Surviving Google’s notification ad ban: Android alternatives

Surviving google's ad ban

Google’s update to the Play Store Developer Content Policy in late September may have looked relatively minor to any outsiders, but it’s ramifications for developers and the still-maturing mobile ad industry have been significant. In this article, mobyaffiliates takes an in-depth look at developer and industry reactions to Google’s banning of push and icon ads for Android, covering who was impacted the most, and how the industry has adapted. As well as quotes from developers caught-up in the ban, you’ll also find interviews with some of the major ad networks and players who were targeted by Google updated content policy. Plus we’ve talked to some of the up and coming ad platforms who have already benefited from the policy change by introducing new Google-compliant solutions to help developers recover lost revenues.

Contents: Surviving Google’s notification ad ban

What was banned and why?

Example of a push notification ad from Airpush

Example of a push notification ad from Airpush

So how exactly did Google amend its policy and what ad types did it outlaw? Here’s an excerpt from the relevant policy section, which came into effect last month:

  • Apps and their ads must not add homescreen shortcuts, browser bookmarks, or icons on the user’s device as a service to third parties or for advertising purposes.
  • Apps and their ads must not display advertisements through system level notifications on the user’s device, unless the notifications derive from an integral feature provided by the installed app. (e.g., an airline app that notifies users of special deals, or a game that notifies users of in-game promotions).

These few paragraphs put a number of ads on the chopping block, but the most significant were:

Push notification ads: Push ads were probably the most significant casualty from the ban. As most readers are well-aware, push notification ads delivered advertisements via the smartphone’s notification bar. Users would get a notification, open the tray, and see the ad displayed. Push ads were a successful format and many networks deployed them. The key players were Airpush, Startapp and Sendroid, but bigger networks, such as Leadbolt, also offered them as part of their portfolio of formats.

Icon Ads and Bookmarks: The other relevant part of the policy change concerned:  “homescreen shortcuts, browser bookmarks, or icons” on a user’s device. This effectively killed off icon and bookmark ads offered by the likes of Startapp, Leadbolt and others.

Why were the formats banned?

According to their detractors, push notification ads attracted a large volume of complaints from users due to spam and because they allowed developers to monetise – and therefore encourage the development of –  poor quality apps (which didn’t have the engagement rates to monetise in other ways), thus damaging the Android eco-system. Throw in dodgy ad types, such as virus warnings, and it’s understandable that Google took notice.

But the ad format’s proponents argue that push notifications and icon ads allowed them to monetise apps that – by their very nature – have low engagement, such as wallpaper, widgets, themes and certain utility apps. Plus, some of the more conspiratorial developers, believed Google banned the formats in an effort to boost its own AdMob network (more on that later).

How did the ban affect developers and networks?

Key stats:

  • Ban cut Enlightened Apps’ total revenue by 60%, an estimated yearly loss of 175k (source: Enlightened Apps)
  • Push ads accounted for between 40% to 70% of revenue on ad supported Android apps (according to five developers we spoke to who wish to remain anonymous)
  • Push and icon ads accounted for 15% of Alkaline Apps’ total ad revenue (source: Alkaline Apps)
  • ECPMs on push ads averaged between $4 and $7 (source: Leadbolt)
  • Push ads only accounted for 2% of traffic on AppFlood’s network (source: AppFlood)
  • Policy change could wipe out $150 million in ad revenue in total (source: NativeX)
  • Push notification ads generation 10x revenue of banner ads (source: Airpush)
  • Despite ban, push ad pioneer Airpush estimates revenue growth to exceed 100% for 2013 (source: Airpush)
In response to user complaints, push ad blocker apps began appearing on Google Play

In response to user complaints, push ad blocker apps began appearing on Google Play

Kurt Attard works for the Australian-based indie developer Enlightened Apps and told us the ban caused a 60% drop in revenue for the company. Attard is predicting a loss over $175,000 for the full year. He tells us one of his most popular mobile games had over 770,000 downloads and 90,000 active players when the policy change hit. Attard is, unsurprisingly, highly critical of Google saying the company’s actions are “literally destroying many families’ lives.”

