How to use Google Ads without funding international terrorism
A very spectacular demonstration of an industry shooting itself in the foot
Companies like Mercedes Benz and The Guardian have accidentally funded ISIS, The KKK, and a whole host of other terrorist institutions by advertising on the Google Display Network (GDN).
Here we explore,
- What happened
- How it happened
- Whether it could have been avoided
- And where we go next
What’s the damage?
It’s pretty damn big, actually.
Unbeknown to advertisers, there ads have been appearing on video channels that host promotional and instructional material for the aforementioned groups. Display ads have been served on websites that can be generously described as “utterly reprehensible”, too.
Not only is this terrible for advertiser reputations, but each ad is putting a little more into the coffers of those extremist groups. Not ideal.
Google are scrambling to upgrade the YouTube and GDN advertising options to make it easier for advertisers (both agencies and in-house) to create campaigns that don’t appear in terrible places. Though in the process they have totally alienated YouTube Creators, one of the biggest audiences in the network (see Casey Neistat, Philip de Franco).
To give you some perspective on the scope of the problem: Havas UK, a media agency, pulled their $216 million annual spend from the GDN. They are far from being the only ones. Many huge agencies halted all spending on the ad network. The British Government even hauled Google into the Cabinet Office, because even the government uses the GDN!
How we Got Here
There are three key ingredients to the problem: ad spend, ROI, and expectations.
Google’s automatic settings and recommendations within the GDN are geared towards making them ad revenue, and they make money by serving your adverts as quickly as possible.
(There is good incentive: advertising counts for 96% of Google’s total revenue, and they made a whopping $27,227,000,000 from advertising in the last quarter of 2017).
Companies spend their good money on commissioning someone who claims to be an expert to advertise on their behalf. They want to make a return off their money, and rightfully so.
The question then becomes, how to prove this ROI. If you’re mounting a brand awareness campaign, how do you measure that? You could prove it with total amount of views, right?
But are those ads being viewed by relevant people? Or are they just being slung into the close match demographic system? In this case, it’s intended that people who sort-of match your criteria get to see ads, but in reality people are too diverse for the approach to be completely effective.
Now unfortunately this is where agencies must take some of the flak. Many agencies have been all too happy to agree on KPIs and objectives that were based on meaningless targets and measures, but which meant a client would keep on paying. If it’s not cost versus revenue, it’s a supplementary statistic.
Digital advertising has been in a state of light speed over the past decade, with ad spend skyrocketing, riding on the promise of unlimited combinations of targeting, A/B tests, huge reach, controllable spending and vast amounts of ad real estate. And the stats that came in still looked impressive.
Yes, old school ads were suddenly lame, so wasn’t a huge spend on digital ads a no-brainer?
It’s here that things get messy. Media owners, like the Google Display Network, broadcast incredible stats in regards to reach and clicks. So much so that both agencies and their clients thought that the numbers the GDN could bring in was the new normal.
Only they weren’t, and then maybe people ignored that fact or maybe they just got overwhelmed by the data available. Though it is remarkable how everyone won. Google made money, YouTubers made money, agencies made money and clients got an additional revenue stream.
The only problem is that they ended up funding some of the most violent and dangerous people in the world.
A classic case of too good to be true.
Could it have been prevented?
Short answer: yes.
The tool to prevent it has existed for a long time.
Using a tool that has been available for years, any advertiser can stop their ads appearing on terrible websites. Though surely that’s an impossible task, finding all those websites you don’t want to appear on?
Well yes, ultimately there’s only so many eventualities you can account for. But imagine if Google gave you a way to make sure your ads only appeared on selected websites and YouTube channels?
A cursory check on the Internet Archive shows that this option has been available since at least 2013. So how did this even happen at all, if the tools were already there?
Because quite a few people ignored them, because you could cut costs by not having to pay for people to go away and do research on their audiences.
What do we think?
There are no shortcuts. Just like its physical counterpart, if you are at an early stage in digital advertising, you have to gradually grow out your reach and effectiveness. It can’t happen overnight.
Don’t follow the digital norm of just having your ads everywhere Google’s algorithms think are vaguely relevant. Actively approve placements, and remember that relevancy is not always the the only measure of appropriateness — imagine if you saw adverts for undertakers in a hospital.
Digital advertising is incredibly powerful, especially true when time, attention, and research is applied to it. Developing a list of selected placements based on research would be the most reliable approach in ensuring you have the best chance of being in front of the right people.
Your ads might cost more per click, though your cost per conversion might go down. The adage is true: “you get what you pay for”. Many companies were spending as little as they could get away with on agency time and ad spend. Then agencies pursued those huge stats but were gaining very little. If you want a valuable audience and their clicks, you have to earn them.
Get an agency to find you the best audience you can get. That means they should be showing your ads in a few selected places and as they start seeing the data along with putting in the audience/brand research. They can begin to optimise your ad spend for the most valuable customers, gone are the days of ignorance.