The Google YouTube controversy has become widespread, with brands like Starbucks and Verizon amongst the list of brands who’ve pulled their ads from YouTube.
According to one report, there are now 250 advertisers boycotting Google’s YouTube platform.
So what exactly went wrong?
And should all advertisers pull their ads until Alphabet/Google can ensure they won’t appear alongside YouTube’s ugliest videos?
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The short answer: Probably not–and don’t panic before taking reasonable action.
Our expert account managers are working around this issue so advertisers can continue to gain revenue from ads on YouTube without compromising their brand image. Here’s how you can do the same.
The Google YouTube Ad Controversy: What Happened?
As stated earlier, this controversy is rooted in the UK.
When the UK government first realized their taxpayer-funded “adverts” were being shown alongside extremist videos on YouTube, they put ads on hold and called up Alphabet for an explanation.
This was just the start. A cascade of UK–then US–advertisers followed suit. Here are some of the companies that are officially putting YouTube ads on hold:
- Volkswagon (UK)
- Tesco (UK)
- L’Oreal (UK)
- Verizon (US)
- PepsiCo (US)
- GSK (US)
- AT&T (US)
- Johnson & Johnson (US)
- Lyft (US)
- Enterprise Holdings (US)
- Starbucks (US)
- Walmart (US)
- Holden (AU)
- Kia (AU)
Philipp Schindler, Chief Business Officer at Google, responded to advertisers in a blog on March 21 where he apologized and shared insights into Google’s plan moving forward:
Recently, we had a number of cases where brands’ ads appeared on content that was not aligned with their values. For this, we deeply apologize. We know that this is unacceptable to the advertisers and agencies who put their trust in us. That’s why we’ve been conducting an extensive review of our advertising policies and tools, and why we made a public commitment last week to put in place changes that would give brands more control over where their ads appear.
The response to this (and other apologies by Google) hasn’t been great.
Many advertisers are now calling for discounted prices on “premium advertising inventory,” and some have estimated that the boycott will cost Google around $750 million.
What is Google Doing to Address the YouTube Ad Problem?
Many brands claim that Google isn’t doing enough to prevent this issue, and simply refuse to put ads up on the platform until the issue is resolved.
And it’s not completely irrational–I think we can all agree it’s not ideal for mascara ads to show up as pre-roll for a hate preacher’s video. Or any ad, for that matter.
However, this is a much larger problem than most realize–there are 300 hours of YouTube videos being uploaded every minute of every day, and these ad placements are run by algorithms and automation, not handpicked by humans.
Lewis Brannon, Paid Search Manager at CPC Strategy, explains:
There is real concern about Google’s technology and the ability to categorize its content. For instance, how does Google’s technology recognize that a video is a ‘sensitive subject’ or ‘juvenile’ content? It’s all based on an algorithm and has little human oversight. And even if it did have human oversight, there are millions of videos on YouTube so it’s nearly impossible to cull through all of them and label them appropriately. The Google Display Network has the same problem.
Programmatic ads regulation will take a combination of powerful automation and increased human oversight.
However, it’s important to point out that Google hasn’t been idly sitting by.
Here are some steps they’ve taken in the past to combat these types of ads and videos on their platform:
- In 2012, Google removed 640 videos promoting terrorism on YouTube
- In 2016, Google removed nearly 2 billion scammy ads from their ad platforms
- Also in 2016, according to Reuters, “…internet companies including Alphabet Inc’s YouTube, Twitter Inc, Facebook Inc and CloudFlare held a call to discuss options, including a content-blocking system put forward by the private Counter Extremism Project.”
Additionally, as Tien Nguyen, Director of Technology at CPC Strategy pointed out, YouTube takes user feedback extremely seriously and has dedicated staff members who review flagged videos.
Unfortunately, these solutions also haven’t worked quickly enough, and now Google’s going to have to make up for it in double time.
Here are some of Google’s new solutions:
- Ads will only show with creators in the YouTube Partner Program
- YouTube team will revise community guidelines for content
- New account-level tools for advertisers to manage ad visibility across YouTube and the web
- Video-level reporting to all advertisers (in coming months)
- “Significant numbers” of new hires to review questionable content
- New tools with the latest AI and machine learning technology to review questionable content
- New escalation path to make it easier for all advertisers to report violations
These are all welcome adjustments, but as we mentioned before, many brands don’t believe it’s enough.
In the flurry of news reports, we’ve seen a lot of brands and retailers ditch the platform. However, we haven’t seen a lot of options for those who decide to stick it out. We’ll talk about that next.
How Should Online Brands and Retailers React?
If you’re not a large brand with a huge budget, you may not have seen your ads on offensive videos.
Dianne Manansala, Retail Search Manager at CPC Strategy, explains:
It is likely that these big advertisers that pulled out had very wide reach and [large budgets for ads on] YouTube, which would increase their risk of getting more ads served in more places–including new videos that Google isn’t able to police for offensive content right away. I wouldn’t be concerned with getting served on offensive content if you generally have a smaller reach (smaller budgets, more targeting), as long as you have the proper content exclusions in place.
Basically, even if you haven’t been affected, it never hurts to ensure safeguards and ad exclusions are in place.
Adam Harms, Retail Search Manager at CPC Strategy, identified a fix for one of his clients who requested to be excluded from a specific website on a Display ad campaign.
Access this display ad website exclusion in the “Placements” tab in AdWords:
If you’re seeking to keep your ads away from videos on YouTube that don’t align with your brand, take the following steps:
- Access your category options in the AdWords Display Network tab under +Targeting.
- Next, select campaigns under Campaign Exclusions > Add Campaign Exclusions > Site Category Options.
- Under “Show ads on“, select “all content except the specified exclusions (custom)“:
“There are some betas which address other types of ‘sensitive subjects’ and also will let you know how much you have spent on this content over a given period,” explains Josh Brisco, Manager of Retail Search Operations at CPC Strategy. ”
“Advertisers also may want to exclude live streaming videos, as those for sure will not have categorization. This has to be done at the campaign/ad group level, so no account level support of yet, but I would assume that is in the works.”
Once your exclusions are in place, run spot checks to see if you need to add more. And keep an eye out for new granular ad targeting features in the next few weeks.
Update 4/7/2017: Google now offers a “Rapid Response” exclusion form. Simply insert the URL you would like to be excluded from, provide contact information, and the team will take care of it.
If you opt to leave your ads up on Google’s Display network (and across YouTube), you should definitely make sure your exclusions are in place and wait for further news and updates from Google as tools become more robust.
However, there’s one thing to keep in mind: As many exclusions as you add, there’s currently no guarantee your ads won’t ever appear on offensive content.
As Brisco points out, “Google may already be making headway in giving advertisers more ways to opt out of potentially offensive content, but at the end of the day, we are still reliant on Google to properly identify and categorize this content.”
Fortunately, this issue is at the forefront of Google’s mind, and solutions are in the works. As long as exclusions are in place, we think it’s worth the wait for improvements.