How brands can respond to Google's ad placement problems.
Marketing Marketing Technology

Google Ads Continue to Have Problems, and Brands Are Hitting Pause

6 Minute Read

Despite filters you set up to avoid such a circumstance, your recent video ads have popped up in the wrong place: right before video content created by a competitor. Not only does your company have a policy against directly pitting their ads against competing content, but the filters set up for Google ads were supposed to avoid exactly this situation.

Your boss is outraged. She quickly demands you pull the plug on that video campaign and figure out how to make sure this never happens again. Pushing pause on the campaign is easy. But as a marketer tasked with getting results, you know that avoiding a channel entirely isn’t a good long-term strategy. If your video ads are generating a strong ROI, you’re giving up a lot by abstaining from this marketing campaign. The good news is you’re not alone.

A number of brands have had their relationships with Google’s ad networks strained by the platform’s inability to guarantee that ads won’t be placed alongside objectionable content. The system for ad placements hasn’t been perfected despite growing pressure from brands and several recent tweaks by Google, which puts marketers in a tricky situation. It isn’t just vice- and adult-themed content that brands have a problem with; many types of content can run counter to a brand’s mission, its ideals, or its policies about where it chooses to advertise itself.

Should you follow your boss’s instructions or risk a sharp decline in your department’s ROI? There’s no simple answer, but it helps to know what options are at your disposal.

What to Know About Google’s Latest Changes

Google is not standing pat with its ad placement algorithm. Even in the last month since the latest wave of outcry from brands, the search engine giant has revealed two key changes it hopes can improve the quality of its platform. The company is applying some of its leading technology to the case, integrating artificial intelligence into the process of identifying objectionable content.

According to Business Insider, early evidence from the company is showing that the machine learning approach is uncovering five times the number of videos that aren’t brand safe. That isn’t a perfect score, but it’s a great step toward mitigating the fallout and risk of ads being placed with objectionable content.

This AI announcement came at the same time the company said it would shorten the review times for flagged videos and make other, smaller adjustments to how the Google Ads platform filters for brand safety. Advertisers will have access to enhanced marketing technology that gives them greater control over excluding objectionable content, and the company is hiring new staff to assist in ad monitoring and enforcing its ad policy.

These are good, important changes that offer promise for frustrated brands. Ultimately, though, the impact of these changes will depend on their ability to deter such cases involving objectionable content and to prove themselves to advertisers in a live situation. The pressure has risen as the margin for error has shrunk, with brands having less patience for the mistakes that have plagued their Google ad experiences in the past. Those companies find themselves stuck choosing between two imperfect options, risking either the company’s reputation or its bottom line.

Red traffic light against blue sky with clouds

Image attribution: Tim Gouw

When to Say, “Enough is Enough”?

Companies that have been burned before are wary of going back to Google’s well, fearing that if the same problems crop up again, they’ll have no one to blame but themselves. More than 250 brands have taken the safer road, choosing to pause their Google Ads campaigns over the past few months.

Prominent brands that have been stung by Google’s objectionable content include Coca-Cola, Audi, Johnson & Johnson, and Nestle, among others. It’s especially problematic for Google that these brands seem to pop up in every industry, meaning no company is safe.

Partially crushed Coca-Cola can on urban boardwalk

As The Wall Street Journal points out, advertisers are much more likely to seek out alternative digital advertising channels. While waiting out the results of Google’s latest changes, advertisers could turn to premium publishers like Hulu, the New York Times, and other digital platforms where ad placement is much easier to control. Virtually any other programmatic ad-buying platform could benefit from Google’s bad publicity, particularly ones offering advanced marketing technology to help businesses optimize their ad placements. And this assumes that those marketers choose to put their full Google Ads budget into another channel. It’s just as likely that they could withhold those funds, or only spend a portion of them, to save up money for when they resume their Google spending.

TV publishers have been hopeful that this aversion to Google’s ad platform will redirect spending back into traditional television commercials, where publishers choose exactly the type of content where they want their ads to appear. This might take place on a limited scale, but brands remain skeptical about the efficacy and long-term value of TV ads, at least in contrast to their digital counterparts. Digital channels offer the potential for much more economical advertising.

In the meantime, one thing is clear: Brands can’t trust Google to protect their image. They need to take an active role in this process.

Becoming Your Own Advocate

Your brand is far from alone when it comes to having problems with Google’s ad network, but you shouldn’t sit passively and wait for other companies to force the search giant to change. Whether or not you continue to run ads on Google’s network, you need to make your voice known in advocating for yourself when it comes to ad placement. This is a lesson that can apply to any advertising network. No other company faces the same exact restrictions, requirements, and preferences as you do, so you need to be vocal about making sure those needs are served.

If you aren’t getting the service you need from an ad platform, there’s little incentive for you to spend your marketing money there. This is your best leverage in any conflicts you may have with Google.

It’s clear that Google is working hard to overhaul their ad platform, but you can help mitigate your own risk of undesirable ad placement by being aggressive in monitoring these placements for yourself and reaching out to Google immediately when there are problems. With the flagged review process set to move faster, marketers can get quicker responses to their issues, which can help reduce the risk of continuing to use the ad network.

Keep in mind that when it comes to advertising, you’re the customer and deserve the best service possible. Google may be the largest ad network, but it’s far from the only option. Keeping pressure on the network’s improvement is the best way to guarantee that your ads will be well served—and that you don’t have to sacrifice revenue to protect your reputation.

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Jonathan Crowl specializes in digital marketing and content creation for both B2B and B2C brands, with an emphasis on startups and technology. His past and current clients include B2B brands IBM, LinkedIn, Mad Mobile, Oktopost, BrightSpot, and Waze, as well as B2C brands Porsche, Epson, and PayPal. He lives in Minneapolis.

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