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Google 'can't guarantee' ad safety

News, 27 March 2017

Google "can't guarantee" that ads on YouTube - and other platforms it uses to serve client messages - will not appear against inappropriate content, according to a leading executive from the company.

Eric Schmidt – the Chairman of Alphabet, the holding group that houses Google – discussed this issue, which has recently seen major US marketers from AT&T to JPMorgan suspend ads on YouTube, during an interview on Fox Business.

"We match ads and the content. But because we source the ads from everywhere, every once in a while somebody gets underneath the algorithm and they put in something that doesn't match," he said.

"Because the ads come from everywhere, every once in a while an ad will come in – that someone was trying to sneak it in, if you will – [and] get underneath our rules and violate our terms of service.

"So we can't guarantee it, but we can get pretty close."

Schmidt outlined some steps the organisation has taken to address this situation. "We've had to tighten our policies and actually increase our manual review time. So I think we're going to be OK," he said.

More broadly, the former Google CEO suggested concerns about pairing ads and content – as with fake news – represents a "ranking problem" which requires a certain type of solution.

"It should be possible for computers to detect malicious, misleading and incorrect information – and, essentially, have you not see it," he said. "We're not arguing for censorship. We're arguing: just take it off the page. Put it somewhere else. Make it harder to find."

Having originated in the UK, the pressure to achieve this aim is rapidly ramping up in the US, where blue-chip marketers like Verizon and Johnson & Johnson have joined the ranks of companies pressing for tighter brand safety measures, along with PepsiCo, Starbucks and Walmart.

And Bob Liodice, President/CEO of trade body the Association of National Advertisers (ANA), similarly called for greater protection in this area. "Several" of the ANA's members, he reported, have suspended ads on YouTube and Google websites. 

"Their concerns for their brands' well-being is rational, appropriate and warranted. [The] ANA strongly believes that brand safety is of paramount importance to our members. No marketer should ever place its brand at risk," he said.

Liodice also linked the debate to wider failings observable across the digital space. "The current crisis is representative of the issues that [the] ANA – and others – have raised with respect to fraud and risk, reduced transparency, sub-optimum measurement and nebulous productivity. A dearth of trust and a need for verification lie at the heart of these problems," he said.

According to the Financial Times, GroupM, one of the world's biggest media buyers, is also now demanding premium space on Google properties at a discounted price.

Rob Norman, Chief Digital Officer for GroupM, said that "constant dialogue with Google" had included the possibility of reduced rates for premium advertising inventory to offer brands more security and avoid them appearing next to inappropriate YouTube content.

An equity research team at Liberum, the investment and brokerage firm, estimates that over 250 advertisers have now pulled their ads from YouTube.  

Data sourced from Fox Business, ANA, MediaPost; additional content by Warc staff