Google: The Net’s Policeman?

I’d hate to be Google right now. I wouldn’t mind being a billionaire, of course. But post-IPO, the company faces major headaches more than ever.

Like it or not, the Internet is something of a public utility. Google is a very accessible manhole entrance to that vast network of pipes. With public utility status (even if only in the public mind) comes a lot of responsibility — responsibility Google seems quite conflicted about.

I got to thinking about this after talking this week with Bill Wyatt, owner of the Y-Que T-shirt shop. Wyatt’s AdWords ads were rejected by the search giant, apparently because of Google’s policy of not permitting advertisements “for language and site content that advocates against an individual, group, or organization” [italics added]. (Google simply reiterated its policy when I asked for comment.)

Now, given the site content that met with Google’s disapproval was political in nature (mostly T-shirts poking fun at President Bush), and given it’s an election year, the problems with such a policy seem obvious. First of all, any legitimate political advertisement, such as one that points to georgewbush.com’s “Kerry Media Center” would be in violation of such a policy. Environmental group Oceana’s ad was rejected by Google for criticizing Royal Caribbean cruise lines’ practices, though it was later accepted by Overture.

Wyatt sounds like an ordinary businessman just trying to make a buck. He claims to make $1,000 per day on the Internet and says most of his traffic comes from Google. He’s tried Overture but thinks the advertiser interface is just too complex. Now, he’s removed all the “bad stuff” from his main site and established a separate URL, hoping the change will meet with Google’s approval. But he finds it difficult to figure out what’s OK with Google and what isn’t.

“This is always the case when my ads get shut down,” Wyatt told me. “It’s not everything. It’s kind of like pick and choose in terms of their program…. This stuff isn’t hate stuff. It’s typical, if not status quo, stuff. Where do you draw the line?”

It’s easy to understand why Wyatt would be confused. After all, Google’s incredibly ineffective policing leaves plenty of anti-Bush ads up and running. A search yesterday on “george bush” turned up plenty of anti-Bush ads, many for T-shirts and bumper stickers. One read: “Republicans Gave Me Crabs, Wide variety of anti-Bush t-shirts & gifts created by top designers. www.cafeshops.com/beatnik_gifts.”

Why wasn’t that ad rejected?

Google built its business largely on technology. Technology ranks its search results and provides Google with its “objectivity.” Technology scans Web pages and Gmail and determines what ads to serve. Technology ranks AdWords ads based on bid price and CTRs. But technology can’t make the kind of judgment calls the Y-Que decision requires.

(Yahoo-owned Overture, Google’s main competitor, employs human editors to approve every single ad the company accepts. But as a colleague pointed out this week, “Either you’re Overture, or you’re not.” Picking and choosing is no way to enforce a policy.)

Google is a media company. It has, of course, every right to set standards for its advertising. Should it adopt Village Voice-type standards or New York Times-type standards? Most media companies can look at their audience to decide such matters. Google’s audience is, well… everybody.

The search company has exhibited signs it understands the difficulty of playing cop. Recently, Google decided to allow advertisers in the U.S. and Canada to bid on trademarked terms. Before that, it followed a similar sort of pick and choose policing policy, disallowing bids on trademarked terms when the trademark owner complained. (The company will still monitor AdWords ad copy to ensure trademarks aren’t abused.)

The last thing Google needs to be, as it rises ever-higher in public consciousness, is inconsistent. Either it’s Overture, with an attendant and scrupulous human editing process, or it’s not. Google must pick, but it can’t pick and choose.

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