Welcome back to BRANDED, the newsletter uncovering how adtech companies fund hate and disinformation. Here’s what’s new with us:
This story has been updated.
For about 2 weeks in Q3 of 2021, Sebastian (not their real name) accidentally ran a Google ad campaign for his client without any of the usual guardrails. He blew through a million dollars of the client’s budget before realizing that he had forgotten to turn on the brand safety filters, domain blocks and keyword blocklists he normally uses. It was a mistake.
He got it under control ASAP, but in those 15 days, Sebastian unintentionally obtained the results to an interesting experiment: where does Google place $1M worth of ads when you leave it up to them? What happens when you let Google place ads for you? Thanks to Sebastian, who sent us the sitelist of his botched campaign, we now have an answer.
In today’s BRANDED, we're introducing you to a document we call The $1 Million Google Sitelist. It’s our first look at how Google distributes ad dollars across the web when it runs on the default settings. This data helps us grasp what websites the world’s largest ad exchange prioritizes — and gives us a front seat look at how Google ad campaigns are destabilizing our global information ecosystem.
We already know that Google is the global leader in funding disinformation. We know that Google sends at least $250M to disinformation outlets annually. We know that Google hides most of its inventory from advertisers. And we've long known that Google doesn’t often enforce its Publisher Policy.
But what does the breakdown look like for the advertiser who gets the bill at the end of the day? The document tells that story, but the source has asked us to keep it confidential.
Here's what we can confirm is inside the document
❌What you will not find:
We’re leaving this out, sorry! Our source redacted the CPM (cost-per-mille) of the campaign to protect themselves and their client’s identity. This means we can make educated guesses based on total impressions served, but no clear call on the total revenues a domain may have earned.
The campaign was managed through Google’s DV360, which is basically Google’s tech stack for big advertisers. DV360 gives advertisers access to Google’s ad exchange plus inventory from about 75 other ad exchanges via the DV360 dashboard. Basically, the world’s biggest ad exchange mashed up with all the other world’s biggest ad exchanges.
Here are our key observations:
Google served Yahoo.com with 56,413,367 impressions, making it the most popular site placement on this campaign. Heyo! Are we in 1996 or is Yahoo still doing major ad fraud?
It just gets more inexplicable from here on out. Google placed nearly 50 MILLION impressions — or 10% of total ads —on “Unknown.” What the hell is “Unknown” and how did it make it to the top of this list?
The answer is pretty stunning. For years, Google has allowed website owners to hide their domain and all identifying information from advertisers — and still host Google ads. Google pools these anonymous (and basically untraceable) ad placements into one bucket, and presents them to advertisers as a single line-item: “Unknown.”
This makes for a deeply perverse market: Google knows where it’s placing those ads. The website owners know exactly how much money they’re getting. The only party left in the dark is the one footing the bill: advertisers.
In any other industry, having 10% of your money disappearing into a dark void for would raise some eyebrows. What if say, you’ve taken a public anti-war stand and your ads are being embarrassingly plastered on the aggressor’s website? Or worse, what if your ads are being placed on an outlet that’s currently under U.S sanctions? Despite the blazing red flags here, marketing teams seem to have thoroughly accepted Google’s mystery meat as a fact of life.
One reason may be that Google account reps are trained to convince advertisers that “Unknown” placements are not a big deal. Google ad reps have been known to downplay the presence of anonymous websites using the following arguments:
The endless gaslighting has worked. Marketers feel weird and uncomfortable about being cut out of their own transactions, but when you’re out here running million dollar campaigns, who wants to be the one petty enough to hunt down a couple thousand bucks? That is not the stuff promotions are made of.
While marketers overlook one of the most disturbing brand and legal liabilities within their companies, Google has taken advantage of it and pushed anonymous placements up the ladder.
These numbers add up at the world’s biggest ad exchange, where they are large enough to sustain a cottage industry of disinformation operatives, money launderers and everyone else hacking away at our democracy.
