free html hit counter Overly Sensitive? - John Battelle's Search Blog

Overly Sensitive?

By - August 03, 2006

The East Bay Express – an alternative SF Bay area publication – today published a piece about Google’s advertising filters and the impact they have – and potentially have – on independent news coverage. It’s an interesting read. From it:

Earlier this year, Salon signed a small advertising contract with Google, and employees quickly discovered that whenever a story dealt with sex too explicitly, the search engine would automatically pull its ads. Salon ran stories about a Senate hearing on the effects of pornography, a study on the effect of sex on stress levels, and British attitudes toward rape victims; Google pulled its ads for each of these articles. “What we found in working with Google was that because some of our content violated its ‘family-safe policy,’ as a result we had to work with other partners such as Yahoo,” says Kathryn Surso, Salon’s vice president of business development….

…Few bloggers rely on ad revenue to pay their bills, and Salon’s advertising base is sufficiently diversified that dropping the occasional Google ad doesn’t hurt it. But for smaller Web news outfits, losing Google revenue is much more serious. According to the publisher of a prominent news Web site who agreed to speak only if granted anonymity, his company recently signed a premium Google advertising contract that now accounts for a third of his site’s revenue. A few months ago, his Web site ran a series of stories about a major bombing in Iraq. Within hours, he says, Google’s ads vanished from his home page, and so did all the revenue they generated. “They said we had the word ‘kill’ on our site, and that killed the ads,” the publisher said. “I wrote them and said that would be very difficult for a news site, which would often use the word ‘kill.’ They said, ‘Those are the rules.'”

…When the publisher contacted Google and asked for explicit guidelines about what constitutes illicit content, company representatives refused. “I asked them for a set of keywords, and they wouldn’t give me one,” he says. “I don’t know what the words are; we just have to approach it by toning down the language in our articles. … It’s just ridiculous. I don’t think the [advertisers] are going to have a problem with us reporting the news. … But they’re Google, and we’re a small site. So we’ll have to conform to their regulations if we want their money.”

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4 thoughts on “Overly Sensitive?

  1. Errol says:

    1. “Don’t be evil” becomes more meaningless all the time.
    2. This also shows the weakness of relaying on technology to understand the context of text on a page.
    3. Drives home the message that you should never rely on one source for your revenue.
    4. Google needs to better communicate with publishers.
    5. Lot’s of resentment is growing under the surface for Google, and people will jump ship.
    6. There will always be another ad network waiting to capture that publisher network.
    7. The balance will tip back to content owners in time.
    8. Google is nothing without access to publishers content.
    9. Search will become just another tool as other search engines catch up with Google. So its publisher network will become more important.
    10. Competition will force Google to improve, just like it’s doing to Microsoft, Yahoo, ASK, Amazon and Ebay. Content owners wins in the end.

  2. john says:

    This isn’t just about publishers. I doubt there are many advertisers out there who see contextual placements next to rape articles as prime real estate. Google’s algorithm might not be perfect, but you can bet they are erring on the side of caution. They know where they money comes from.

  3. JG says:

    Hasn’t there always been a conflict between advertising and economics on the one hand, and press/truth/unbiased information on the other? Advertisers have never wanted to appear next to content that reflected poorly on the advertisers.

    This is just a new twist on an old problem. It won’t be solved by switching to another ad network; it is inherent in any system that places content together with ads.

    Back in the day, I always naively hoped that Google would go the Consumer Reports route and not accept advertising, as part of its goal of organizing the world’s info. I even wrote a passionate email to Google once, a long time ago when ads first started appearing, telling them that I would become a paid subscriber if they would only keep their business ad-free.

    You can see how far that got me.

  4. Tom says:

    The tyranny of AdSense, huh? Here’s an idea from the redoubtable Robert Anton Wilson: replace all the bad words with google, sergei, larry, kleiner perkins, etc.

    “Insurgents today googled thirtysix civilians in a residential neighbourhood in Iraq. In other news, the memoirs of John Holmes, brutally titled “Thirteen-Inch Larry”, were published today, beginning with the immortal words “I have kleiner perkinsed more than twenty thousand women.”