Google amps up assault on adware

More than 5% of PCs infected with ad injectors, which threaten Google's business

Google logo fisheye
Credit: Kristina Alexanderson via Flickr

Google yesterday said that 1 in 20 personal computers is infected with what it called an "ad injector" as it previewed a few factoids from research it will publish in just over a month.

"More than 5% of people visiting Google sites have at least one ad injector installed," said Nav Jagpal, a software engineer with Google's Safe Browsing team, in a blog post Tuesday. "Within that group, half have at least two injectors installed and nearly one-third have at least four installed."

"Ad injectors" are just what they sound like: Small programs that insert online advertisements into a Web page, typically without authorization from either the device owner or the publisher of the website. Superfish Visual Discovery, the ad injector that blew up in Lenovo's face last month, was a very prominent example.

Google considers ad injectors parasitic, and has taken a long string of steps over the year to suppress them -- most recently in February when it added an alert to its Chrome browser that pops up when users try to access a website that the search firm suspects will try to dupe users into downloading underhanded software.

Jagpal highlighted a few other data points that he said came from a study Google conducted with researchers at the University of California, Berkeley. The complete study is to be published May 1.

Ad injectors, more commonly known as "adware," were detected on both Windows and OS X systems, and within Chrome, Mozilla's Firefox and Microsoft's Internet Explorer (IE), Jagpal said. "Researchers found 192 deceptive Chrome extensions that affected 14 million users," he added, noting that those browser add-ons have been disabled.

Jagpal also contended that ad injectors have ben the most common complaint from Chrome users this year, with more than 100,000 logged so far.

Google's message about ad injectors is that they are, well, bad. But not only for users. "Unwanted ad injectors aren't part of a healthy ads ecosystem," said Jagpal. "They're part of an environment where bad practices hurt users, advertisers, and publishers alike."

That was a different tack than before, when Google stressed only how unwanted software in general, adware specifically, affected users. Jagpal's description of injectors' impact on the ad ecosystem -- of which Google is by far the largest single entity -- was the company's longest, most detailed by far.

That's no coincidence.

The company has focused on ad injectors for obvious, if until-lately-unstated, reasons. The last thing Google wants is to have adware, especially the most irritating, turn off everyone to all online advertising, or piggyback unauthorized ads on those it places on search results pages.

Ben Bajarin, an analyst at Creative Strategies, one of several experts who believe that Google faces some serious long-range problems, put that into a broader context yesterday. "The ad-supported model is wreaking havoc on the user experience of the Web," Bajarin said Tuesday in a piece posted to Tech.pinions (subscription or 50-cent payment required).

"While Google may not [be] the abuser, they are not in complete control," Bajarin said of the user experience. "Publishers layer ad unit after ad unit, interstitials at the beginning, middle, and end of an article, and cover sites with ads to the point they are painfully unusable."

Google's efforts to suppress ad injectors could be viewed as an attempt to regain some control over the user experience.

Jagpal said as much yesterday, albeit couching it in more altruistic terms without directly acknowledging the benefit to Google's ad-based business model. "We're committed to continuing to improve this experience for Google and the Web as a whole," Jagpal said.

This story, "Google amps up assault on adware" was originally published by Computerworld.

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