Google Is Adding New Controls to Help Publishers Filter Sensational and Racy Ads

They will block sensitive or misleading content

Google is adding more ad filters to protect against sensitive or controversial content. Photo Illustration: Dianna McDougall; Source: Getty Images
Headshot of Marty Swant

Many of the brand safety concerns this year have focused on protecting advertisers from appearing next to sensitive or offensive content. Now, Google wants to help publishers protect their own content from sensitive ads.

According to Scott Spencer, Google’s director of publisher management, Google already looks at ads to ensure they’re compliant with existing policies. However, there are some ads that Google allows but that publishers don’t want on their websites.

Using machine learning, new filters Google unveiled this week are aimed at helping match the creative in ads with the audience. One filter, according to Spencer, is focused on how risqué an ad might be. For example, Google’s technology will be able to measure how much skin is showing in an image. Another filter will let publishers block sensational ads, click-bait or other “crazy, fictitious” things, as Spencer described it.

“There’s nothing wrong about talking about celebrities and aliens,” he said on Tuesday during a meeting with journalists in Chicago. “One can put that into an ad, and that is allowed if publishers want it. But we want to give publishers the control to be able to decide I don’t want that type of creative run on my site.”

The filters are binary, meaning they can be either on or off at any given time. However, some filters allow for more variation.

“There tends to be a difference between Europe and the U.S. and other regions, mostly because of the social norms of what’s acceptable,” Spencer said. “These things are more accepted in Europe, less excepted in the U.S., and that depends on the country.”

One of the publishers testing Google’s filter tools is Time Inc., which has been beta testing some pre-existing filters from Google.

“It is an absolute necessity,” said Scott Mulqueen, vp of programmatic strategy and operations at Time Inc. “We have to have some level of cleanliness with ads on our pages. It makes it very hard for our sales force to go out into the market when the pages are cluttered with ads that we don’t necessarily want to have there and that don’t put our best foot forward as a publisher.”

Along with the filters, Google is rolling out additional ways to address ad blocking. A tool called Funding Choices lets publishers communicate with consumers who are using ad blockers, offering options that vary from pointing out ad blockers but still letting ads through (which Google calls a “soft wall”) to forcing visitors to whitelist ads or pay for ad-free access after a few stories (known as a “hard wall”).

Publishers testing out Funding Choices already have seen whitelist rates of up to 15 percent when a soft wall is used, Spencer said. In other words, 15 percent of people with ad blockers are turning them off to visit a website. When a hard wall is used, he said, whitelist rates increase to 30 percent.

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@martyswant Marty Swant is a former technology staff writer for Adweek.