, March 29, 2017

Advertising on hate crime websites is not cost-effective

You can’t tick a box saying “exclude terrorist sympathisers” but you can exclude websites that are not aimed at your target market.

For a company that built its billions by ranking search results, it’s surprising that Google and its subsidiary YouTube have not been able to properly rank their content providers according to how safe it is to advertise with them. Following an investigation started by the Times into advertising funding terrorism, many advertisers have pulled out in America as well as the UK and a crisis meeting with advertisers has been held to sort things out. Google claims that, because it has 400 hours of content uploaded every minute, it has not been practical to guarantee every video is “ad-safe”. But when it receives a raft of bad publicity and loses large sums of money as mainstream advertisers realise that their ads have been appearing on sites advocating terrorism and hate crimes, suddenly proper action is taken.

The first thing to say is that it is not just Google at fault in this situation. One of the great things about advertising on the internet is that advertisers can very accurately target who they want to reach and to a large extent who they don’t. It was already possible for advertisers (and their agencies) to define quite tightly who they want to target and more importantly, who they want to exclude. Unfortunately, Google Display and YouTube do not provide a box saying “terrorist sympathisers” or “homophobes” in their list of targeting and exclusion options. However, it’s likely that some of the brands quoted as threatening or actually pulling advertising from Google could have defined their target markets a bit more accurately to prevent them from appearing on inappropriate websites and videos.

Far be it from me to blame the AdWords management executive at the agency for not targeting correctly, rather than Google for allowing the ad to show on the wrong content. Content that it should have been blocking without pressure from advertisers. However, of all the brands listed as threatening to pull their advertising, only the ones for the British Government’s armed services might have set their advertising parameters in such a way as to target active young males, attracted to topics such as “combat sports” and “extreme sports” as well as ensuring a diverse ethnic mix by targeting those interested in “Islam”. Package that all up by segmenting for “thrill seekers” and it’s just possible (given Google’s inadequacies) you could end up with your advert on a website or video where the black flag of Islamic state also appears. But for most of the other brands named such as M&S, Argos, HSBC, Audi and McDonald’s it is hard to imagine a targeting profile with correct exclusions that would end up on the same websites and videos.

The relatively easy part of setting up a Google Display or YouTube campaign is deciding who you do want to target, but often the element that makes the campaign cost effective and highly targeted is the exclusions that make sure your advert is not appearing in front of the wrong people. A good AdWords manager, using Google display advertising, should regularly review the “placements”, i.e. the websites where the adverts are appearing and exclude anything that is not appropriate. Of course for brands with big budgets there is a tendency to only look at the websites that are attracting a lot of impressions and clicks and up until now it has been hard work (but not impossible) to go right through placements ensuring anything and everything inappropriate is excluded.

Of course, it is possible that every effort was made by the advertisers to ensure the correct targeting. If that is the case, then Google’s issues are much bigger than just allowing the wrong content; it would question the accuracy of all the targeting parameters they provide for every campaign. Anyone who has spent hours checking on a Google campaign’s placements and excluding websites that do not fit the target profile will know the system is far from perfect — but let’s hope it is not fatally flawed.

The good news is that Google has responded to the issue of inappropriate advertising on YouTube offering simplified management of exclusions, amongst other measures, to improve brand safety. Hopefully those new controls will help brand managers improve targeting in general, making campaigns more cost effective, as well as avoiding terrorists and those advocating hate crime.

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