Technology First Look

Google doubles-down on battle against 'bad ads,' it says. What does that mean?

Social media companies and web platforms are coming under increasing pressure to block misleading or discriminatory sites. 

A man walks past a lit sign and balloons that were used for the unveiling of Google's new Canadian engineering headquarters in Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario on January 14, 2016.
Peter Power/ Reuters/ File | Caption

Amid rising concerns about unsavory online behavior, Google is assuring users it’s working to keep them safe.

In a blog post published Wednesday, Scott Spencer, director of product management for the internet search giant, touted the company’s progress in controlling "bad ads," which peddle sketchy products and target internet users’ computer systems and personal information.

"In 2016, we took down 1.7 billion ads that violated our advertising policies, more than double the amount of bad ads we took down in 2015," Mr. Spencer wrote. These included ads making illegal, dishonest, or predatory offers, "tabloid cloakers" that pose as news websites but link to sales pages, and "self-clicking ads" that can cause automatic software downloads. Spencer also pointed out that the company had banned ads for payday loans.

Internet firms have faced increased pressure to block nefarious online actors in recent months. But much of this scrutiny is focused on "fake news" websites rather than the broader category of "bad ads." While the crackdown on "bad ads" does not mention targeting fake news sites, in particular, Google did implement new rules last fall to prohibit "misrepresentative content."

Brian Wieser, a media industry analyst at Pivotal Research, told Wired on Wednesday that fake news constitutes a relatively new "brand un-safe environment" for advertisers, who are wary of trumpeting their brands alongside disreputable content. "It falls under the ad quality issue rather than the bad ads issue," he noted. Given that 90 percent of Google's revenue comes from ad placement, the company has a clear incentive to fight bad ads, as Wired points out, to persuade advertisers and customers to keep coming back.

According to the Wall Street Journal’s Jack Nicas, there’s less of an incentive to crack down on distasteful or misleading pages than on ads themselves, since ad-tech firms make money each time the ad appears.

"Google, the biggest player in digital advertising, said it would stop placing ads on sites with 'deceptive or misrepresentative' content," Mr. Nicas reported in December. "But so far, enforcement appears spotty: Many Google-placed ads, including those for big brands, continue to appear on the sites, even including ads for Google’s new Pixel smartphones."

Google’s current AdSense policy states that it will not place ads on any web page that "advocates against an individual, group, or organization," or features "misrepresentative content."

After reports that sites espousing racist views were popping up among Google's top results, the company recently changed its search algorithms to prioritize websites with high-quality information and bump down sites that host hate speech. Google users had previously filed complaints about sites like Stormfront, a white supremacist group, and auto-fill queries like "Are Jews evil?"

Google has "the power to stymie hate speech circulated by hate groups, but this means that all kinds of alternative ideas could be limited through tweaks to its algorithm," Melissa Zimdars, a professor of communications and media at Merrimack College, told the Monitor in December. "Overall, we need a lot more transparency about why we're seeing what we're seeing, and perhaps more importantly, more knowledge about what we're not seeing."