How to Use Google Ads Without Funding International Terrorism.

Welcome to Ad land, specifically the digital bit, where we’ve just seen a very spectacular demonstration of an industry shooting itself in the foot.

If you didn’t know what the problem is, it’s people and companies (Like Mercedes Benz or The Guardian) advertising using the Google Display Network (GDN). Which have accidentally funded ISIS, The KKK and a whole host of other terrorist institutions.

The GDN includes pop up, pre-roll and interstitial ads on YouTube videos, along with display ads that appear in many places around the web. Well they’ve been appearing on video channels that are promotional and instructional material for the aforementioned groups along with Display ads being served in websites that can be generously described as utterly reprehensible.

So not only is it terrible for the brands that appeared in these placements but every single one is putting a little more into the coffers of those extremist groups.

Not ideal.

So what’s the damage?

It’s pretty damn big actually. Google are scrambling to upgrade the YouTube and Google Display Network advertising options to make it easier for advertisers (Both agencies and in-house advertisers) to create ad campaigns that don’t appear in terrible places. Though in the process 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 Media agency Havas UK, 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 hauled Google into the Cabinet Office, because even the government uses the GDN!

How we Got Here:

The problem has three ingredients: ad spend, ROI and expectations.

  1. Ad Spend.

Google’s automatic settings and overriding recommendations surrounding the GDN is geared towards making them ad revenue (which accounts for 96% of their total revenue). They make money by serving your adverts as quickly as possible.

Then clients spend their good money on someone who claims to be an expert, to advertise on their behalf. The clients also want to make a return off that money and rightfully so.

  1. ROI (Return on Investment)

Or rather, how to prove it. If you’re mounting a brand awareness campaign, how do you measure that? Well you could prove it with total amount of views, right? Or, are those ads all going to relevant people or is it being slung into the close match demographic system? So people who sort of match your criteria get to see ads but in reality people are too diverse for a 100% programmatic approach to have a high amount of effectiveness.

Now unfortunately this is where agencies must take some of the flak. Many agencies have been all too happy to agree on KPI’s and objectives that were based on meaningless targets and measures but meant the client would keep on paying. If it’s not cost vs. revenue, it’s a supplementary statistic.

  1. Expectations

This is the big one. Digital Advertising has been existing in a state of light speed, with Digital Ad spend skyrocketing over the past decade. Riding on the promise of unlimited combinations of targeting, A/B tests, huge reach, controllable spending and vast amounts of ad real estate. Yet the stats that came in still looked impressive.Yes, old school ads were suddenly lame, wasn’t a huge spend on digital ads a total 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 it didn’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. Though they ended up funding some of the most violent and dangerous people in the world. It’s this diversion of attention that is at the crux of the issue.

A classic case of too good to be true.

Could it have been prevented?

Short answer: yes.

Long Answer: the option was already there


Using a tool that has been available for years, any advertisers 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.

Imagine if Google gave you a way to make sure your ads only appeared on selected websites and YouTube channels? It does. A cursory check on the Internet Archive shows that this option was available since at least 2013. How did this even happen at all? The tools were already there. It’s just that quite a few people ignored that, because you could cut costs by not having to pay for people to go away and do research on their audiences.

So What do we Think?

There are no shortcuts. Just like its physical counterpart, if you are at an early stage in advertising, you have to gradually grow out your advertising 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 linked places.  Actively approve the placements, 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 but especially when time, attention and research is applied to it. Developing a list of selected placements based on research, would be the most reliable approach. Where you have a much higher chance of being in front of the right people for you.

Your ads might cost more per click, though your cost per conversion might go down. The old adage of “you get what you pay for” is true here. 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.