Why Google’s crackdown on bad ads will improve online advertising

February 14, 2017 Mark Haddon

Bad ads we hate them, you hate them, everybody hates them. But it turns out Google really hates them. According a recent report Google took down 1.7 billion ads in 2016 that violated its advertising policy. That’s more than double the number it removed during 2015, which was an astonishing 780 million – a figure that itself was a 50% increase on 2014.

For Google bad ads are a massive headache. Remember ninety percent of all Google’s revenue comes from advertising. Bad ads, by bad actors (the originators of the bad ads, as Google likes to call them) can have a devastating impact on both Google and the legitimate advertisers who use its ad network.  Basically, Google has to keep its ad network clean or else there are very real consequences. In 2011 it payed the US Justice Department $500 million to avoid prosecution on allegations of knowingly accepting illegal advertisements from Canadian online pharmacies. No doubt, this wasn’t purposeful by the search giant but poor oversight and abuse of its ad network by bad actors.

Trust is all important. The more aggressive Google is in dealing with bad ads, and the bad actors behind the ads, the more trust it builds with legitimate advertisers. Plus, it avoids any tricky legal issues to boot. So crucial is this for Google that out of the 66,000 staff that work for the company globally, 1,000 are involved in the removal of ads that violate its policies. So what are these bad ads that Google is removing?

Ads for illegal products

According to Google it turns out the most common bad ads in 2016 were for illegal activities and products. Top of the illegal ad list were 68 million healthcare ads. Pharmaceuticals have always been a huge concern for US based Google. Worldwide, many countries have strict rules on the advertising of prescription medicines online. Why the need for Google to do this? Well, the US Food and Drug Administration has an ongoing crackdown on illegal online pharmacies. In 2013 alone it closed 9,600 websites for selling dangerous, or unapproved prescription medicines to consumers. Medicines that could have killed.  Next on the list of illegal ads removed were gambling ads. Google rejected 17million of them for circumnavigating the laws of the countries in which they appeared.   

Misleading ads

Ever get annoyed with banner ads that promote a miracle cure for dieting? Ads promising the possibility of getting ripped in under 4 four weeks? Or a cure for the rare skin condition that you probably don’t have? Well, you are not alone.  Google removed 80million of these bad ads that deceived and shocked users. Google requires advertisers to give information upfront regarding their product when advertising but it would appear some bad eggs are still willing to deceive in order to drive clicks. Personally the sooner these forlorn images of half-naked men and women are banished the better.

Ads that trick the system

Turns out bad actors like to roleplay too. In 2016 Google removed nearly 7 million ads that intentionally attempted to trick its detection systems. But there are even worse bad actors out there – yes, worse than Steven Segal – they’re called: “tabloid cloakers”. These new type of scammers, of which Google identified 1,300 accounts, disguise malevolent ads as news stories on trending topics to get clicks and spread malware. Director of Product Management at Google, Scott Spencer is clear that the war is only just beginning: “Unfortunately, this type of bad ad is gaining in popularity because people are clicking on them”. A handful of these scammers can pump out a lot of bad ads. Google noted that during a single sweep for tabloid cloaking in December 2016, it removed 22 cloakers that were responsible for ads that had more than 20 million views. Again, these ads damage user trust, but they also harm the reputation of advertisers whose genuine ads appear alongside corrupt ads.  

Bad mobile ads

A new entry into the world of bad ads is the “self-clicking ad”. As the name suggests, when viewed on a phone, these malicious ads trick users into downloading an app they didn’t want or need. It’s a growing problem. In 2015, Google only found and deleted a few thousand of these ads on its service, but in 2016, it found and disabled over 23,000 of these ads. This surge in self-clicking ads no doubt a reflection of scammers becoming aware of the growth of Google’s mobile first policy. The lesson (not least for anyone with children): make sure whatever app store your using requires a password before downloading.

Conclusion

Thankfully Google regularly updates its Adsense content policy. It is after all in Google’s interest to find and destroy all the bad ads it can. For Andrew Buckman, Managing Director EMEA at OpenX, Google’s stance on bad advertising is important: “By putting its fight against bad ads in the spotlight, Google’s ad report provides the industry with renewed motivation to take action”. Google for its part has committed itself to supporting industry wide efforts like the Coalition for Better Ads, as well as the continued removal of bad ads. While, for companies such as BannerFlow, and all those intent on producing better display advertising, the removal of bad ads, and the bad actors peddling their wares, can only be a good thing.

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