Time Magazine has an interesting story today (one that sounds like it was written straight from a Googleplex press release). Google, you see, has a vast army devoted to finding shady advertisers appearing in otherwise legitimate search results. Of course, what they are missing is the converse–legitimate advertising appearing on shady sites belonging to ad publishers using the various Google ad networks or products.
Shady ads have become such a problem for search engines that hundreds of employees now work round-the-clock to protect users before they get ripped off. Google has employed “ad cops” charged with sniffing out questionable advertisers basically since the search engine began in late 1990s. Today, Google earns about 95% of its revenue from advertising, so making sure its ad marketplace is free of illegitimate businesses is a big part of the search giant’s own business.
Quite the operation, eh? (“Ad cops”–is that like “copyright cops”?) So isn’t it comforting to know that Google is making such an effort to stop Google advertising of scammy products? But it appears that these ad cops are not looking at YouTube or Blogger–places that Google markets to a variety of users, but especially kids. Why not?
It should come as no surprise that the number of scammy ads is on the rise. As search traffic grew over the years, so did search engine advertising — as well as the number of people trying to take advantage of that advertising. One big reason why hundreds of millions of sketchy ads go live each year is because it’s so easy for anyone to advertise a business online. All a scammer needs to advertise on Google is an account and a form of payment.
Now think about that for a second: All a scammer needs to advertise on Google is an account and a form of payment. So what if instead of letting the scammers into the network and chasing them once they’re able to prey on the public–if the ad cops don’t catch them–Google stopped them from getting an Adsense account in the first place?
Google employs a mix of machines and humans to catch bad ads. Its first line of defense is software that searches for ads with specific attributes Google finds unsavory. For example, ads related to online gambling automatically get snagged because the practice is illegal in the U.S. Because the automated system isn’t perfect, Google also relies on actual humans to determine some ads’ legitimacy. And even then, about 2% to 3% of accounts that are shut down are overturned after being mistakenly suspended.
So Google has quite a little operation to catch bad advertisers who blithely sign up for Google Adsense or its other products. But riddle me this Batman–if they have this staff that searches for “specific attributes that Google finds unsavory”, why don’t they also search for legitimate advertising that is served to sites that not only are “unsavory” but also violate Google’s obligations to the legitimate brands that rely on Google to get it right and serve their ads on sites where they are supposed to be?
In fact–Google could do what the USC-Annenberg Innovation Lab “Transparency Report” did–start with Google’s on “Transparency Report” that catalogs the tens of millions of DMCA notices it receives for search every month.
Once again–Google just can’t get out of their own way. Or maybe they are smarter than we think. By pushing this story about ad cops scouring Google to look for scammy ads, they draw attention away from a much easier problem to solve–legitimate ads on illegitimate sites. And why might they be doing that?
Because they might have to issue refunds for the legitimate ads. Because that’s where the real money is.
And issuing refunds to the biggest ad agencies in the world is the kind of thing that makes for a good shareholder lawsuit because Google overstated their earnings. Or maybe some European consumer protection agency or state attorney general will go after them (since Google already owns the FTC).
And that’s the kind of thing that can ruin your whole day.