AI

Concerns Over Placement of Google Search Ads

Adalytics’ report includes a lengthy list of advertisers whose Google search ads it observed appearing on sanctioned US Treasury OFAC SDN, Iranian, and/or adult websites. The list features a wide array of public bodies, companies, organizations, and politicians, including:

  • The United States Treasury
  • The European Commission
  • Various political fundraising search ad campaigns
  • Multiple US government departments and agencies
  • Military organizations
  • Major and Fortune 500 brands
  • Ad tech vendors, non-profits, and major media publishers

The inclusion of Google’s own search ads in compromising placements raises questions about the understanding of Google’s adtech by its ad buyers. Laura Edelson, an assistant professor of computer science at Northeastern University, suggests that Google itself may lack full visibility into the workings of its ad systems. This lack of visibility raises concerns about compliance with US law and the need for advertisers to verify their adherence to regulations.

Google’s third party ad network, while less visible than search ads on Google.com, has been criticized for its lack of transparency and control. Adalytics’ research has gone beyond concerns, providing concrete instances of ads being displayed in locations where campaign buyers would not want them to appear, potentially violating Google’s publisher terms.

TechCrunch has been able to corroborate some of Adalytics’ findings. For instance, Google Search Partner ads for consumer goods, luxury brands, political campaigns, and entertainment and media companies were found on adult content websites, posing reputational risks for associated advertisers. Additionally, pre-scripted search queries were triggered when clicking on a Google-powered search widget embedded on these adult content websites, with search results leading to ads for unrelated topics, indicating potential misplacement.

This is just a sample, want me to continue?

The pre-filled pop-unders appear to be instances of attempted ad fraud by a GSP. Users of the porn site in question may not have even triggered the display of search ads by typing a relevant query. The intention seems to be that the user will accidentally or out of curiosity click on one of the ad links, generating ad revenue for the publisher.

The automatic re-direct in the above instance was to the following URL: “search.howtolosebellyfat.shop/search/” — the chosen term in the link likely selected for its potential to grab attention — a web property that Adalytics’ report confirms uses the Google Custom Search Engine.

It’s worth noting that we were unable to reproduce (nor did we attempt) all of Adalytics’ findings. For example, searches we tried on some of the flagged GSP websites for major consumer goods brands (including Apple) did not yield the display of their Google search ads, contrary to what Adalytics found.

Adalytics report showing an Apple ad appearing under a Google search widget on on a pornographic website

Image credits: Adalytics

The report, spanning 219 pages, contains numerous screenshot examples featuring major brands. It also includes instances of Apple search ads being served on gpsm.ru, a Russian website explicitly mentioned on the OFAC SDN sanctions list; and on iasco.ir, an Iranian steel company’s website also explicitly on the OFAC SDN sanctions list. Several instances of Apple iPhone search ads were recorded on adult content websites.

Adalytics suggests discrepancies between the search ads it observed and what could be verified subsequently through their own testing could be related to the exposure of brand safety issues. It speculates that the report, which was shared under embargo ahead of publication with industry contacts and journalists, may have been passed to affected advertisers and/or to Google — leading implicated actors to curtail their search ad display to problematic sites (such as by opting out of the GSP) before the report’s release.

“We already see sites being taken down/demonetized,” Adalytics founder Krzysztof Franaszek told us last week.

Once Google was informed of Adalytics’ upcoming research, Franaszek also reported further instances of sites identified in the report having their search ads (and embedded search functionality via Google’s widget) blocked server-side — including adult content sites pornobaza24.top, Forum Porn, and comixxx.pro. (Google subsequently confirmed it had taken action to remove sites violating its publisher T&Cs against adult content once made aware of them.)

Ad campaigns can (and do) also change. So it’s possible some of the ad campaigns running on GSP when Adalytics conducted its tests were no longer live when we checked, for example, if an advertiser’s budget had already been maxed out.

In our tests last week, we were unable to reproduce Adalytics’ findings related to ads being shown on the website of the sanctioned Iranian alloy steel company mentioned in the report, such as FBI and US Army jobs ads. We also couldn’t reproduce its finding of US Treasury (aka US Mint) ads being shown on the website of a Russian company under US Treasury OFAC sanctions under US Presidential Executive Order 13685.

However, we did observe FBI jobs ads being served on an Iranian website called Arshad Sara. We also observed FBI careers ads being served on the far-right news website, Breitbart.com.

Google Search Partners FBI Jobs ad displayed on an Iranian website

An ad for FBI career opportunities being served on an Iranian website (Screengrab: TechCrunch)

Asked for a response to problematic placements of its ads documented in the report, a spokesperson for the FBI declined comment, saying questions should be directed to Google “regarding its platform and systems.”