Who else do you think is going to these lengths to hide their domains from advertisers?
The smartest technology company in the world could place our ads anywhere on the internet, and so far they’ve topped the list with “Yahoo” and Unknown. What next? Well, #5 on this cursed spreadsheet is Fox News.
Fox News is far and away the big winner of Google’s ad placements. Google served Fox News with over 10 MILLION IMPRESSIONS in this two-week campaign. No other media organization came close.
Let’s put this in context. In this campaign, FoxNews.com received more ads than 10 major national news organizations, combined, including the Washington Post, New York Times, Boston Globe, LA Times, Wall Street Journal, NPR, Atlanta Constitution-Journal, CNN and MSNBC.
All of these news organizations put together only received a grand total of 2 million impressions, or just 1/5th of Fox News’ haul in this campaign.
Could this just be an anomaly?
Nope. When you scroll down this list, you start to see that Fox News isn’t an aberration. It’s the winner of Google’s perverted system.
Fox News is followed by Breitbart, sitting at #24 on the sitelist. ZeroHedge is at #58. Drudge Report clocks in at #61. That puts the most toxic disinformation outlets in the top 1% of Google’s kingdom.
From an advertiser perspective, this is a disaster. Breitbart was first on the advertising industry’s universal blocklist in 2016 for promoting hate. ZeroHedge has also been banned from Google’s ad platform before for promoting racism. Drudge Report is not only a major aggregator of disinformation, their entire website strategy is built to auto-refresh ads at blazing fast rates in order to siphon off advertising dollars.
For its part, Google has always argued that they’re an equal opportunity monetizer — but they do have standards and they do enforce them. Here’s what they said in 2017 in response to Breitbart’s accusations that they were looking to have Breitbart kicked off the network:
“We have extensive and very well publicized policies for publishers who choose to monetize with Google ads. We enforce these policies vigorously, consistently and without any political bias. We regularly and routinely review sites in our ad network to ensure compliance with our policies.”
Five years later, Google has never enforced its policies against hate, racism and bigotry on Breitbart. In fact, it has done the opposite. Google has awarded the outlet with top billing. Google is a “politically neutral” company that is financing Breitbart and Fox News at rates that no trusted news media organization comes close to touching.
It’s not new to us that news outlets are competing with disinformation outlets for ad dollars. We always knew Google drags its feet on enforcing its Publisher Policy, but we didn’t know how enthusiastically they’ve been financing the whole show.
As they (probably) like to say: "You news? You lose."
When you start your first Google ad campaign, Google takes you through a friendly onboarding dashboard asking you about your campaign goals. This is to make you feel like you are in control. But they’re just messing with you. Google already knows how they’re going to spend your budget.
Google Ads is supposed to be the most sophisticated advertising technology known to man. They are putting your ads on Mapquest.com. (MapQuest is #67 on this list.)
And they do it because they can. Most advertisers are small businesses. They don’t have advertising agencies or paid marketing teams to monitor their performance and weed out bad ad placements. They depend on the default settings and they rely fully on Google’s legal promise to place their ads on vetted, brand safe inventory for them.
But even big advertisers with all the resources in the world, can’t keep up either. No one can.
Google is the only company that has total insight into what your ads are funding. They use their market power to withhold information from you. And on top of that, they recommend that you spend about “30 minutes a week” checking out your ad campaigns.
That’s not enough time to find out that Google is tossing your ad budgets into the back of an Astro van and driving away.
Advertisers, here’s what you need to do next:
1 . Check your ads. (And if you want, share your sitelist with us!)
2. Talk to Google. Don't let them tell you these concerns don't matter. They do.
3. Demand refunds. If your sitelist includes websites that violate their policy, you have a right to get your money back.
Claire and Nandini
UPDATE: The original version of this story included references and a link to the $1 Million Google Sitelist. Through a misunderstanding on our part, we thought we had permission to share this document. We did not, so we have taken it down. We regret the error and have taken steps to revise our internal process to avoid this kind of mistake in the future.