Google’s Advertising Policies: A Plea For Understanding
Drawing lines in the sand and enforcing them is harder than it may appear. Perhaps these "rules of engagement" will help.
Advertisers are sometimes frustrated by Google’s advertising policies. To be fair, I suspect the Google ad policy team is similarly frequently frustrated by the antics of advertisers who push the limits of what Google is wiling to accept. So this isn’t a rant against the hard-working folks on the Google policy team who have been incredibly helpful over the years. Nor is this a diatribe about advertisers who constantly push up against what’s acceptable, trying to make a buck. Rather, it is a plea for mutual understanding on both sides.
Bottom line: Many of the complaints we hear against Google policies and its enforcement are simply misguided.
We’ve heard folks complain that Google forbids advertising on legal products like tobacco and guns, but allows advertising for “head shops” and “paid escorts”. Others complain that having policies for ads, but applying much looser standards for organic listings is irrational.
Neither of these complaints is valid.
Every publisher has policies governing the types of advertisements it is willing to carry. Publishers have legitimate business interests at stake in not annoying their customers, and have a right to take a moral stand against taking money from and therefore being dependent upon certain industries. That is understandable and appropriate. If they draw those lines differently than others might, others can start their own search engine.
Google’s desire is to organize the world’s information. Some of that information is about products that aren’t terribly healthy, some of that information is frankly scary and disgusting, but if people want it, Google will help them find it. Google is not in the business of cleaning up the web, but if they choose not to profit from some industries they are entitled to make that decision. And if they really went whole hog in “sanitizing” the organic listings, likely other engines would knock them off their perch by offering the unedited version of the web.
In fairness, it is extraordinarily difficult, and sometimes impossible to define clear black-and-white policies about anything. There are always shades of gray and sorting out which instances fit on which side of the line is tedious, time consuming and fraught with potential for the appearance of favoritism.
In a previous life I taught high school physics, math and government at a fancy private school. Our eminently wise headmaster pointed out that faculty, students and parents spent exactly the same amount of time arguing about dress code enforcement regardless of whether that dress code was a uniform, something less formal, or non-existent. Students will push the limits of any dress code—including none—and folks will always complain about how it’s enforced.
Advertisers will push the limits every bit as hard because there is money at stake, so I am very sympathetic to the unenviable position of those charged with defining and enforcing those policies. Indeed, in all our experience over the years we’ve found the policy teams to be reasonable and dedicated to doing the right thing. They are likely understaffed, but I suspect no amount of staff would satisfy demand entirely.
The complaints about policy enforcement are not entirely without merit, though.
I could cite numerous instances in which a client’s ads passed muster with one member of the policy team and then a few weeks later the very same ads were banished by another team member. Similarly, ads and/or their landing pages are banned for one of our clients, but ads exhibiting similar characteristics from competitors are allowed to run. These instances understandably elicit howls of frustration from our analysts and clients alike, and I’m pretty sure we’re not alone.
The policy team may be doing all they can with the resources available, but if directional guidance is helpful, here are some suggestions that would reduce the frustration felt from this side:
Give warnings. Unless a violation is grievous or the advertiser has been previously warned, there should be a standard amount of time available to fix a problem before ads go dark. Shorter times for ad copy and keywords, longer time for landing pages. We find that the policy team is usually reasonable about this, but there have been instances where communication fell short.
Also give warnings for policy changes. If a policy changes, advertisers and their agencies should be notified with plenty of lead time to make necessary changes. Again, this happens sometimes, but not all the time.
Establish a consistent appeal process. For cases that are really close to the line there should be a well-defined appeal process that pauses the clock until the problem is resolved. Granted, not everything can be appealed, so perhaps an advertiser should get three appeals per year (or something like that).
Establish a competitive review. If an advertiser gets flagged for an infraction, the policy team investigating should take the time to investigate all the advertisers in that space and clean house thoroughly. It sometimes appears that policies are enforced only when a competitor complains. The squeaky wheel always gets the grease, but this practice would create a bias against industry leaders as every competitor is “watching” those folks.
And a heads-up to advertisers: If you knowingly break the rules and constantly push the line, don’t expect to get a break from the policy team when you do have a judgment call pending. Google can and should jump all over the chronic offenders. It may be difficult to differentiate between those making a good-faith effort to comply with the rules, and those who don’t, but I’m willing to wager that the policy team knows who falls into which camp.
We wouldn’t need a court system if setting policies was easy and everyone played by those well-defined rules; it isn’t and they don’t.
Hopefully, these “rules of engagement” will be useful for advertisers and the engines alike.
Have I left anything out? Please add your thoughts in the comments section below.
Note: I have only addressed Google policies and team which is unfair to both them and the other engines. Bing will obviously need to step up in similar fashion as they gain a larger share of the market.
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