Google is cracking down on bad advertisers, but its expanding power makes some ad execs and publishers nervous

Sundar Pichai

  • Google published its latest annual “Google Trust & Safety
    in Ads Report,” detailing its 2018 crackdown on ads and content
    that violate its policies.
  • The search giant went after phishing ads, ticket resellers, and
    hate speech, among others, terminating twice as many publishers for
    reasons like hate speech than it did in 2017.
  • Its growing power has some nervous that one company wields so
    much influence over the web, though.

After a year when the tech giants have been on the defense to
demonstrate their platforms aren’t all bad for society, Google
wants the public to know it’s doing more than ever to keep the
open web safe.

The search engine released its latest annual “Google Trust
& Safety in Ads Report,” in its seventh year, where it
revealed it’s been cracking down on abusive ads for bail bonds,
ticket resellers, and phishing ads. It also cracked down on
misinformation and “low-quality sites,” by removing ads from
pages that violated its “dangerous or derogatory” content
policy that includes a ban on hate speech.

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But whereas in the past, Google went after the ads and content
pages, it has also been flexing its muscles by going after the
advertisers and publishers themselves that are behind ads and
content that violate its policies.

So while Google took down fewer ads in 2018 (2.3 billion) than
in 2017 (3.2 billion), it took down more publishers and advertisers
last year.

Google terminated 734,000 publishers in 2018, compared to
320,000 publishers in 2017. It terminated almost 1 million
advertiser accounts, nearly twice as many as it terminated in

“The shift we’ve been working on here is taking down bad
creative and looking at the publisher entity, so we can take down a
bad actor before it appears, which has brought more safety to the
consumer,” said Scott Spencer, director of sustainable ads at
Google. “We use machine learning to ID who’s behind something,
have we seen something before. Similarly, on inventory side, we
look via machine learning to see how similar is this one to one
we’ve already seen. In many cases, we’re blocking an ad before
it runs, or when the amount of ads were so problematic, we take
action at that level. It’s more preventative.”

In addition to getting more punitive at the publisher or
advertiser level, Google also has gotten more targeted when it
comes to penalizing publishers with content that violates its
policies, Spencer said. So if the comments section on one page has
comments that are in violation, Google can demonetize that specific
page rather than the whole site, as it did in the past, he said. As
a result, Google took down 28 million pages in 2018 versus 24
million the year before.

Also last year, Google created a new policy around political
advertising in response to evidence that Russians used digital ads
to try to influence the 2016 US presidential election. The result
was a new transparency report that shows who’s buying ads and
what they’re spending. It also loosened a ban on cryptocurrency
ads to allow ads for exchanges in the US and Japan, where there are
certification processes in place.

Spencer said Google has made it easier to appeal its decisions.
It’s hard to argue with the takedown of hate speech, but the idea
of Google de facto deciding what can and can’t appear on the web
makes many people nervous.

“I am guessing, at the end of the day, it will not be all that
controversial. But generally, the idea that a single company, even
one with the scope of Google, suggesting standards for an entire
ecosystem causes pause,” said Jim Spanfeller, a longtime digital
media executive and founder of Spanfeller Media Group. “This
seems like something the IAB should be doing. On one level this is
helping improve the full ecosystem. But that said, I am still
uncomfortable with the idea that one player has this much power and
is wielding it with such force.”

An ad tech exec who asked not to be named for fear of
retribution by Google also expressed concern that Google’s ad and
content policies go along with other moves by the company to grow
its share of online browsing with Chrome, already the dominant
browser. When Google sets policies, it incentivizes developers to
optimize their products to Google over other browsers, which leads
to a worse experience on the other browsers and in turn, decreased

“On the bad ad side, it’s a big spectrum, and it’s very
hard to know where the lines are,” the exec said. “They can be
using that genuine, ‘we’re trying to clean up the web,’ but
there’s a point where they can also help their dominance. It’s
hard to say where that line is.”

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Google is cracking down on bad advertisers, but its expanding power makes some ad execs and publishers nervous