A developer we talked to, who wanted to remain anonymous, said Google’s ban had a “fairly big impact” on his business, with push ads accounting for more than 70% of revenue on ad-supported apps, and performing around 10x better than other ad formats. Other anon devs said the impact on their bottom line ranged from 40% to 70%.

One developer, who again wished to remain anonymous, told us Google’s handling of the ban was tantamount to “an international crime,” as it automatically closed a number developer accounts and refused to pay any outstanding funds. We tried contacting Google to get a response to these claims, but didn’t get a reply.

“I am actually now quite glad they were banned as its cleaned up the market a lot and my users are happier.” – Charles Dunn, Alkaline Labs

Other developers we talked to, weren’t quite as badly affected. Charles Dunn, who runs Alkaline Labs, says he was making around 15% of his total ad revenue from push notification and icon ads before the policy was updated. Dunn says because of the formats’ “intrusive and annoying nature,” and because of continuing user complaints, the payout “wasn’t really worth it toward the end.”

“Initially I thought the ban might shake things up quite a lot,” says Dunn. “But after finding a different ad solution and optimizing my current ad solutions I was able to almost make up the difference. I am actually now quite glad they were banned as its cleaned up the market a lot and my users are happier.”

What do the networks say?

The networks paint a mixed picture in terms of the impact of Google’s ban. Leadbolt CEO Dale Carr told us his network’s push ads were very effective when properly implemented, with ECPMs averaging between $4 to $7 (you can read our full interview with Dale Carr here).

Leadbolt CEO Dale Carr

Leadbolt CEO Dale Carr

Carr says: “Despite the criticism of these ads, they were a very effective marketing tool when implemented in such a way as not to disturb users during their app usage.” He adds that users “had the opportunity to review these ads when it was convenient for them, which meant much higher response rates and therefore higher returns for both developers and advertisers.”

One of the biggest proponents of push ads was the ad network Airpush. While some believed Airpush would suffer due to the ban, its director of business development, Andrew Wang, is adamant that couldn’t be further from the truth, telling us the company is “growing faster than ever” and push ads are still a “healthy business.” Wang says “most developers” have adapted to the ban by creating two different versions of their apps, offering the push ad version on 3rd party app stores.

“Push ads continue to be a healthy business,” says Wang. “But the other segments of our business have eclipsed them and have become solid profit centers for our publishers and advertisers. Overall we did $47m in 2012 and will do ~$100m in 2013 and we continue to show signs of hockey­stick growth.”

“Banning push and icon ads may have hurt those developers who developed low-quality apps and monetized users the easiest way they know how.” – Francis Bea, AppFlood

AppFlood’s Francis Bea said overall push and icon ads did not represent a great deal of traffic for his network. Bea says: “Due to the inherently intrusive nature of these ad formats that pushed an ad into a user’s system notification level of their device (outside of an app), just 2 percent of traffic accounted for notification and icons on AppFlood.”

Bea continues: “The impact on banning push and icon ads may have hurt those developers who developed low-quality apps and monetized users the easiest way they know how without regard to the app’s user experience. We do recognize the developer who used push ads ended up taking a hit to their bottom line. However if you look at the impact at macro level, even during July the ad format made up just 3% of our total traffic, which means that very few developers used the ad format in the first place.”

Did Google do the right thing?

So how are the industry and developers coping and did Google do the right thing? Given that many devs relied on out-of-app revenue it’s no surprise that this is an inflammatory issue. Just take one look through the comments on this forum thread to see the range – and intensity – of opinion.  The main arguments from devs upset over the ban go like this:

  • Android users do not monetise as well as iOS users, according to some studies, so more aggressive advertising is needed.
  • The smaller devs, which helped rapidly build Google Play’s library, are now being punished by Google.
  • Developers who built apps that didn’t require much user-engagement, such as wallpaper apps, theme apps and some utility apps, are going to be heavily impacted, as out-of-app ads were the only way they could monetise.

