The harm caused by misinformation on the web has become a hot topic in recent years. Much of the recent attention has been focused on social media, but the web undoubtedly plays a significant part in its spread. It’s no surprise then that online ads are coming under increasing scrutiny, both in terms of the role they play in spreading harmful misinformation and in helping to fund it.
Google has, characteristically, been the first to publicly respond to this scrutiny. There have been several recent updates to policies across Google products to address this challenge. Most recently for web publishers, the new rules around “Unreliable and harmful claims” in AdSense/Publisher policy are the most relevant. We’re here to help you make sense of these new policies.
What are the rules around unreliable and harmful claims?
The rules around unreliable and harmful claims are part of The Google Publisher Policies that apply to all publishers using AdSense, Ad Exchange, or other monetization. The unreliable and harmful claims policies sit within the “misrepresentative content” section of the Content Policy.
Rather than being a broad brush that mandates against any unreliable or harmful statements, the policy specifically targets three types of harmful or unreliable claims:
- Election misinformation
- Harmful health claims
- Climate change denial
- In the words of the policy:
- ##start blockquote##
- Unreliable and harmful claims
Google does not allow misleading content meaning such as:
- makes claims that are demonstrably false and could significantly undermine participation or trust in an electoral or democratic process.
- promotes harmful health claims, or relates to a current, major health crisis and contradicts authoritative scientific consensus.
- contradicts authoritative scientific consensus on climate change.
It’s not difficult to understand the events that have led to each of these policy points. However, the examples are given around the health claims policy, in particular, suggest that the scope of these policies is broader than just the issues currently making the biggest headlines.
The examples under Harmful health claims are anti-vaccine advocacy, denial of the existence of medical conditions such as AIDS or Covid-19, and gay conversion therapy. These are considered unacceptable business practices – google shuts them down.
What gives Google the right to set these policies?
Whenever Google updates or enforces publisher policies there are always complaints that they are using their power to censor the web or to push a particular agenda. It’s important to understand that these are platform policies rather than policies pertaining to what can be put on a website or included in search results.
Publisher policies are the rules that websites that use Google for monetization must adhere to. They do not dictate what can be on a website, but instead what can be on a website solely if it wishes to earn money through the Google platform. Publishers wishing to publish content that goes against these policies can remove Google advertising and ignore them completely.
Publisher content policies are an important part of the ecosystem. They allow Google to sell website advertising space that meets a common set of standards recognized by advertisers. When advertisers book their Google ads campaign, they can confidently bid knowing that there are policies in place to ensure their ads do not appear alongside content that the brands and advertisers themselves deem harmful by association.
For publishers, this means attracting more and higher bids, which supports all of our revenue goals.
Are these policies being enforced and how?
The clauses around unreliable claims google ads and harmful claims are undoubtedly being actively enforced by Google. It’s not hard to find complaints from publishers that have had their Google monetization cut off due to breaching these policies. At the time of publication, I am not aware of any action relating to the climate change denial point (the most recently added), but I would expect these to follow.
The good news for publishers is that enforcement appears to be managed in quite a moderate way. Sites that I know were suspended as a result of these policies seem to be on the political fringes and have chosen to ignore numerous policy warnings prior to being suspended. The sites of course remain live (despite claims of being de-platformed), but Google stops serving ads on them.
Policy warnings seem to commonly start with page-level enforcements, which publishers can view for themselves in the recently updated policy center. Those working with MCM partners should have any problem content flagged to them by their partner.
What is evident is that there is a lot of content on the web that would seem to fall foul of these policies, but continues to serve ads by Google. This might indicate that Google’s machine learning processes are still warming up to these challenges, but I would expect them to catch more content as they are fed with more manual reports.
What to do if your content is flagged as “Unreliable and Harmful”
If you find that content is flagged as in breach of this policy, then there are a number of paths open to you:
If the violation is at the page level and the affected pages are not a significant contributor to revenue, you could simply choose to ignore the warnings. Ads will not serve from Google, but a small proportion of ads being called from a few pages is unlikely to cause issues for an otherwise policy-compliant publisher. Do keep an eye on the number of such violations that are reported though, as they could make up a larger proportion of inventory over time.
Change or Remove the Content
Depending on the nature of the content and how committed to it you are, the simplest solution is often to remove the content. If the content flagged is user-generated, then aligning your community policies with Google Publisher policies can help make this less of a political hot potato. The delete button isn’t a very sophisticated approach, but it can also be effective.
Block Google from Bidding
Google doesn’t mandate what content you can publish, just what content it will monetize. If you have content that you wish to keep live that is being flagged by this policy, then you can just stop Google from bidding on it.
There are various ways to achieve this depending on your setup.
Common solutions include:
- Removing ad code from the page
- Replacing Google code with code from an alternate provider
- Changing settings in your CMS to block Google from bidding
- Passing a key value into the ad server to change trafficking
Google doesn’t always get it right, and it has an appeal process in place for such events. If you have content flagged that is genuinely not prohibited by these policies, you should appeal. This can not only get the decision reversed but will help improve enforcement in the future.
Appeals can be done through the AdSense policy center or via your MCM partner.
Is Google the only SSP/Exchange enforcing this type of policy?
Despite Google’s reputation for opaque policy enforcement, they are almost certainly the most transparent major SSP/Exchange when it comes to content policy. Other demand partners will block ads on content that doesn’t meet their standards, and even block accounts that consistently fail to meet those standards, but it is often impossible to find those standards in writing.
Most do, sometimes slowly, fall into line with what Google requires from monetized content. Many SSPs and Exchanges rely on Google demand as part of their stack, meaning that they also have to meet the same standards.
There is a demand to be had that doesn’t follow this lead, but there is a cost. Google is by far the largest player in digital advertising, and their bids support a significant proportion of all ad revenue (either by paying it, or providing bid competition.) Remove Google from any system relying on real-time bids and revenue can tumble.
Do I need to worry about this Google policy?
The Unreliable and Harmful Claims policy will probably never impact the majority of publishers. There will be a small subset of publishers who regularly experience issues with this policy and will not like it, but at least it is now laid out clearly by Google.
Publishers with UGC (User Generated Content) on their site may need to be more mindful. Comments and discussion sections can get extreme and as publishers, we are responsible for all content we monetize, even UGC. Such publishers will be expected to ensure that their user-generated content falls in line with this new policy.
If you are facing the challenge of navigating content policies on-site with heavy UGC, Google does have additional guidelines available on how to do that here.
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