The amount of money spent globally on paid digital advertisements surpassed traditional tv ad spend in 2017 and shows no sign of slowing down. While many large corporations are shifting their budgets to digital channels. a large portion of advertisers are smaller localized businesses utilizing the advanced targeting capabilities for lower costs and higher engagement. However, the simplicity of online advertisements combined with low costs has led to an environment rife with ad fraud and scammers looking to take advantage of the massive user base. While malicious pop-up ads aren’t nearly the plague they were during the Internet’s early days, there are many other forms of fraud causing problems for users and advertisers alike.
Phishing scams are false advertisements or notifications masquerading as legitimate forms with the goal of having users voluntarily give up compromising information; while some sites host “bot farms” that provide false clicks to advertisements, eating away an advertisers budget with no benefit in return. In order to protect its users and growing revenue stream, Google has been continuously updating its efforts to combat ad fraud and provide a better experience for all parties involved.
On March 14th of this year, Google released a report detailing some of the specific types of fraud it has taken steps to reduce emphasizing the volume of ad removed or sites blacklisted. The report boasts removing over 3.2 billion ads for violating policy in 2017 alone. Causes for removal ranged from ads that inject malware (a portmanteau of “malicious software”) into legitimate ad networks and websites to “trick-to-click” ads that lead to sites that have nothing to do with what the advertisement claimed. Just last month, Google announced it would be restricting advertisement related to cryptocurrencies and a variety of related content. With the media hype of cryptocurrencies, Bitcoin in particular, Google’s ad network has been flooded with advertisements for Initial Coin Offerings (ICOs), cryptocurrency wallets and exchanges, and more. While many of these products are legitimate, an even greater number are simply opportunists looking to take advantage of ill-informed users to make a quick profit. These restrictions are just the latest example of Google adapting its policies to ensure a balanced and useful ecosystem for its users.
The purge didn’t stop with bad ads either: Google also took aim at websites and publishers practicing shady tactics to protect the advertisers from having their brands associated with foul play or wasting spend on sites with no real user traffic. This included “blacklist[ing] nearly 90,000 websites and 700,000 mobile apps” as well as removing 320,000 publishers from the Google ad network. The search engine giant’s strategy wasn’t simply to ban entire sites, either. They introduced technology in 2017 that was able to remove Google ads from individual pages; claiming to remove 2 million pages each month.
Many users have had run-ins with bad ads they don’t always realize the effect similar tactics have on advertisers and the reason Google has been taking such a hard stance against unethical websites and publishers. In September of 2017, Google announced it would be issuing refunds for money spent on ads that ran on websites with fraudulent traffic. The total amount of money to be refunded has not been disclosed, but an estimated $6.5 billion was spent on ad fraud in 2017 alone, to give a sense of scope to the problem. And while this type of fraud is not new in any sense and Google has been continuously adapting and fighting back over the years, a new issue has come to the forefront of popular discussion that has to do with ad placement and brand association.
There were two major incidents in 2017 that sparked outrage and a massive advertisement boycott on YouTube in 2017. The first was the realization that terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah were uploading videos on YouTube promoting terrorism and the second was after a Wall Street Journal article identified several instances of supposed anti-Semitism in videos of YouTube’s most subscribed channel: PewDiePie. Brands did not want to be associated with distasteful or hateful content and many pulled advertisements from YouTube. Analysts have estimated that the boycott cost Google close to $750 million in ad revenue, forcing them to take action. As a result, YouTube channels saw massive demonetization in 2017 which fanned the flames of the debate as many content creators rely on advertisements as a regular source of income. Google uses machine learning to determine whether a video will get demonetized within minutes of posting and, in many cases, channels will have to appeal the decision to get ads shown on their videos again. Though this process is not ideal, YouTube encourages content creators to appeal demonetization as they show no signs of softening their stance of erring on the side of caution and valuing the needs of advertisers above those of individual channels. While the public discussion has centered mainly around YouTube, Google has taken this same idea of advertiser and brand protection and applied it websites on their ad network as well. The Google report mentioned above explains that, after policy changes in April 2017, an additional 8,700 pages were removed for violating the new standards of “dangerous and derogatory content.”
Not all of these issues have been the handiwork of black-hat operators, so, to help well-meaning users stay within policy guidelines, Google released an article containing a checklist the network uses to vet advertisers and publishers before matching them up and running an ad.
This graphic gives advertisers and publishers an easy way to determine if their assets are staying within Google guidelines as well as serving as a reminder of the control they have over these assets. While Google decides whether or not advertisements or websites follow their set rules, both parties still have the freedom to further determine what type of content they would like to be matched up with. This transparency is part of what makes Google the number one search engine and ad network in the world and as technology advances, Google is sure to make continual improvements to their ad network and policies to ensure the best user experience and investment for users, advertisers, and publishers.
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