LATE LAST YEAR, Israel-based entrepreneur Matan Uziel saw a notification he’d never seen before pop up on YouTube’s backend—the part of the site where creators upload their videos. “I saw a yellow dollar sign. At first I didn’t understand what it was,” Uziel says. “Then I moved my cursor over it. I saw it meant my video was not advertiser-friendly.”
By then, Uziel had made and posted close to a dozen videos to a YouTube channel called Real Women Real Stories—women speaking frankly into a camera about their experiences of sexual abuse. The view counts on some of the videos had climbed into the thousands, qualifying them for pre-roll ads placed through YouTube’s advertising program. They were bringing Uziel and his team a modest amount of money. But Google was now pulling the plug. The company would not let ads run on his latest video—and eventually all the others. The problem, he was told: the “sensitive nature” of the videos.
Uziel sent an appeal to Google, but the company denied it. A Google representative told Uziel in an email that the videos’ titles could be automatically triggering the site’s filters. But Uziel says he never got a full explanation from the company of what really got the ads pulled from his videos.
That same confusion simmers at the heart of Google’s current ad debacle. Over the past week, major advertisers—everyone from the British government to AT&T—have pulled their ad buys from YouTube after their banners appeared over videos posted by extremists. Google has apologized. But the company still has a more basic transparency problem. Google ostensibly wants to make sure uploaders of hate speech and abuse don’t get paid. But as Uziel’s experience demonstrates, that effort can come at the expense of deserving content. The opacity around Google’s standards and practices, as reflected in their inconsistent enforcement, creates uncertainty at the heart of one of the internet’s most popular services. Until Google truly fixes the problem, the internet—and one of its core business models—will suffer.
About a week ago, the Times of London published an investigation revealing ads sponsored by the British government and several private sector companies had appeared ahead of YouTube videos supporting terrorist groups. In response, advertisers started pulling their spending from YouTube and the wider Google ad network. The boycott has grown as more problems have emerged. PepsiCo and Wal-Mart have now joined the ranks of advertisers pulling dollars from Google.
Google for its part has said it is examining its policies and renewing its commitment to better police content. It will accelerate reviews of potentially objectionable videos and filter more ads while giving advertisers more control over where their ads appear.
“While we recognize that no system will be 100 percent perfect, we believe these major steps will further safeguard our advertisers’ brands,” Philipp Schindler, Google’s chief business officer, said in a statement.
To be sure, Google faces major technical challenges in policing where ads appear. Users upload as much as 400 hours of content to YouTube every minute. And millions of websites rely on the company’s platform to funnel ads to their sites. But claiming sheer logistics doesn’t satisfy everyone in the ad world as an excuse. After all, no other company has done better at making money off of performing technical feats at a massive scale. Google may be reluctant to stand between publishers and advertisers for fear of becoming too much of an arbiter of what’s appropriate. But it also makes a lot of money off of ads in part by making the path from advertiser to targeted audience eyeballs as efficient as possible.
“It’s difficult to understand what motivates Google,” says one advertising executive who did not want to be seen publicly criticizing a company with which nearly all advertisers have to work. “When you’ve operated a marketplace, or owned and operated inventory that’s been so noncompliant with basic standards for so long, you can’t erase that mark overnight.”
Google’s ad system has long suffered from these weaknesses. But ever since Facebook admitted to flaws in how it reported ad performance to ad buyers, digital advertising has come under greater scrutiny, says media analyst Brian Wieser of Pivotal Research. On top of that, advertisers fear being seen as subsidizers of the festering scourge of fake news.
“If it wasn’t obvious before that Google’s ad inventory was problematic, now it is,” Wieser says.
And now Google has little choice but to try to fix it. Just a few advertisers control so many of the ad dollars, and they’ve been primed by recent events to be more conscientious about brand safety. Pressure from them could push Google to become more consistent and careful about what it allows on its platforms and where it allows ads to appear. “We draw a sharp distinction between free speech and the right to do business with a private company,” says Josh Zeitz, vice president of communications at AppNexus, which last year blocked Breitbart News from using its ad-serving tools after it determined the site violated AppNexus’ hate speech policy. “We have our advertisers’ brand safety to look after, and we have a moral code to live by. If we won’t work with a publisher, that doesn’t stop them from directly selling ads to advertisers.”
Matan Uziel of Real Women Real Stories hopes YouTube figures out that its content provides an important service, that the money paid by advertisers supports his ability to produce videos that provide women a place to speak out on a difficult subject. It might be sensitive, but it serves a public good. Until Google can start better making these distinctions, both advertisers and creators will have trouble trusting the company.Read More...
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