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Advertising Policies: A Plea for Understanding

My monthly paid search column at SearchEngineLand: Advertisers are sometimes frustrated by Google's advertising policies, and, like many in the publishing space, I suspect the Google team is frequently frustrated by the antics of advertisers. This is intended to serve not as a rant against the hard working folks on the Google policy team who have been incredibly helpful to RKG and its clients over the years. Nor as a diatribe about advertisers who constantly test the limits trying to make a buck. Rather, it is a plea for mutual understanding. Many of the complaints we hear against Google policies and its enforcement are simply misguided. We've heard folks complain that Google forbids advertising on legal products like tobacco and fire arms, but allows advertising for "head shops" and "paid escorts". Others complain that having policies for the ads but much looser standards for the organic listings is irrational. Neither of these complaints is valid. Every publisher has policies governing the types of advertisements it is willing to carry. Publishers have legitimate business interests at stake in not annoying their customers, and have a right to take a moral stand against taking money from and therefore being dependent upon certain industries. That is understandable and appropriate. If they draw those lines differently than others might, others can start their own search engine. Google's desire is to organize the world's information. Some of that information is about products that aren't terribly healthy, some of that information is frankly scary and disgusting, but if people want it, Google will help them find it. Google is not in the business of cleaning up the web, but if they choose not to profit from some industries they are entitled to make that decision. And if they really went whole hog in "sanitizing" the organic listings, likely other engines would knock them off their perch by offering the unedited version of the web. In fairness, it is extraordinarily difficult/ sometimes impossible to define clear black and white policies about anything. There are always shades of gray and sorting out which instances fit on which side of the line is tedious, time consuming and fraught with potential for the appearance of favoritism. In a previous life I taught HS physics, math and government at a fancy private school. Our eminently wise headmaster pointed out that faculty, students and parents will spend exactly the same amount of time arguing about dress code enforcement regardless of whether that dress code is a uniform, something less formal, or non-existent. Students will push the limits of any dress code -- including none -- and folks will always complain about how it's enforced. Advertisers will push the limits every bit as hard because there is money at stake, so I am very sympathetic to the unenviable position of those charged with defining and enforcing those policies. Indeed, in all our experience over the years we've found the policy team to be reasonable and dedicated to doing the right thing. They are likely understaffed, but I suspect no amount of staff would satisfy demand entirely. The complaints about policy enforcement are not entirely without merit though. We could cite numerous instances in which a client's ads passed muster with one member of the policy team and then a few weeks later the very same ads were banished by another team member. Similarly ads and/or their landing pages are banned for one of our clients, but ads exhibiting the exact same traits from competitors are allowed to run. These instances understandably elicit howls of frustration from our analysts and clients alike, and I'm pretty sure we're not alone. The policy team may be doing all they can with the resources available, but if directional guidance is helpful, here are some suggestions that would reduce the frustration felt from this side:
  • Warnings for infractions. Unless the violation is grievous or the advertiser has been previously warned, there should be a standard amount of time available to fix a problem before the ads go dark. Shorter times for ad copy and keywords, longer time for landing pages. We find that the policy team is usually reasonable about this, but there have been instances where communication fell short.
  • Warnings for policy changes. If the policy changes advertisers and their agencies should be notified with plenty of lead time to make the changes necessary. Again, this happens sometimes, but not all the time.
  • Appeal process. For cases that are really close to the line there should be a well-defined appeal process that pauses the clock until the problem is resolved. Granted, everything can't be appealed, so perhaps an advertiser gets 3 appeals per year (or something like that).
  • Competitive review. If an advertiser gets flagged for an infraction, the policy team investigating should take the time to investigate all the advertisers in that space and clean house thoroughly. It sometimes appears that policies are enforced only when a competitor complains. The squeaky wheel always gets the grease, but this practice would create a bias against industry leaders as every competitor is "watching" those folks.
For advertisers: if you knowingly break the rules and constantly push the line, don't expect to get a break from the policy team when you do have a judgment call pending. Google can and should jump all over the chronic offenders. It may be difficult to differentiate between those making a good-faith effort to comply with the rules, and those who don't, but I'm willing to wager that the policy team knows who falls into which camp. We wouldn't need a court system if setting policies was easy and everyone played by those well-defined rules; it isn't and they don't. Hopefully, these "rules of engagement" will be useful for advertisers and the engines alike. Have I left any out? Note: I have addressed only the Google policies and team which is unfair to both them and the other engines we seem to be ignoring. Bing will obviously need to step up in similar fashion as they become a larger share of the market.
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