AppKey’s Christopher Jue agrees that the ban has “disproportionally impacted smaller developers” and has created a “ripple effect” that – while resulting in higher quality apps – has created “a lot of skepticism with non-traditional ad networks” among developers.

Icon ads, such as this one from Leadbolt, have also been banned.

Icon ads, such as this one from Leadbolt, have also been banned.

“Devs are scrambling for revenue replacement,” says Jue. “But they’re also sitting on their hands not choosing a new network because they’ve been “spooked” by ad networks who claimed to be in compliance up until a day or two before they banned.”

But Jue adds that while some developers will be “shot term collateral damage” the market will “realign itself” and “making money in Google Play will be reinvented.” Indeed the general consensus from the both the developers and the ad networks we spoke to was an optimistic one, with many believing Google’s policy change will benefit the eco-system overall.

Airpush’s Andrew Wang defends push ads, saying the ban has become “a deterrent” for any developers to create content such as wallpaper apps and personalisation apps. He also says push ads were victimised by a “small but very vocal minority” who failed to understand “the goals of some innovative ads.” According to Wang, the Android ecosystem is powered by advertising and higher performing ads, such as push ads, actually mean “less ads need to be displayed to the user.”

Wang adds: “Since Push Notification Ads are 100% user opt-in and provide an easy op-out, they’re much better for the consumer than other advertising vehicles, which force the user to view endless numbers of ads with virtually no control over how and when they are displayed.”

“Push Notification Ads are 100% user opt-in and provide an easy op-out, they’re much better for the consumer than other advertising vehicles.” – Andrew Wang, Airpush

Developer Charles Dunn says Google is “definitely making it harder for smaller developers” and negatively impacting those who “helped launch the Android Market into the huge success that is now Google Play.” But despite this he says the ban “needed to be done.”

“A good portion of push ad users weren’t contributing to the Android eco-system’s growth,” says Dunn. “They were simply capitalising on the money-making opportunity. Google was not heavy handed. ”

This idea of push ad users operating at the lower end of the quality bar is echoed by AppFlood’s Francis Bea, who also roundly dismisses the accusation that Google implemented the ban to drive developers toward AdMob.

“If you’ve ever conducted research on user sentiment revolving around these ad formats like we did, you’ll find that most people felt that push and icon ads were “spammy” and the general consensus was that Google Play was better off without the format. At the end of the day, we think Google listened to the users”

Leadbolt’s Dale Carr says that while notifications were a “popular format” on Leadbolt the ban was “just another step in the evolution” of the Android eco-system. He adds that “since Google Play couldn’t control the more aggressive networks, by banning the ads outright, they are ensuring a cleaner industry.”

Were the networks to blame?

Carr’s comments on “aggressive ad networks” raises the question that perhaps the ad formats themselves weren’t to blame, but that certain networks were encouraging spammy and anti-user behaviour. Carr says the problem of spam was “more due to uncontrolled networks” and there was “definitely some” that were “looking to maximise short-term returns by pushing ads out very frequently.”

AppFlood's content marketing manager, Francis Bea

AppFlood’s content marketing manager, Francis Bea

Not everyone agrees. Lior Shakoor heads up publisher relations at MobileCore, a new Google compliant Android ad network which has seen business almost double since Google’s ban. He says while some networks were more aggressive than others, the policy change “would have happened anyway.”

“In this business, new networks are appearing all the time,” says Shakoor. “Some were indeed more aggressive than others which might have caused the ban to appear earlier than it would have. But we believe that it would have happened anyway, and that no network is responsible for it.”

“The media pushed the notion of these ads as spammy, but I believe that was more due to uncontrolled networks in the industry allowing the developers to abuse this format.” – Dale Carr, Leadbolt

AppFlood’s Francis Bea goes a step further and says the ad format itself was inherently spammy and “conducive to abuse.” “The very essence of push ads, which felt “spammy” no matter how you cut it, was what was wrong with the ad format,” says Bea. “I think the ban was inevitable regardless of how users were treated by both the networks and developers.”

