Last month, the San Francisco Chronicle had a long article exploring many of Google's unpublished rules on what it will and will not accept in advertising. The topic has already been covered before, as explained in my The Ads Google Just Says No To article. However, the Chronicle was leaked a document shedding even more light on Google's internal policies.
Forget the debate over what exactly Google will allow. A core issue to me has been why doesn't Google simply publish its rules? Why can't advertisers know from the start what Google allows? The guesswork has been infuriating to some who have been rejected on the basis of unpublished policies in the past, plus it has fed into the secretive nature some accuse Google of having.
Gun ads are a great example. I've long run references to articles where those selling guns or gun-related products have been rejected by Google. But is this policy listed within the Google's editorial guidelines for ads? No. How about the fact that wine ads are OK but not ads for hard liquor? Again, not published.
Finally, there's good news. Google's planning to greatly expand the editorial guidelines it publishes online, providing everyone -- advertisers and Google users alike -- a better idea of what it accepts on the advertising front.
"We're in the editing phase of what that page will look like," said Sheryl Sandberg, vice president of global online sales and operations for Google. "It won't be up in the next few days, but if we're not done within a few months, I'll be disappointed."
Hate Ads Bad; Protest Ads OK
In addition to making the rules public, some of them have already changed. In particular, there's been the controversial issue of what I've called Google's "anti-anti" policy. This is the rule which periodically comes to light when someone gets their ad yanked because it was anti-Bush, anti-Clinton, anti-cruise ship company and so on. If you were anti-anything, it seemed you might not get to advertise at all.
When I visited Google at the end of July, I was told the anti-anti rules had been quietly liberalized as of the middle of that month. I'd summarize the change like this. Hate ads remain out, but protest ads are OK.
Got a beef with something or perhaps someone prominent like a politician? Now you should find it more likely that your protest ad will get accepted. But if you advocate hate against groups or individuals -- violence toward them, questioning a right to exist or otherwise stepping outside the bounds of what Google considers acceptable debate -- then your ad might not get to run.
"There are many legitimate sites. As a company, we have to choose who we do business with," said Sandberg.
Of course, it's possible that despite the liberalized rules, there's still going to be confusion. When does a protest site slip into being hate speech? Google will remain the sole arbiter of that.
For example, last month a Christian web site found one of its ads leading to a Q&A article about gay marriage to be considered hate speech apparently because the site itself found homosexuality to be morally wrong. However, the site also apparently believes that morally, homosexuals should be treated with respect and kindness -- hardly what you'd expect of a hate site. Explains Google:
"Hate is a strong term. Not everything we reject because of our anti-policy is hate. If it is anti- a protected group, then it can be rejected. That doesn't mean we consider it hateful," said Sandberg.
Hopefully, the new guidelines to be posted will help advertisers better understand how Google separates protest from hate. In addition, it will be vital for Google to spell out exactly what a "protected group" is.
For example, is it talking about US Equal Employment Opportunity laws, where the term "protected group" often comes up? Does Google have a wider definition than this? And what minefields does it enter depending on how broadly the company interprets that policy.
Is an ad against gay marriage necessarily anti-gay or instead part of a healthy political debate and free speech? Is an ad against a particular immigration law racist, or again part of a political discourse? And will Google potentially lose trust with some of its users if it allows only "pro" arguments in some issues?
Looking At Ad Content, Not Site Content
Another change is what I'll call the "whole site counts" rule. This is where in the past, any content on a web site, rather than an ad's actual language and landing page, might be used in determining whether an ad would be accepted.
The homeownership ad isn't reasonably going to be confused as advocating against an individual, protected groups or otherwise deemed hateful. It should get accepted by Google without problem.
The gay marriage ad is entirely different. Google might decide that defining marriage as that between one man and one woman, as the Bush campaign web site does, is deemed to be advocating against homosexuals as a protected group. The ad might be rejected.
