It’s a nearly unanimously-held belief: the future of digital content will depend, at least in part, on revenue from ads. This site is supported by ads. Musicians and digital producers will be looking to ads to support what they’re doing – sometimes in the form of direct ad revenue, sometimes in support for sites and communities they use (Facebook, YouTube, MySpace, and so on). Ads are very often what makes the Internet free.
But if ad-supported models are going to work, the system that delivers the ads has to work. This week, I believe Google failed to deliver the solution it promises its publishers. They violated their own policies, violated the principle of their service, violated the trust of their publishers, and then failed to respond to an issue that was deeply time-sensitive.
When Third-Party Ads Attack
Before I’m misunderstood, let’s consider advertising policy, which is not the same as editorial policy. In print publishing, whether a small-town weekly newspaper or The New York Times, ad sales relationships have been directly between a publisher and an advertiser. Running an ad does not mean an endorsement of the advertiser or their message or product. In fact, newspapers frequently run “op ed”-style ads that directly conflict with editorial policy, though not without being criticized by some for doing so. The Times runs a regular full-page ad from energy giant Exxon/Mobil, for instance.
In online publishing, we very frequently hand over those relationships to a third party. We expect, in return, that our interests as a publisher will be served by the third party.
This week, Google AdSense bombarded an enormous number of partner sites, Create Digital Music included, with banners opposing same-sex marriage in California, a right that had been protected in that state. Bizarrely, many music tech sites were targeted. The ads were offensive to many publishers; whatever your feelings about marriage and homosexuality, these were effectively ads in favor of discrimination. One ad run on this site was also factually inaccurate, suggesting that California protections for gay marriage can be equated to a mandate to teach about same-sex relationships in schools; various California officials have said that’s not true. Even if you want to debate the issue, that means the ads were claiming something that was false, which is not as debatable.
But tempting as it may be to focus on the political issue and the ads themselves, the ads are not the problem. The problem is that Google failed its publishers, failed the trust we place in Google, and then failed to talk about what it had done. It’s a failure of really historic proportions, and one that really merits a close examination and open debate if ad-supported content has any future at all. The fact that Proposition 8 passed and passed by a very narrow margin, is likely to turn up the political heat on that debate. Advertising was widely credited for the passage of the proposition, making us as publishers unwitting partners in the passage of a proposition many of us would have opposed. But let’s not lose sight of the fact that, Proposition 8 aside, the fault is Google’s for delivering well below the expectations of publishers.
Google’s Promise to Publishers
Unlike the traditional newspapers I used above, using Google AdSense is essentially entrusting your ads to an algorithm, to one that connects your content to relevant ads. Now, no one expects this algorithm to be perfect. Sometimes, it’s downright comical. When CDM covered Hatebeak, a parrot that “sings” death metal music, we got ads for bird feed
That said, the basic pitch Google makes to publishers is relevancy. Without relevancy, ads look out of place. They detract from the quality of the content we’re publishing. And most importantly, ads need to be relevant to make publishers money, which is the whole point. At least in the bird feed example, it was clear that the algorithm was making some match based on content, even if it wasn’t one an human might pick. (In fact, it might even work then – interested in parrots? Maybe you are interested in bird feed, even on a music site.)
But don’t take my word for it. Take Google’s:
AdSense for content automatically crawls the content of your pages and delivers ads (you can choose both text or image ads) that are relevant to your audience and your site content—ads so well-matched, in fact, that your readers will actually find them useful.
They go on to say:
Competitive Ad Filter enables you to filter out specific competitors or specific advertisers.
Editorial Review makes sure that all Google ads are reviewed and approved by the Google team, ensuring that inappropriate ads don’t appear on your pages.
Of course, none of that happened here.
My site is not a political site. Prior to this issue coming up, there’s no way an ad specific to California, entirely political in nature, had anything to do with the context of the site. Now, after this has happened, I’ve started writing posts with words like “homosexual” and “gay marriage,” so those ads would be contextual now. But as of Monday when ads appeared here, they had no business on the site. In fact, it would have been just as inappropriate if an ad saying “Oppose Proposition 8” had appeared on the site. For political reasons, I might not have objected, but it certainly would not have been “ads so well-matched … your readers will actually find them useful.”