“High-level vetting failure”

“When I look at this report, the first question I ask is why is this happening? It really looks like whatever due diligence process Google has for the program to run these ads, clearly, the vetting is not working,” Edelson continued in a phone call with TechCrunch to discuss Adalytics’ findings. “There are websites on here that are the websites of directly sanctioned entities — and, here, I’m thinking particularly of the Iranian state-owned enterprises — so that is just incredibly clear cut. There’s no way maybe someone misunderstood what that website was. It’s not really borderline. That’s just a matter of US law. There’s actually

It’s evident that Google’s ad verifications are failing, leaving advertisers and users skeptical of the transparency of their systems. The recent findings indicate a failure of vetting on Google’s part, resulting in US sanctioned entities being able to run Google search ads. The lack of transparency and accountability in their processes has come under scrutiny, demanding more transparency from regulators and advertisers.

Lina Khan, the new chair of the U.S. Federal Trade Commission have spoken out about the lack of transparency issues, something I think indicated for a long time, warning if we don’t do something, it’s going to be a slow train wreck. “The trust is not warranted,” she added. “Regulators need to demand transparency, advertisers need to demand transparency. Of course advertisers have very little power in this equation. So that’s where, I think very clearly, regulators need to step in.”

The antitrust regulators’ leniency towards the adtech sector, especially Google, is unsustainable. Google’s failure to comply with sanctions is a clear indication of their disregard for investment in compliance. However, there are also implications for brands using Performance Max ads, which opens up unavoidable reputational risks for customers of Google’s fully automated ad offering.

With these revelations, it’s clear that action needs to be taken to restore trust with the public, advertisers, and the government. The lack of transparency and accountability in the adtech industry has far-reaching consequences that need to be addressed by regulators and industry players.The current state of advertising presents a cause for concern. The issue lies within the lack of transparency in the black box media of the Google Search Partner (GSP) network. It’s a network that advertisers can’t verify or monitor, making it difficult to ascertain where their ads are being placed.

This lack of transparency could lead to severe brand safety concerns for advertisers, potentially causing them to opt out of advertising through this channel altogether.

The complexity of opting out of the GSP, even for more straightforward Google search ad campaigns, makes it a significant concern for advertisers. Many might not even be aware that they are part of the GSP network and are unknowingly having their ads displayed on sites they wouldn’t want to be associated with.

The European Union is closely monitoring these developments, particularly in the context of Google’s compliance with recent regulatory updates. Additionally, the EU is currently finalizing a framework for regulating the use of AI, which could impact the application of ad placement algorithms.

In response to these concerns, a Member of the European Parliament, Paul Tang, has called for the EU regulators to audit Google’s ad algorithms, emphasizing the need for transparency and accountability in ad placements.

From an industry perspective, there are also calls for Google to implement measures to improve brand safety, such as reverting the GSP to an opt-in model, providing better transparency on ad placements, and conducting thorough audits of the network to remove any non-compliant publishers.

Furthermore, some industry experts suggest that the lack of transparency in ad placements can lead to fraudulent activities, ultimately harming genuine advertisers who seek to grow their business through authentic ad placements.

Ultimately, the issue at hand requires concerted efforts from both regulators and platforms like Google to address the lack of transparency and uphold brand safety for advertisers.

Adalytics approached Google for a response to its findings and presented numerous inquiries regarding the GSP. These questions included whether the GSP manually evaluates partners and its strategies for upholding publisher policies on these third parties, in addition to requesting specifics on the GSP’s generated revenue and the number of partners removed for policy violations.

Google’s response, attributed to Dan Taylor, its VP of global ads, did not directly address the questions. Instead, the company stated that Adalytics has a history of publishing inaccurate reports and exaggerating claims. Google indicated that the examples provided by Adalytics pertain to its Programmable Search Engine (ProSE) product, which offers a free search tool to small websites and explained that the revenue implications related to these small sites are overstated.

Furthermore, Google confirmed that AdSense publishers using ProSE can apply for a revenue share but downplayed the significance of Adalytics’ research by stating that ProSE represents a small portion of the SPN and that the majority of impressions come from popular sites like YouTube. Google also emphasized that the spend for ad campaigns primarily lands on Google Search rather than the third-party network, without providing details on the revenue generated from the SPN.

Google’s representatives were unable to confirm whether the usage of its ad-supported search widget by sanctioned Iranian entities would constitute a breach of its publisher T&Cs, irrespective of whether ad revenue generation was involved.

Adalytics provided a guesstimate figure of $10.5BN as the revenue Google might generate through the GSP based on a large set of search ad campaign data from audited brands, which it used to estimate the percentage of ad spend allocated to the GSP network.

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