What is Google’s Ads Transparency Spotlight Tool?

Chris Shuptrine
Chris Shuptrine
What is Google’s Ads Transparency Spotlight Tool?

Last month, Google released a new Chrome extension designed to give users more insight into the ads they see across web pages — including the data used to personalize their ad experiences.

This article will explain what Google’s Ads Transparency Tool is, how it works, and what this latest push towards a more open advertising ecosystem means for the industry.

What is the Ads Transparency Spotlight?

Google’s Ads Transparency Spotlight is a Chrome extension that offers more information on the ads users see as they visit various web pages. The extension can be enabled for testing by Chrome users, as well as Microsoft Edge users who allow extensions from other web stores.

In its current alpha stage, the extension displays information only for Google Ads that have implemented the Ads Transparency Spotlight (Alpha) Data Disclosure schema. Information includes:

  • Number of ads on the page
  • Ad providers responsible for serving ads to the page
  • Ad tech companies present on the page (e.g., analytics providers, content delivery networks)
  • Data used to personalize ad experiences (e.g., user demographics, location, context, interests)

Google image of Ads Transparency Spotlight tool

(Source: Google)

While the Ads Transparency Spotlight tool is currently in alpha testing, and limited to Google Ads, Google’s hope is that other ad platforms will adopt the schema, leading to a more transparent ad ecosystem globally.

How does the Ads Transparency Spotlight work?

The Ads Transparency Spotlight extension scans the Document Object Model tree of a web page for its ad content and pulls information from Google’s Ad Disclosure Schema — which is currently limited to display ads purchased through the Google Ads network.

Users of the Chrome extension can see detailed information for the web pages they visit.

For example, a visit to The Onion’s site offers this behind-the-scenes look at my ads experience:

Website view of Google Ads Transparency Spotlight tool

“Ads” tab

The “Ads” tab highlights for users where those ads are coming from, what ad tech middlemen are involved (SSPs, DMPs, and so on), and what data those exchanges are using to target you by.

For instance, the Ads Transparency Spotlight tells me the five ads I see are from Google Ads:

Ads shown via Google Ads Transparency Spotlight tool

...that Google and RevJet are responsible for serving them:

Ad servers shown in Google Ads Transparency Spotlight tool

...and that Google is using my broad location data, interests, context, and “other reasons” to determine which ads might meet my needs:

User data shown in Google Ads Transparency Spotlight tool

“Entities” tab

The extension’s “Entities” tab lists other companies and services that have “a presence on the page”, a euphemism for how many tracking tags are on the site.

Google includes a link to each service provider’s privacy policy in the Ads Transparency Spotlight extension.

Using the previous example, I see the following on The Onion’s site — and can scroll to see a total of 73 entities on the homepage alone — from Adobe Advertising Cloud to The Onion’s AV Club:

Entities shown in Google Ads Transparency Spotlight tool

While Google caveats that the list contains a variety of services including analytics and data storage, most entities are vendors in the programmatic ad supply chain (DSPs, SSPs, and DMPs). As such, this tab does a great job of highlighting what third-party vendors are getting pinged with your user data.

What does Google’s transparency tool mean for the industry?

Google has built its new Ads Transparency Spotlight in the hopes that other publishers will adopt its Ad Disclosure Schema and join forces to create a more transparent system of ad disclosure. This is a laudable effort, especially when paired with their SameSite cookie changes, their upcoming deprecation of third-party cookies, and their Privacy Sandbox.

The only issue is — there’s no clear endgame here. Being able to see tracking tags is nothing particularly new — the Chrome extension Ghostery has done it well for years. Plus, Spotlight, unlike Ghostery, has no native ad blocking functionality — so users can see who is tracking them but can’t do anything about it.

Without making the data actionable, it’s unclear why users would install the Ads Transparency extension when they could use an ad blocker instead, which would provide both insights and privacy.

On top of that, there’s little incentive for publishers or ad platforms that are not Google to implement the schema. There appears to be no penalty for not installing the schema, and it’s unlikely one’s users will care.

That said, to give Google the benefit of the doubt, here are some possible long-term purposes of the schema:

  1. It’s the first step in building out a native Chrome ad blocker. Such a move could have huge implications on publisher programmatic revenue, especially if turned on by default
  2. They are laying the groundwork for a native Chrome Consent Management Platform tool (used to collect consent for GDPR/CCPA/etc). The CMP could look something like the current Spotlight tool — with the ability to toggle on/off certain vendors and how your data is used
  3. They want to compete with Firefox/Safari by offering a whole swath of “Ad Personalization” toggles so users have more control over their data
Ultimately, for any of these paths to be successful, Google would need more schema buy-in from publishers and ad platforms that are not Google Ads. This likely won’t happen organically — so its success may be predicated on a drastic scenario where Google requires publishers/ad platforms to install the schema or risk penalty (maybe Chrome blocks all ads automatically that don’t have a schema tied to them).

Our opinion is that this scenario is pretty unlikely; we’re guessing this is just a side project of some technical Google employees (the documentation is hosted in Github, after all) who would actually like to bring transparency to ads — especially when privacy laws are such a major topic of conversation.

What’s next?

With ad blockers and distrust of advertising on the rise, all publishers will be looking for new, innovative ways to monetize wary users with ad experiences that offer greater privacy and transparency.

We’ll continue to follow the development of Google’s Ads Transparency Spotlight and share more insights on its potential impact in upcoming articles.

Chris Shuptrine
Chris Shuptrine

Chris has worked in ad tech for over fourteen years in a variety of roles - giving him customer support, PM, and marketing perspectives from both the advertiser and publisher sides. He's the VP of Marketing at Kevel.