Google has responded to widespread concerns about political ads, particularly those promoting California’s Proposition 8 same-sex marriage ban prior to last week’s US election. On one hand, I think their answers on policy and placement are incomplete. On the other, it looks like the upshot of this will be better tools for publishers to make their own decisions, which to me is fundamentally what the issue is about. For now, it’s a waiting game until promised improvements appear.
(If you’re bored by this discussion, don’t worry – we’ve got lots more music tech-specific stuff to talk about. But I know it matters to at least some of you directly, including music/music tech publishers out there.)
The response is on Google’s Inside AdSense blog, as posted at the end of the day Friday.
See my previous posts here on CDM. I posted these items because this issue hit music tech in a big way, from individual bloggers to big commercial press outlets – and advertising support is often used to describe what future revenue could look like for musicians:
In fact, the fact that readers didn’t universally agree with me – either on the political issues or my own spin on what this meant for publishers – only proves my point. You need individual publisher control of ads, just as you need human beings controlling editorial content. (If search engines alone told you everything, I don’t think we’d have any regular readers of anything.)
It’s worth reading Google’s complete response, but let’s evaluate it based on my original complaints – relevancy, policy, and publisher control:
Google confirms what we suspected, which is that “placement targeting” allows “advertisers to find sites serving a specific audience, such as "Males ages 18-24." Their answer isn’t entirely satisfactory here, though. For me, at least, the political ads didn’t appear in Google’s tool that’s supposed to review placement-targeted ads. And it’s clear that in this case placement-targeted ads aimed at an audience clashed with niche-specific sites that didn’t want political ads. Unlike a contextually-targeted ad based on a keyword (like “synth” or “recording”), the relationship to site content was unclear. If that had been something like cool sneakers, people probably wouldn’t have cared, so I have to agree with other publishers who felt that even basic publisher controls limiting political ads could be a remedy.
It’s still a mystery which audience Prop 8 supporters targeted. Given the amount of money spent on this campaign, maybe “all of them” is close.
Google still stands by its political policy, saying that “Google’s advertising system does not favor one political position over another.” But they offer absolutely no explanation of why Proposition 8 ads were consistent with that policy. Google explicitly says ads “advocating against” a group of people aren’t allowed, and even lists sexual preference as one of their “protected groups.”
Let’s flip this around. Proposition 8 opponents have now targeted Mormons and called for a boycott of the entire state of Utah. I understand their rationale – the Church of Latter-Day States funded campaigns in favor of the marriage ban. But to me, I wouldn’t want anti-Mormon ads on my site any more than I’d want ads against gay marriage. This kind of advocacy is not something I personally believe in, and quite frankly, I know we have Mormon and gay readers alike. I respect them, and I want advertising to respect them, too. That’s not just to be “nice”; that’s how I would conduct myself outside of the site, as well.
I can only imagine that Google has chosen to apply the standard of advocating “against” groups very narrowly. But to me, such a standard works only if it’s applied liberally. It’s pretty hard to imagine that an ad supporting a gay marriage ban isn’t implicitly an ad advocating against homosexuals, just as it would be hard to imagine an ad supporting a boycott of Utah isn’t implicitly advocating against the Mormon church. That’s not a judgment of either argument – but I personally wouldn’t want that kind of advocacy on my site, and if Google doesn’t apply this standard in this case, where do they draw the line?
The bottom line to all of this is, publishers need control to make their own call.
Putting all your faith in Google, of course, is asking for trouble – whether Google means well or not. So to me, the answer from Google AdSense that overrides the rest of these issues is on publisher control.
We’ve heard your feedback about how quickly filters take effect and the ability to block specific categories of ads, and we’re working hard to improve our current controls and provide more powerful ones in the near future. Over the next couple weeks, we plan to improve the speed of your filters, and we’re working towards filters in the future that will take effect in less than an hour. We’ll also continue improving the Ad Review Center, giving you ways to block entire categories of ads in addition to individual ads. We are also working on ways for you to establish guidelines for the type of ads that will be acceptable to your users, so you can "set it and forget it," while feeling comfortable that users will have a good ad experience.
Now we’re talking. If publishers had adequate controls, differences on policy and concerns about certain kinds of placements wouldn’t have to come to people dropping AdSense altogether.
The only issue is, of course, for now this is just a promise – the improvements in the service aren’t here yet (though “next couple weeks” is promising as a timeframe). I’ll be watching for these controls to appear, because I think that the Prop 8 battle aside, this has profound implications for the future of advertising.
At the same time, I still think this illustrates why competition is important – both from competing services, and from publishers selling their own ad space. Interestingly, part of the problem is that AdSense has actually gotten quite good. I saw some kneejerk reactions around the Web (comments here, links elsewhere) suggesting I was nuts for even suggesting this was an issue, because their take was that AdSense was useless. I think what they’ve missed is that for sites with reasonably well-optimized content and keyword relevancy that connects to Google’s ad inventory, AdSense isn’t a bad solution, at least as a complement to direct ad sales. (AdSense is rarely as valuable as direct sales – for CDM, for instance, it’s basically just some background revenue that defrays hosting costs.)
But there’s no question in my mind that competition makes any service better. I’m still waiting on proposed alternatives from Microsoft and Yahoo. But even users threatening to leave AdSense clearly got their attention. And, frankly, that’s how this whole thing is supposed to work.
The ad-supported Web could be part of what allows music technology information and musician-made content to be free in the future. But the more this area grows, the more these kinds of debates over how ads are chosen, priced, and delivered will become important.