Google Ad Policies To Be Expanded Publicly

The longer version of this story for Search Engine Watch members examines how even under the new rules, protest ads about issues relating to protected groups may still face rejection, how the “whole site counts” rule has been liberalized and touches on how legal requirements can have an impact, or not, on ads. Click here to learn more about becoming a member.

Last month, the San Francisco Chronicle had a long article exploring many of Google’s unpublished rules on what it will and will not accept in advertising.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 for Search Engine Watch members. 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 The guesswork has been infuriating to some who have been rejected on the basis of unpublished policies in the past, plus it has fed into the secretive nature some accuse Google of having.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.

Information Through Ads AND Results

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.

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 where 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.

Want to comment on this story? Please visit our forum thread: De Facto Censorship of Advertisers.

The longer version of this story for Search Engine Watch members examines how even under the new rules, protest ads about issues relating to protected groups may still face rejection, how the “whole site counts” rule has been liberalized and touches on how legal requirements can have an impact, or not, on ads. Click here to learn more about becoming a member.

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