One of the networks that came under the most fire for spamming users was Airpush and at more than one developer told us the network encouraged them to send ads more frequently than they wanted to. But Airpush’s Andrew Wang denies this and says it worked hard to enforce best practices and standards.

“We were the first organization to set a limit to the number of ads a day that can be displayed to a single user and do not permit our devs to go above that,” says Wang. We were also pioneers in,setting an opt­-in / opt out structure that most ad networks still haven’t matched to this day. It’s also definitely worth stating that we are board members of the IAB, where we work closely with top mobile/digital organizations like Facebook to help set privacy and advertising best practices for the entire industry.”

New solutions in a post push ad world

Key stats

  • Widdit has seen a 20% increase in sign-ups since the policy change (source: Widdit)
  • MobileCore is seeing cross promo ad CTRs reach 15% (source: mobileCore)
  • Sign ups at mobiMicro increased 500% over last few months post ban (source: MobiMicro)
  • Leadbolt Audio Ads are seeing CTRs of 30% (source: Leadbolt)
  • Appflood’s notification traffic decline 49% between July and September (source: Appflood)
  • Panel ads on Appflood increased 161% during same period, while list ads increased 1158% (source: AppFlood)
  • Interstitial ads remain the most lucrative and high earning on AppFlood’s network (source: AppFlood)

So what alternatives are there for developers who are still looking for a new ad revenue source? A number of established networks such as AppFlood and Airpush have been busy developing new solutions and formats to help developers make the transition and Leadbolt has been particularly busy in this area, boosting a whole range of formats. But there’s also been a number of newer ad networks that have quickly gained popularity with developers with their own innovative formats and platforms. We’ve picked out a few of them below and quizzed them on how they’re helping developers.

mobileCore

MobileCore

mobyaffiliates: How’s mobileCore helping developers generate more revenue? What ad solutions are you offering?

mobileCore provides an SDK carrying many features that generate revenue, engagement and installations to Android developers. Our beautiful native ad units generate high revenues with minimum interference with the user’s in-app experience.

mobileCore’s offers interstitials and native Slider ads. The interstitials offer the users to install more free apps; By working with over 400 app advertisers, we can match a good app to every user, whether the user likes casual games, MMORPGs, dating apps or gaming apps (slots, poker), our interstitials will eventually show the user something he’ll like.

The Slider is a native side menu that can be configured easily from the mobileCore website. Over 4,000 apps use the Slider to generate more rates, shares and also monetize their apps with app offers. Developers using mobileCore can turn on the Cross Promo feature and add their own apps to the ads they show, which generates them more downloads and saves them big marketing costs.

How are your ads performing for developers? Can you give me any honest ecpms? CTRs? 

mobileCore is one of the fastest growing Android networks and we don’t see many developers that start using mobileCore leave. That says a lot about the performance and service they receive.

Our strongest GEOs in terms of eCPM are the tier 1 countries (US, Australia, Germany, Canada etc.) in which we usually perform around the 1.7-$4 average (US is higher with $4.9 average eCPM in November).

We do focus lots of energy in raising the eCPM in countries like Indonesia, Thailand, India, Middle East and LATAM, by translating the ads and recruiting top advertisers like Supercell, DeNA and Gamevil. The average eCPM in Indonesia and Thailand is $1.6-2, and in India and the Middle East we see eCPM of around $0.75-1.

The CTR is averaging 6%-%8 across all GEOs. One of the most exciting figures is the CTR of Cross Promo ads – %15 on average (!) At first we though it was a bug in the reporting but in fact those are the number (users like to install similar apps).

Widdit

widdit

Can you explain how Widdit is innovating in the mobile ad space?

Widdit has developed an innovative platform called HomeBase. HomeBase is a highly customizable platform that delivers tailor made content and features into the end-user lock screen. HomeBase is served as an SDK that can be easily integrated with any app on the Play Store. We pay developers who integrated HomeBase up to 1 cent per daily active user (DAU). Because HomeBase is so versatile and flexible, we handpick the sponsored content that presented in HomeBase, and making huge efforts in order to deliver only relevant, engaging content and app recommendations.