Naturally, Google does run some ads as a public service, like “Give to the Red Cross.” But an ad encouraging you to give money to help tsunami victims is relevant to everyone, and it’s an issue on which everyone can agree. Political ads are quite different. And, in fact, sites only run those public service announcements when Google’s algorithm can’t find contextual ads to deliver.
As many publishers point out, the bottom line is lost revenue when this system fails – part of the reason a lot of us are considering dropping Google permanently, even if we don’t see anti-gay ads again. Since Google is click-based, not impression-based, we were actually paying bandwidth costs and missing out on ad revenue in order to carry these ads.
That said, we still don’t really know why this happened with the Prop 8 ads. Did the advertisers just buy up random keywords, getting them the technology placements? (And if so, does Google have a policy for such advertiser abuse?) Or does Google’s contextual targeting actually consider these ads relevant?
Whatever the answer, it gets worse.
Google’s Political Ad Policy
Below: one of the ads in question. Funny, on CDM when we think of protect childrens’ education, we think of expanding funding for teaching music. But worse, it violates Google’s own policies.
We as publishers are Google’s customers. You would think that massive online publicity for this story and widespread complaints from publishes would prompt some sort of response from the company. That hasn’t happened, minus a condescending and inadequate blog post on the Inside AdSense blog explaining how to block ads. (More on why that’s unhelpful in a moment.)
To get any explanation from Google, I had to rely, ironically, on a news article in which I myself was quoted. An unidentified Google spokesperson told the [London] Times Online:
Google allows ads that advocate for particular political position, regardless of the views that they represent. We’re currently allowing ads advocating both for and against Proposition 8.
That statement is based on Google’s published political advertising policy:
We permit political advertisements regardless of the political views they represent. Stating disagreement with or campaigning against a candidate for public office, a political party, or public administration is generally permissible.
There’s just one problem: that’s not the whole policy. Also from Google:
However, political ads must not include accusations or attacks relating to an individual’s personal life, nor can they advocate against a protected group.
Protected group, eh?
Don’t promote violence or advocate against a protected group.
Ad text advocating against any organization, person, or group of people is not permitted.
Advertisements and associated websites may not promote violence or advocate against a protected group. A protected group is distinguished by their:
- Race or ethnic origin
- National origin
- Veteran status
- Sexual orientation/Gender identity
Emphasis Google’s. Note the last bullet point.
Supporting Proposition 8 isn’t advocating violence, of course. But it is is “advocating against a protected group” and advocating against “a group of people.” It doesn’t get any more clear-cut than this, Google. There’s no more damning way to advocate against a group of people than to run ad texts explicitly advocating non-equal treatment under the law. And some of these ads went further, suggesting that “group of people,” that “protected group” endangered childrens’ education.
We just elected our first African-American President in America – something that my pro-McCain, Republican-voting friends have said, despite their regrets about the election, really impressed them. If the Web had existed in the 1960s, political advocates might have run ads opposing voting protection for blacks. There’s no question now that such an ad would be advocacy against a group, even if the ad wasn’t explicitly “I don’t like black people.” This is the same issue.
If Google doesn’t follow their own ad policies in this case, there’s no guarantee that we can trust anything Google says about their ad programs. As a publisher, I can’t trust a relationship with any vendor that can’t follow their own policies.
Control for Publishers is Inadequate
A story in Information Week noted that some posters in online forums claim Google’s controls for blocking ads are sufficient. They’re not.
There are two methods for blocking ads on AdSense, and neither one in this case was appropriate or adequate.
Competitive Ad Filter: This filter is designed to allow you to block ads from competitive sites. In this case, it failed on a number of levels.
- You need to know what you’re blocking. It’s called a competitive filter for a reason – the assumption is that you know in advance what ads you don’t want to appear. In this case, we didn’t expect ads from “protectmarriage.com.”
- It’s domain-specific: If we did succeed in blocking these ads, the Prop 8 supporters could simply point to a differen domain and get around the block.
- There’s no way to review ads: I relied on readers in California to even know the Prop 8 ads were running in the first place. I was fortunate those readers gave me the benefit of the doubt and that they responded so quickly.
