-refreshing their webpage is simple: An increased refresh rate leads to more ad impressions which leads to more revenue.  Pretty straight forward.

The dissenting argument on the demand side is also very clear: Ad refreshes that aren’t triggered by the user are less likely to be engaged by that user, paying and performing worse for the publisher and the client. The ultimate result of this, they argue, is devalued inventory for publishers and unhappy clients for demand partners.

In general, when both sides of an argument present truly rational cases for their position the result is slow progress. Although we believe both sides of the auto-refresh debate have merit, there are some important distinctions to consider about both positions .

First on the publisher side: While there are some websites that absolutely call for an auto-refresh due to their extended user sessions, there are plenty of others that are actively and knowingly abusing the technology. Auto-refreshes on fast timers or pages that auto-refresh without cause are tough to regulate and give the general practice a bad reputation.

These “black hat” tactics shouldn’t be confused with webpages that auto-refresh after a long period of time to account for extended user sessions or refreshes brought on from new content served within a frame on a page. These techniques are legitimate and should be distinguished from those that take advantage of the CPM model.

The challenge however, and where this debate gets interesting, is figuring out exactly how to distinguish them.

On the demand side, media partners want to do everything they can to ensure their message is viewed and a part of the user experience. Ads that load with new content on a page give the brand’s messaging a great opportunity to be seen and a true page load is the best way to ensure that.

Digital display campaigns are often sold with performance baselines in mind (CTR, CPA, CPL, etc.). This is the same reason ad networks and exchanges are always jockeying for top position in a publisher’s demand stack. The ads that are seen first in a user session are more likely to be engaged (or so the story goes). If a page is refreshing on a timer while a user is focused on the content they came to the page for, there is almost no chance they are absorbing the new message being broadcast in the banner. This is then considered a wasted impression and a lost opportunity.

These generally defensible arguments from both sides have led to a murky, provider by provider policy on auto-refreshing. While most reputable ad networks and exchanges would prefer if a site doesn’t refresh, the official policy seems to be something along the lines of don’t ask, don’t tell and for the love of god please don’t set the refresh timer to 15 seconds!

However the biggest player in the game isn’t amused with this debate. Google’s official policy is a stern NO when it comes to auto-refresh. They just aren’t having it, no matter what the timer is set for or the reason for the automated refresh.

As much as I respect Google and what they’ve done for digital media (DFP and AdX have revolutionized the space and are admittedly a huge part of our efforts at SBM) I think this policy is outdated, far too sweeping and in need of amending.

I also believe there’s a straight forward way to reform this policy to allow for responsible auto-refresh while continuing to protect buyers on Google’s Ad Exchange who have concerns with websites that auto-refresh.

Instead of not allowing any sort of auto-refresh, here is our proposal for Google Ad Exchanges updated refresh policy:

  • A 60 second minimum on all page refreshes. Anything under 60 seconds will be considered a direct policy violation.
  • All AdX units that auto-refresh must be labeled as such when they are created within the AdX user interface. If they are already running they must be amended within the UI to reflect auto-refreshing.
  • On the sell side, Google will offer their exchange partners the ability to opt-out of all web pages that employ auto-refresh. The default option will be preset to opt-out.
  • Auto-refresh policy violations such as a refresh timer set under the 60 second minimum will be treated as fraudulent and will carry similar penalties to adult, warez and spam content.
  • Auto-refresh impressions will carry a 75/25 revenue share vs. standard impressions which are 80/20 to account for ad serving fees.

To be clear, we’re not suggesting we’re outlining a revolution here. I doubt there’s anything in our proposal that Google hasn’t already considered. That said, isn’t it possible we’re all missing the bigger picture? Effective digital advertising is distributed as an integrated part of the user experience. By firmly saying no to 100% of auto-refreshes Google is encouraging publishers to go out of their way to create more page views through tactics that worsen the user experience.

We’ve all read online articles or galleries that could’ve easily fit on a single page but have been extended to five to maximize pageviews and impressions.Who’s to blame in that scenario? Is it the publisher working within the parameters of ad serving guidelines in order to inflate their impression numbers? Is it the ad provider who claims time spent on page should have no impact to the number of ads that can be displayed? Is it the thousands of websites that do everything they can to game the system, serve phantom impressions and make it harder for ad ops teams working legitimately? It’s tough to say and your position will almost always depend on which side of the fence you call home.

The one thing that’s clear is implementing straight forward guidelines that blend publishers’ needs with advertisers’ concerns is a major step forward. The policy we presented may not solve 100% of the issues associated with auto-refresh, but it also won’t hurt to get the conversation started.