Google responds to Prop 8 AdSense debacle

Site owners who sign up for Google's AdSense program decide to trust Google and its ability to target ads contextually, based on keywords and general site content. In this way, sites devoted to analyzing the mobile phone industry, for example, don't end up with a lot of ads for mobile homes. The idea is to match the site with the ads to generate more clicks, and revenue. Unfortunately, the day before the state of California was set to vote on Proposition 8, which banned gay marriage, many sites having nothing to do with politics or gay marriage were flooded with AdSense-generated pro-Prop 8 ads, leaving many site owners far from enamored with Google.

Turns out that Prop 8 proponents simply paid Google what had to be a ton of money and flooded every conceivable market segment with the Yes-on-8 ads. Sites ranging from San Francisco's Laughing Squid to even TechCrunch were affected.

Google finally responded to the debacle last week, although it admits that a real solution is still a "couple of weeks" away.

First, Google explains how ads are targeted to sites, noting that it's done not only contextually via keywords, but also via "placement targeting," which:

"allows advertisers to select specific topics, sites, and pages on which they want their ads to run. In the U.S., our placement targeting tool also allows advertisers to find sites serving a specific audience, such as "Males ages 18-24."

So in other words, the Prop 8 ads in question were probably placed via the more generic placement targeting strategy. Google then goes on to say it never editorializes its ad content, and does not favor one political party over another or for that matter "one car manufacturer's ads over a competitor's in our auction." Still, Google's AdSense policy explicitly prohibits ads that advocate "against any individual, group or organization."

Policy and politics aside, however, the meat of the response is that Google continues to improve its ad-blocking and ad-filtering tools for site owners so that they can be in the driver seat when it comes to deciding what kinds of ads are appropriate for their site--not Google. Today, those filters can block ads within 24 hours of their appearance, at best (which was useless in the Prop 8 situation, since the ads appeared just one day prior to the vote). In its response, Google says it will be working over the next couple of weeks on filtering improvements and in getting that wait down to just an hour. Still, that method means that site owners need to be constantly reviewing their sites for wayward ads, something that time-constrained AdSense users can't do in most cases.

Realizing this, Google adds:

"We'll also continue improving the Ad Review Center, giving you ways to block entire categories of ads in addition to individual ads. We are also working on ways for you to establish guidelines for the type of ads that will be acceptable to your users, so you can "set it and forget it," while feeling comfortable that users will have a good ad experience."

That would be nice. Until then, AdSense users have very few options, since Google seems to have cornered the market in online ad serving. Has your site been served irrelevant or inappropriate AdSense ads? What did you do? Let us know.

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