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How Google blocks ‘bad ads,’ from malware to scams

Google's annual advertising report revealed that it blocked more than 780 million "bad ads" in 2015. Bad ads may contain malware, use misleading language to promote scam products, or try to trick users into clicking them.

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    Google blocked or removed more than 780 million online "bad ads" in 2015. Here, a neon sign is seen in Google's engineering office in Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario on January 14, 2016.
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Advertising is the lifeblood of many websites, allowing site owners to make money based on how many people view their content. At its best, advertising might even fit in with a site’s aesthetic and direct visitors to products they’re interested in. But “bad ads” – those that contain malware, promote scam products, or cover up webpages – hurt site owners and visitors alike.

Google’s annual report on its advertising business revealed that the company blocked more than 780 million “bad ads” across its ad networks in 2015. That’s almost 50 percent more than it blocked in 2014.

Google Senior VP of Ads & Commerce Sridhar Ramaswamy wrote that the company employs more than 1,000 people to fight bad ads, and has also invested in technology to automatically identify ads that violate user privacy.

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Google cracked down particularly hard on misleading health ads, blocking more than 12.5 million ads for pharmaceutical products, such as items that haven’t been approved for use by the US Food and Drug Administration. Google also suspended more than 30,000 websites that made misleading claims that people could lose weight without exercising or changing their diet. Mr. Ramaswamy wrote that misleading weight loss ads were one of the top user complaints in 2015 and that Google plans to be even stricter in 2016 about ads promising weight loss.

More than 10,000 sites offering malware (software that slows down or otherwise compromises a user’s computer) were disabled last year, and Google also rejected more than 17 million “trick to click” ads – those that try to get users to click by masquerading as system alerts or important notifications. Many more “trick to click” ads appeared on mobile platforms in 2015 than in 2014, so Google cracked down on mobile ads that don’t follow the company’s policies. It pulled ads from more than 25,000 apps for violations such as placing an ad directly next to a button in hopes that a user would accidentally click the ad.

Mobile ad-blocking has been a contentious issue this year. Apple’s iOS 9 software update allowed iPhone and iPad users to block mobile ads; reports showed that turning on an ad-blocking program caused pages to load much faster and saved bandwidth, but publishers argued that blocking ads starves websites of the revenue they need to survive. Google’s blocking initiatives aren’t meant to target online advertising generally, but rather to block those ads that violate user privacy, contain malware, or mislead users.

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