- The ad filter isn’t real-time: Google’s own blog post concedes that it can take several hours for the filter to take effect. That’s truly unacceptable, because other changes like what the ad code looks like are immediate. And in this case, the day before an election, we couldn’t afford to wait several hours. My own true recourse was to shut off Google Ads entirely. Now I’m finding it difficult to switch it back on.
Ad Review Center: This sounds promising at first. But it’s off by default, it can be necessary to automatically approve ads for ad auctions to work properly, and most importantly, it doesn’t actually have anything to do with contextual ads. The Ad Review Center is exclusively for placement-targeted advertising; that is, ads placed specifically on your site by advertising. The Prop 8 supporters used contextual advertising, based on keywords. So this is really entirely irrelevant.
The Prop 8 Ad Debacle: Failure on Every Level
The Proposition 8 ads that appeared were a failure on a number of levels. For those of you keeping score at home:
- The ads weren’t relevant. While the ads appear to have been geo-targeted, AdSense promises ads relevant to content. I don’t want ads for plumbing contractors in Rhode Island, even if you’re reading there, because I want content-relevant ads.
- Publishers lost money. Because the ads were irrelevant and offensive to many readers, publishers on all kinds of blogs reported suddenly-plunging click-through revenue. That may not mean much to small sites, at least in one day. But the loss on bigger sites must have been pretty painful. (And ironically, this means Google didn’t make as much, either!)
- It wasn’t a fluke. Ads were delivered in large quantities to this site, and to many others. Tech sites may even have been targeted specifically; ads ran on Slashdot and Techcrunch.
- The ads violated Google’s own political policy. If this doesn’t count as advocating against a group based on sexual preference, nothing does. So either Google broke their own policy, or their own policy is meaningless. And it’s clear Google left the ads in the network days after the issue appeared, so they can’t plead ignorance – even less so given that they use their editorial review as a selling point for the service.
- Publishers couldn’t do anything once the ads were placed. Not only did we find out the ads were running the hard way, but we had no real-time ability to block the ads – and they were, by definition, time-sensitive. The way to block the ads effectively? Disable Google Ads.
- Google doesn’t have a support outlet. While there’s an informal discussion group, there isn’t a clear, formal way for publishers to complain to Google.
- Google was completely unresponsive. Again, we’re Google’s customers. Days later, we’ve still heard nothing from Google officially, other than a thinly-veiled, defensive blog post explaining their (inadequate) blocking mechanism without mentioning the issue by name, and some faceless statements in the press that we could have copied and pasted from their FAQ.
We Need a More Perfect Web
I’d like to see several things come out of this mess.
I hope that we start to have a real debate about advertising policy. The issues here were to me pretty clear-cut, but advertising policy in general deals with all kinds of tough issues. It’s time to start talking about that as publishers and advertisers alike.
I hope that we get some response from Google. We need to know what actually happened and why. And, frankly, I would need a significantly expanded toolset for publisher control before ever considering running AdSense on my site again.
But I also hope we see more competition in the marketplace. There are various similar services, but in my experience they often don’t have enough ad inventory to be relevant on a site like CDM. That’s too bad. I think Google might have performed better here if they themselves faced more vibrant competition, and I think the whole ad market might improve, too. There are huge opportunities for advertisers online in these kind of sites, and the economic downturn means it’s even more important to make those solutions work better. I know Microsoft and Yahoo are readying services. I look forward to seeing them.
This was, on every level, a complete mess. But now that the issue is out in the open, the end result could be better advertising systems – if the advertising vendors actually pay attention, and respond.
Just as importantly, this debacle could also mean a new climate in which discriminatory ads aren’t tolerated. Publishers are dropping AdSense left and right, and they should. This violated Google’s principles and policy, and many of us believe it’s wrong to run ads that discriminate against a group of people.
There’s no question this is an important issue for musicians. Amidst all the hype about projects from the likes of Nine Inch Nails and Radiohead has been the assumption that our own sites, and community sites we depend on, will be supported by ads. That means that what impacts ads impacts us.
If you believe the future of the Web is bright, then you must also believe that we can all do better.
Google caught up in row over gay marriage vote [Times Online]
Google Instructs AdSense Publishers How To Block Its Ads [Information Week]