I've reported many times before about various groups that have found their ads pulled from Google because they violated some type of Google policy. Annoyingly, these policies often aren't published.
Want to sell guns? Sorry -- Google doesn't take these ads, but you'll only find out after you apply.
Want to criticize something? You might fall afoul of Google's unposted "anti-anti" policy, where it's against taking ads that are critical of companies or people.
The much publicized case of environmental group Oceana having their anti-Royal Caribbean ads pulled is an example of the anti-anti banning. Anti-George Bush ads have also been pulled, while Body Shop founder Anita Roddick found an ad she placed for her blog pulled because of a critical comment about actor John Malkovich.
A recent BusinessWeek article takes a critical look at these unwritten Google policies. In particular, it examines how keeping certain ads out, while it may be Google's right, has an impact on other sites that carry Google's contextual ads. These other sites might be perfectly happy to carry such ads.
It also raises the important issue that advocacy groups and others are denied having a voice in ads. This is qualified by the fact that those who can't run their ads, such as Oceana, may still appear in Google's unpaid listings. But that's not a guarantee.
Indeed, Google has constantly stressed that its paid listings offer no ranking guarantees. Because of this, businesses, groups and others are told they need to buy ads, if they want a guaranteed presence. But if the ads are censored, then arguably Google may be locking out certain viewpoints from appearing in its search engine.
An argument in the BusinessWeek article is that Google should be transparent and somehow indicate who they refused to sell ads to. At the very least, Google ought to publish some of the reasons it refuses ads that it currently doesn't disclose in its editorial guidelines.
The article also touches on political ads but it doesn't raise the specter of what might happen if the US government decides the reasonable access rule (NOTE: link leads to PDF file) should be applied to political ads on Google and other search engines.
If so, any free or discounted ads given to a candidate might require similar favors to be given to others. Broadcasters also cannot dictate ad formats in radio and TV -- perhaps we'll find that similar rules might be applied to the language uses in search ads.
By the way, Google gets criticized in this article by Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet & Society. BusinessWeek writer Alex Salkever tells me now that Google has just hired someone from the Berkman Center to run their ad policy. So, perhaps changes are already underway.
I wasn't able to hookup with Google to talk about these issues in more depth before writing this up, but I do plan to come back in the near future and get the service's side of things, plus see if there have been any changes. But the BusinessWeek article has ample quotes from Google on the current situation, so be sure to read that.
In closing, I have to pass along the great irony I-Search moderator Andrew Goodman discovered when he tried to place an ad making use of the word "hack."
Google, it turns out, does not allow ads for hacking and cracking. But many will also recall that Google Hacks was a New York Times bestseller next year, where the word hacks was really used as a synonym for tricks and techniques.
Andrew was trying to use "hack" in the same way, but he couldn't convince the Google ad police to go with it.
For more about these "Google bans" stories, see the Paid Placement section of my Search Engine Advertising page.