Dec 8, 2023

Thanks, Google: We’re still seeing major brands funding toxic sites weeks after Adalytics’ exposé

Google is placing search ads on sites that violate its policies around sexually explicit content and harmful claims, as well as on sites in sanctioned countries. 

Update: Less than 24 hours after we published our report, SoNude and Arshadsara had been removed from the Google Search Partner network. Breitbart, however, remains.

Two weeks ago, a massive report from Adalytics exposed Google’s little-known practice of serving search ads on websites featuring everything from hardcore pornography to disinformation. Brands (and Google) scrambled to fix it.

We’ve got some bad news: it’s still happening — despite Google’s VP of global ads, Dan Taylor, calling the issue “wildly exaggerated.”

We’ve found that over a week after the Adalytics report was published, major brands, including Procter & Gamble’s Charlie Banana, the U.S. Coast Guard, and Amnesty International are all unintentionally running ads on brand unsafe websites.

Those websites feature adult content, host disinformation, or are sites run out of Iran, almost certainly putting them under US sanctions.

So why is this happening? It’s all thanks to a little known, tucked away feature in Google Ads called “GSP” — Google’s Search Partner network.

Google is breaking its own advertising policies

You know where to find Google's original search bar: Google(.)com. But the company also offers its search technology to any website that wants to use it.

Google's Programmable Search Engine lets publishers embed a search widget on their site so visitors can search it. The widget itself can be free, but Google monetizes it with ads. Then, sites monetized through the PSE are added to its search partner network. And when brands launch paid search campaigns on Google, they’re automatically opted in to the network. And if you’re using Performance Max, you have to let your ads appear on GSP.

Google obligates its search partners to adhere to its Publisher Policies, which say you can’t use Google to monetize certain kinds of content, including:

But what good are policies if it appears you’re not vetting your inventory? Adalytics found that, despite this “obligation,” Google served up ads on all of those kinds of sites.

Worse, there is no way for advertisers to see where their ads appeared on GSP.

Google provides no transparency, no itemized data to let advertisers audit their spend on GSP. And even if Google did offer that data, individual sites can’t be blocked.

Now, after Adalytics’ exposé, AdWeek reported that Google has “temporarily” allowed brands to opt out of its search partner network for all campaign types (including letting them opt out while using Performance Max). But the transparency problem remains.

We wanted to see how well Google cleaned up after the report, so we decided to visit some sites. And we found the Google search widget — and ads served through the search function — on three websites that definitely don’t follow Google’s publisher policies:

We plugged some key words into those sites’ Google search boxes. Here are some of the brands that showed up.

SoNudes

SoNudes bills itself as the “ultimate nude & sex web search engine.” Every time we visited the site, it advertised adult content on the same page as its Google search ads.

It wasn’t hard to get familiar brands to appear.

Charlie Banana (a Procter & Gamble company)

Charlie Banana ads appearing on a site featuring adult content.

The U.S. Coast Guard

Coast Guard ad appearing on a site featuring adult content.

Amnesty International

Amnesty International ad appearing on a site featuring adult content.

Ulta Beauty

Ulta Beauty ad appearing on a site featuring adult content.

The Washington Post

Washington Post ad appearing on a site featuring adult content.

Breitbart

Breitbart is a far-right media outlet that rose to prominence under white nationalist Steve Bannon. The website is blocklisted by more than 1,500 advertisers — and for good reason. It regularly publishes hateful, racist, xenophobic, and false content.

But thanks to Google’s product, there’s no such thing as a universal blocklist. GSP is a loophole.

Take BMW, for example: there have been headlines about BMW blacklisting Breitbart since 2016.

But on Dec. 4, we found a BMW retailer’s search ad on Breitbart.

BMW ad appearing on Breitbart.

Other brands found advertising on Breitbart:

Charlie Banana

Charlie Banana ad appearing on Breitbart.

The U.S. Coast Guard

Coast Guard ad appearing on Breitbart.

GLAAD

GLAAD ad appearing on Breitbart.

Greenpeace

Greenpeace ad appearing on Breitbart.

The ACLU

ACLU ad appearing on Breitbart.

Arshadsara

Arshadsara says it is 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. On top of that, Adalytics has found Google placed search ads — including for the U.S. Army — on explicitly sanctioned Iranian websites before, creating headaches for brands (and likely their lawyers).

Here are the brands we found advertised on Arshadsara:

Charlie Banana

Screenshot 2023-12-04 at 11.56.06 AM.png
Charlie Banana ads appearing on Arshadsara.

The U.S. Coast Guard

Coast Guard ad appearing on Arshadsara.

Ulta Beauty

Ulta Beauty ad appearing on Arshadsara

InstaCart

Instacart ad appearing on Arshadsara.

The Washington Post

Washington Post ad appearing on Arshadsara.

Were these brands planning to show up on these kinds of sites when they bought ads to appear in Google search results?

Our guess: Hell no.

Why does this sound so familiar?

Does this sound familiar? It should.

Google has a track record of padding their inventory with garbage websites they don’t actually seem to vet.

The company was caught doing the same thing with its Google Video Partners (you can read about that here).

On top of that, Google doesn’t actually provide any reporting to advertisers — which leaves brands in the dark about where their ads are being served and how their ad spend is being used.

We’ve already reported that when Google was given free rein to spend a Fortune 500 company’s dollar for them, it placed 10 cents of every dollar on “Unknown.” It also pushed disinformation to the top 1% of its spending breakdown.

Meanwhile, Google asks the advertisers to take on all the legal and business risks. Its own documents tell brands exactly that: “By creating a campaign for the Search Network, you acknowledge that our policies meet any image and reputation standards you may have for your company.

But how can advertisers confirm that Google’s policies do, in fact, “meet any image and reputation standards” they might have when they have no idea where their ads are running?

No one knows where billions of dollars of advertising money is ending up. Google makes it impossible to find out.

That should worry us all.

How do they keep getting away with this?

When a company hoards the lion’s share of an industry, the power balance shifts: customers have to deal with the company’s bullshit, rather than the other way around.

Google was projected to rake in about 39% of the world’s digital ad revenue this year. That’s a massive piece of the pie. If brands want to work with this ad industry leader, they have to suck it up and deal with the times when Google screws them over with terrible ad placements.

Or do they?

There’s a solution to this problem. Here’s what you can do:

Right now, Google is so big it can get away with screwing over advertisers. That needs to change.

Let’s keep the pressure on.

Hugs,

Claire & Nandini

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