Dec 14, 2023

Google is playing whack-a-mole with bad ad placements. Here’s the proof.

Update, Dec. 18: A day after we publised our report, Google stopped serving search ads on FreeForumZone(.)Sexy.

It looks like Google is finally giving advertisers a dollop of transparency about search ads, letting them see if their brand appeared on about 30 unsafe sites in their search partner network.

Too bad we’ve found even more ads on previously unreported unsafe sites that aren't on their list.

After a massive report from Adalytics exposed the search giant’s little-known practice of serving search ads on websites featuring everything from hardcore pornography to disinformation, we published proof that it was still happening over a week later.

Less than 24 hours after our report, Google stopped serving ads on both the adult website and the Iranian website we flagged (but is still putting ads on Breitbart).

Now Google is giving advertisers a scintilla of transparency: They’ll be able to check a list of about 30 sites found in the Adalytics report to see if their ads were served there, AdExchanger reported Wednesday.

But Google’s effort here is useless accountability theater that fails to address the core problem of unsafe inventory. How do we know this?

Because we just found that the company is still serving ads on websites that definitely break its publisher policies:

AnarakiElectric.bizna(.)ir

This website says it’s based in Iran — which means it’s almost certainly sanctioned and directly in contradiction of Google’s statement that its products are “not available” to Iranian publishers.

Here are the brands we found advertised on this website:

The Official U.S. Mint

This is a United States government website advertising on a website that’s almost certainly sanctioned.

The Anti-Defamation League

The ADL is a Jewish advocacy group that fights antisemitism. It’s also a vocal supporter of Israel. Iran, meanwhile, is said to help Hamas.

Charlie Banana

This is a Procter & Gamble company selling reusable cloth diapers.

One day after we documented these ads being run on the site, it was seemingly removed from GSP and no longer serves advertisements. Is Google finally starting to do inventory control on sites that aren’t discovered by third parties? Why were these sites in Google’s inventory in the first place? Will it let advertisers know if their ads ran on these other unsafe sites Google is quietly purging? We’ve got a lot of questions.

FreeForumZone(.)Sexy

As the “.sexy” suggests, this website is “R” rated. Just above its Google search ads, it advertised animated adult content — which runs afoul of Google’s no sexually explicit content rule.

We found some familiar ads served up on this site.

The Church of Jesus Christ Latter-day Saints

GLAAD

Google is playing catch-up

At this point, you might be asking: how is this all happening? We broke it down in-depth here.

But in short, third-party websites that use Google’s search widget can become part of Google’s Search Partner Network (GSP), which lets Google place search ads on results inside individual sites.

Advertisers are automatically opted into having their ads placed through GSP, and if they’re using Performance Max, there’s no opt-out of the GSP at all (at least, there wasn’t until the Adalytics report forced Google to add that option temporarily).

Google obligates those third-party websites to follow its publisher policies, which say you can’t use it to monetize sexual content, unreliable and harmful claims, and content published in sanctioned countries.

But as we’ve shown, multiple GSP publishers break these rules — and Google serves ads on them anyway.

Does Google even know what’s in its inventory?

Google is screwing this up. It only seems to deal with its toxic inventory after others (like us!) flag it to them.

It’s like a terrible game of whack-a-mole. For every publisher-policy-busting website it bashes away, another one pops up.

That’s because these websites are the symptom of a much bigger problem: Google is offering its products to websites that break its own publisher policies. Not only does this risk funding websites that brands want nothing to do with, but it also puts their reputations on the line.

And thanks to Google’s lack of transparency, we have no idea how widespread this problem is. We’re also getting worried Google doesn’t know, either.

Because if Google is only willing to let advertisers look at the handful of problematic sites Adalytics reported on, does Google itself even have the capacity to allow advertisers to do a full audit of the final destination of their ads?

Adalytics included its methodology in its report. If Google really wants to root out all the adult content, disinformation, and Iranian sites from its GSP inventory, the company could dig into the problem itself.

So why does that responsibility seem to fall to everyone but Google?

Google needs to stop hiding its inventory from advertisers

Google doesn’t provide advertisers with any itemized data so they can audit their spend on GSP. Even if Google did fork over this data, individual sites can’t be blocked.

All this points to one clear issue: Google isn’t holding itself accountable. Giving advertisers a short list of sites — that reportedly only goes back six weeks — isn’t enough.

So it looks like it’s up to all of us. Here’s what you can do to protect your brand:

Let’s see how long it takes Google to yank the new sites we’ve listed from its search ad inventory this time. And maybe some others we haven’t reported on yet.

Hugs,

Claire & Nandini

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