You may have read this week that some paid ads by pro-life oriented crisis pregnancy centers have been removed by Google after pro-choice political advocacy group NARAL claimed credit for getting the ads banned, as reported by the Washington Post. In reaction, outlets on the pro-life side have cried foul with headlines like “Google Bans Ads From Pregnancy Centers After Lobbying From ‘Pro-Choice’ NARAL” of abortion.
Google’s official response to the issue has been, “We’re constantly reviewing ads to ensure they comply with our AdWords policies, which include strict guidelines related to ad relevance, clarity, and accuracy. If we find violations, we’ll take the appropriate actions — including account disablings and blacklists — as quickly as possible.”
The fact that is a politically and socially fraught topic has heightened questions about what it all means.
Do Google’s actions mark a policy change on abortion related advertising? Is this an indication the company is taking a political stance on the issue? Are all ads from pregnancy centers banned on Google? Did NARAL tread new ground in “lobbying” Google to remove ads it found misleading?
The answer to all of these questions is, No.
Setting political and social agendas aside, here’s a look at the issue as it pertains to AdWords and the ad review process:
1. Misleading and inaccurate ad copy. While, we don’t know exactly what the ads looked liked, the claim is that the ads in question advertised abortion services even though the advertisers did not in fact offer those services. Making misleading or inaccurate claims in ad copy is a violation Google’s accuracy policy. This is covered under the “Relevance” section of the policy:
Products or services that are promoted in your ad must be reflected on your landing page.
2. Targeting tangentially related keywords. Advertisers can target keywords that may not be directly related, but are relevant, to the products and services being advertised. This also is covered under the “Relevance” section of the policy:
Your ads and keywords must directly relate to the content on the landing page for your ad. When users see your ad, they should be able to understand what kind of product, service, or other content they’ll find on your site.
Some of the reporting on this matter has claimed Google banned crisis pregnancy groups from advertising altogether, while other said they were no longer allowed to advertise on “abortion clinic” related keywords. Neither is true. A clinic that does not offer abortion services can still buy and advertise on “crisis pregnancy center” and “abortion clinic” related keywords. The advertisers can promote the abortion alternative services, adoption or pre-natal care they offer, for example.
These ads were running this morning.
In the first two ads, it could be argued there language like “Real Answers Real Help” and “Is it Safe? What Are The Risks?” is misleading and that users should expect to find a balanced, objective presentation of both sides of the discussion rather than only material from pro-life advocates. Google’s actions have affected only ads that made inaccurate claims about services offered.
3. Google’s policy on Abortion advertising. Google has long had a specific policy on Abortion related advertising, which differs in certain countries based on restrictions imposed in those regions.
Google AdWords doesn’t allow ads related to abortion that use violent language or gruesome imagery. In certain countries, we allow ads for abortion or related services. Ads for abortion or related services won’t show on partner websites who don’t accept this type of content or in countries where this content isn’t allowed.
The policy has not changed as a result of the actions Google took this week.
4. The Ad Review Process. Now, let’s talk about the ad review process. Google has both automated and manual systems in place for reviewing and taking action on ads. Advertisers and users can flag and report ads they believe are in policy violations to Google for manual review. Last year, Google said it blocked more than 350 million bad ads last year.
That said the process is far from perfect. Many advertisers can cite cases in which ads they believe clearly violate AdWords’ policies continue to run despite being flagged multiple times.
Google finally responded to complaints about fraudulent pharmacy ads after a federal investigation and $500 million fine was levied on the company. Yet, that accusations that the company isn’t doing enough continued last year. After reporting on flagrant violations in the tech support sector last year, we saw a dramatic clean up in the ads on those search terms. NARAL apparently had been flagging these types of ads as misleading and inaccurate and became vocal about getting Google to take action.
Today, ads for crisis pregnancy centers continue to display on Google search results. None of the ads for these centers suggest abortion services are offered, however. Do notice, however, that just as crisis pregnancy centers are still running ads on “abortion clinic” keywords, here we see an example of the “Safest Private Abortion” option being advertised on what many consider a pro-life search query.
Yes, Google took action, and it may have required vocal pressure from NARAL, but I don’t see any indication Google’s action were politically motivated or signal a shift in how and what ads are reviewed.