Now here's the twist. In the past, Google might have rejected both ads solely because of the gay marriage issue. Google might review the entire Bush web site, see within it a page against gay marriage and decide because of this, it would take no ads at all for the site. This might be the case even if the ad on homeownership specifically stuck to the issue of homeownership and led to a landing page only about the homeownership issue.
The classic real-life example of this past policy in action involved Anita Roddick, founder of the UK-based Body Shop chain. Roddick was running ads linked to her name, to improve the visibility of her blog. But because she'd called actor John Malkovich a "vomitous worm" in one blog post, Google rejected her ads (for more, see my Google: Can The Marcia Brady Of Search Stay Sweet? article).
Now whether an ad is acceptable will be more closely linked to exactly the language within the ad and the actual landing page people are directed to, Google says. However, it's still possible that the "whole site counts" rule might come into play.
Someone running an easily identified hate site, for example, probably would still see their ad rejected no matter how clean the ad language or landing page was. In the end, Google simply won't want to do business with them.
Google Can Take What It Wants
Indeed, it remains true that Google can largely choose to accept or deny whatever ads it wants. For example, gun and tobacco ads are out, but peddling porn in Google ads is OK. Some may not agree with these choices, but they remain Google's to make.
"We have the right to choose who we do business with," said Sandberg.
Of course, there may be some legal reasons why Google may or may not have to take ads. US constitutional protections on free speech apply to government bodies, not publications like Google. However, other laws can have an impact.
For example, Yahoo has found French law prevents Nazi memorabilia from being sold through its auction site. Similar actions might prevent paid search listings for such memorabilia from showing up in Yahoo -- or Google. In contrast, reasonable access rules about US election ads potentially could be applied to force Google and other search engine to carry some ads.
Certainly the new transparency to come should help some of the criticism about ad decisions that's come Google's way in the past. So too will greater acceptance of protest ads. In March, BusinessWeek technology editor Alex Salkever took Google to task over that issue. Last month, San Jose Mercury News technology columnist Dan Gillmor did the same.
Beyond traditional media outlets, plenty of Google's own advertisers have been upset, sparking further discussion. Last month, W.F. Zimmerman found he couldn't run ads about "sensitive issues" such as prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay. That became blog fodder, and it's just the latest of many such instances.
Information Through Ads AND Results
Ultimately, I wonder if Google will still have conflicts as it continues to encounter issues with those viewing its advertising space as a way to get messages out, rather than a mechanism for selling. It's that latter function that Google sees as the main purpose for its ads.
"We're running an advertising program and trying to sell products and services," Sandberg explained.
Sandberg accepts that Google advertisers might want to do more than just sell. "We are happy for them to use this for informational purposes as they see fit," she said. But Google really views its unpaid editorial results as where such informational messages are primarily distributed.
"For us, it goes back to what we are doing with Google and what we are doing to provide information," Sandberg said. "Most people get the information from Google in the search results, and there is generally tremendous breadth of coverage there."
In other words, if you have a stance on a particular issue, Google's hoping that this stance -- along with many other diverse views -- will be naturally well-represented in its unpaid results. These are the results where Google does not make editorial judgments about what content to accept, other than in the case of search engine spam.
Unfortunately, there will certainly be cases were many will agree representation is not perfect on a particular topic. There will also be cases where particular individuals, with particular stances, won't be happy.
Why aren't we ranking first or even in the first page of results? That will be the question raised. And the Google response traditionally has been that if someone feels they must have representation, then they should buy an ad.
That response inevitably turns the ad space into more than a merchandising medium. It also remains a message delivery outlet. And when those messages are stifled, even though it's ad space involved and despite what may be showing in the editorial results, Google remains left open to accusations of censorship.
As an advertiser, should you end up on the wrong side of what Google decides, remember that you can always appeal. Write back and calmly state your case as to why you don't believe your ad violates a particular policy that's been cited. It worked for Perrspectives, which documents the go-around it had with Google on ads.
Want to comment on this story? Please visit our forum thread: De Facto Censorship of Advertisers.
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