Last month, the San Francisco Chronicle had a long article exploring many of Google’s unpublished rules on what it will and will not accept in advertising.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 been covered before, as I explained in an article for Search Engine Watch members. But the Chronicle leaked a document shedding even more light on Google’s internal policies.
Forget the debate over what exactly Google will allow. Why Google doesn’t simply publish its rules has been the core issue. Why can’t advertisers know from the start what Google allows? The guesswork has been infuriating to some who’ve been rejected on the basis of unpublished policies in the past, plus it’s fed into what many consider to be Google’s secretive nature.
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. Is this policy listed in Google’s editorial guidelines for ads? No. How about the fact wine ads are OK, but not ads for hard liquor? Again, not published.
Good news, at last. Google’s planning to greatly expand the editorial guidelines it publishes online, providing everyone, advertisers and users alike, with a better idea of what it will accept on the advertising front.
“We’re in the editing phase of what that page will look like,” said Sheryl Sandberg, Google’s VP of global online sales and operations. “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 rules public, some have changed already. In particular, there’s been the controversial issue of what I’ve called Google’s “anti-anti” policy. This rule periodically comes to light when someone gets his ad yanked because it was anti-Bush, anti-Clinton, anti-cruise ship company, and so on. If you’re anti-anything, it seemed you might not get to advertise at all.
When I visited Google in late July, I was told the anti-anti rules had been quietly liberalized as of the middle of that month. I’d summarize the change as: Hate ads remain out, but protest ads are OK.
Got a beef with something or perhaps someone prominent, such as a politician? You should find it more likely your protest ad will be accepted. But if you advocate hate against groups or individuals — violence toward them, questioning a right to exist, or otherwise step outside the bounds of what Google considers acceptable debate — your ad may not 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 coming transparency should stem some of the criticism Google’s received regarding ad decisions. So, too, will greater acceptance of protest ads.
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, just the latest of many such instances.
Ultimately, I wonder if Google will still have conflicts as it continues to encounter issues with those who view its ad inventory as a way to get messages out, rather than a selling mechanism. It’s the latter function 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 may 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 views its unpaid editorial search results as where such informational messages should be 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 hopes this stance — along with many other diverse views — is naturally well-represented in its unpaid results. Google doesn’t make editorial judgments about what content to accept in organic search results, with the exception of search engine spam.
There will undoubtedly be cases where the consensus is representation is far from perfect on particular topics. There will also be cases in which individuals won’t be happy.
Why aren’t we ranking first or even in the first page of results? That question will be raised. Google’s response traditionally has been that if someone feels she must have representation, she should buy an ad.
That attitude inevitably turns the ad space into more than a merchandising medium. It remains a message delivery outlet. And when those messages are stifled, even though it’s ad space involved and despite what may appear in the editorial results, Google remains open to accusations of censorship.
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