The web can be a pretty scary place, and in some cases, you don’t even have to go to its darkest corners to find unsavory content. This is actually something that search engines try to police a bit, not just through offering safety settings (which most users likely never adjust) on search results, but also by restricting or prohibiting advertisements for particular products, services, and content. We thought we’d take a look at some of what’s restricted on the major search engines’ ad networks—and how well these restrictions work.
Google can’t restrict what’s put on the Internet, and what it shows you in search results depends not only on their algorithms but on what search keywords you enter and your search engine settings. Google SafeSearch mainly serves to protect against viewing adult content and images, but inappropriate content can get by it, especially when you’re searching for something that sounds risqué but actually is not. (For example, types of chickens that you can identify as male or female as soon as they hatch based on the color of their feathers are called “sex links.” If you’re trying to get more info on that, don’t do it when there are kids in the room.)
Where Google can be much more restrictive is with paid search results (aka sponsored results, or pay-per-click ads) that appear on search engine results pages and on the Google Ad network. Google words its policies for restricted and prohibited AdWords items fairly broadly, which allows the search giant considerable leeway. Prohibited items are not allowed, period—you can’t buy ads for these items, or pay to promote sites that sell these items. This includes four main areas: counterfeit goods, dangerous products and services, products or services that enable dishonest behavior, and offensive or inappropriate content. Of these, counterfeit goods may be the only one where there’s a pretty clear-cut definition. The others allow room for interpretation and argument, and it’s well within Google’s rights to turn away ads from sites that they believe violate these terms.
Restricted items include a wider range, and while sites can buy advertisements for them there are limitations. In some cases, such as adult-oriented products and alcohol, the restrictions are based on parameters including whether the content has been deemed family safe and the laws of different countries and states. Law also comes into play with healthcare-related ads: You see ads for healthcare products and services all the time on Google, but there’s a maze of criteria that sites looking to advertise must follow. In these cases, it’s less about age-appropriateness and more focused on consumer safety.
When we tested Google to see whether we would get ads for prohibited items, it seemed that they’re standing by their standards. The only exception was payday loans, which are de facto illegal in several states. While illegal products and services are generally prohibited from its ad network, because of the fuzzy status of payday loans, Google will serve ads for these sites if the user types search keywords that are specifically related (at least until July 13, when these will be officially prohibited).
Bing and Yahoo
We also took a look at the policies of Google’s main competitors: Bing and Yahoo. These ad networks have fairly similar policies to one another, but differ from Google in several areas. Yahoo is at once both more and less restrictive than Google. On one hand, because its list of completely unacceptable (i.e. prohibited) products and services is longer, it would appear that Yahoo is more restrictive. On the other hand though, because the items on the list are for the most part fairly specific—in contrast to Google’s relatively broad language—on a case-by-case basis it’s possible that this list could actually be less restrictive. One fun fact: Yahoo competitors can’t advertise on the Yahoo Ad network, a restriction the other search engines don’t make. Bing has a list of restricted products and services that’s pretty similar to Yahoo.
The biggest difference that we found between Google and its competitors was when we tested out searching different keywords to see whether or not we’d get served prohibited or restricted ad content. Google appeared to consistently stand by its policies, while Bing and Yahoo appeared to be more lenient. For example, within its policy barring ads for firearms and explosives, “blunt objects created for use as weapons” are not allowed. Brass knuckles, it seems, don’t count:
Bing comes off even worse, in this case. Bing policies specifically prohibit advertising for “brass, plastic, or metal knuckles”—the fake copy they use as their example of a disapproved ad even mentions brass knuckles—but a search brought up ads for brass knuckles. While some of the items advertised just used brass knuckle-related imagery, others were unquestionably brass knuckles. Bing does include language in its policy that the prohibition is on items “whose primary use is violence,” which is likely why many of the ads use vague terms or specify that the item is for survival or self-defense.
This might seem like nit picking, but we got similar results searching for other prohibited items including guns and swords—both Bing and Yahoo showed paid advertisements in addition to the organic search results, while Google showed none. Despite more ambiguous policy language, Google appears to be much more strict. Its main competitors are much more specific about what items can’t be advertised, but at the same time seem to be much more lenient in terms of what they’ll approve.
While all of these guidelines are well intended, it can at times make pay-per-click difficult for businesses that are offering completely legitimate products and services (the healthcare industry is a perfect example) but may still run afoul of ad platform rules. Do you need help creating PPC ads that will win approval both from search engines and web users? Higher Power SEO can help. Call us at 760-881-4736.