Have any of your ad solutions been affected by Google’s recent ban on ‘out of app ads’?

No. We’ve used to include a “search icon” for a very brief time, but we’ve realized that this may harm the final user experience. We took it off long before Google’s new bans.

Have devs been coming to widdit to make up for lost revenue since the policy change?

Definitely yes. There are a lot developers who seek for a legitimate monetization solution. What separates us from other monetization companies is that we focus mainly on the end user experience alongside providing real value for our partners. Developers that choose to work with Widdit know that they are getting the most extensive and comprehensive solution out there. We’ve seen an increase of around 20% in new developers sign ups.

Widdit’s lock screen ads explained

 

AppKey

appkey

What exactly is AppKey offering developers in terms of its solutions?

AppKey is a radically different cross-promotion and advertising monetization platform. Developers who integrate with AppKey earn free promotion on the AppKey widget plus a share of earned revenue. AppKey coexists with in-app banners, interstitials, in-app-purchase, and paid app strategies to incrementally drive discovery and monetization. Our “sweet spot” are those apps that offer a “freemium” version.

Has AppKey’s out of app solutions been affected at all by Google’s recent ban? Is there any danger of them being affected?

We have been affected by Google’s recent ad policy ban- but in a good way. The recent policy change has given our platform greater visibility to developers in search of a compliant solution.

As far as AppKey being in danger of being ban, we don’t see it happening. The solutions that were banned were either sending push ads, or making changes outside the host app in violation of the new System Interference clause. AppKey does not use push, nor does it make any changes outside the host app. AppKey uses content in the host app as an incentive for users to install AppKey themselves.

Since Google’s ban have you seen an increase in business for your solutions?

We’ve seen a big increase in interest in the AppKey platform since the ban. An unintended result is devs working with us to make their games more engaging with our widget. For example, game developers can make their games more challenging to advance to the next level(s), and use AppKey or IAP to advance to the next level more quickly. A fantastic app is launching with this approach in the next couple weeks. We would be happy to update you as soon as we can reveal the title.

A quick rundown of AppKey’s out of app solution

mobiMicro

mobimicro

What new ad solutions are you offering that might help developers following Google’s policy change?

mobiMicro is the fist mobile product network. We partner with the top merchants like eBay, Amazon, and Rakuten to advertise their products within relevant mobile app publishers. Experiencing our ‘ad’ is kind of like entering a store within your app. Users browse products and any time a lead is generated to a merchant site, we share that CPC revenue back with the publishers. We primarily offer a completely native solution for our publishers but can also run on standard banner sizes as well.

How are your ads performing for developers? Can you give me any honest ecpms? CTRs?

The most glaring stat we see is that our native ad experience drives 400% higher CTRs than standard banner implementations. Average CPCs are usually in the $0.15 range and if I backed out into an eCPM, we’re averaging about $1 eCPM across the board.

Have any of your ad solutions been affected by Google’s recent ban on ‘out of app ads’?

We have not been affected at all. Our mission was to create a solution for merchants and publishers that’s both easy to use and beautiful to experience. Fundamentally, our platform keeps all the experience within the app itself. Users never close or leave your app at any point.

Since Google’s ban have you seen an increase in business for your solutions?

I haven’t heard from any of my partners that it’s the primary reason why they joined us. We’re a very young company with a new idea. Our solution is an opportunity for publishers to generate new revenue on top of their existing banner revenue. When it comes to new dev sign ups the company is gaining traction along the lines of 500% month over month and we’re heading into the holiday season with a full head of steam.

Push notification ads may be dead, but there’s still plenty of ways to make money on Android. Check out the mobyaffiliates ad network directory right here, for a comprehensive list of the best networks in the industry. 

One Response to A Guide To Mobile Native Ads

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  • Hi Jamie. Any update on when the video recording is coming? It’s super interesting!

    • Written by Jakub
    • Posted on August 22, 2014 at 13:09