Google, the ubiquitous search engine, boasts the ability to search more than 4 billion websites. Beside the results compiled by the company’s closely guarded search algorithm, one thing web browsers aren’t likely to find is political advertising with an edge, from either side of the ideological spectrum.
When The Nation tried to place an ad headlined “Bush Lies” this spring, the search engine, which turned a net profit of $150 million last year, rejected the slogan. Google was enforcing an unwritten rule, often cited to advertisers by company representatives, that the search engine will not accept ads advocating against any individual, group or organization. In another case, this one in February, Google removed ads placed by Oceana, an environmental lobby working to end water pollution caused by cruise ships. Its ads campaigned against Royal Caribbean, a company that was forced to pay $18 million in 1999 to clean up illegal oil dumping.
One of the latest sites to fall victim to Google’s advertising hatchet is the progressive website PERRspectives, which features political commentary and satire. Its ads were pulled in June; a Google representative told the owner that his site contains “unacceptable content.” All three cases suggest that Google, in a move seemingly designed to placate potential corporate clients, has implemented a policy that goes too far in keeping advertisers from reaching the consumers who have made Google the most popular search engine on the Internet.
The AdWords program, a major revenue generator for Google, allows marketers to select search keywords that correlate to their advertisements. Any user who enters a keyword will see, alongside the search results, related pitches. The editorial policy furnished by Google’s ad team covers everything from a ban on gambling references to rejection of superlatives, but the only reference to the advocacy standard is an acknowledgment of the company’s right to “exercise editorial discretion.” Some ads are removed after running for days and weeks while others are rejected before they ever appear. A Google spokesperson said that Google refuses ads with any negative advocacy in their text and rejects business from websites that advocate against protected groups as defined by race, gender and age, among others. In enforcing these policies, the spokesperson noted, Google hopes to be responsible in what it chooses to display beside its results.
Though the company says it has confidence in its advertising editors, who decide on a case-by-case basis which ads will run on the website and which will be removed, some website owners and Internet advertising specialists think fair enforcement of the advocacy rule has been difficult for Google. “They’re anti-anti-anything,” said Danny Sullivan, an industry expert and creator of Search Engine Watch, an online monitor of engine activity. To stay true to its policy, the company would have to eliminate all ads for websites that argue against anything, from BushRealityCheck.com, a site devoted to debunking the lies of the President, to the editorial page of the New York Times, both of which were still running ads alongside Google searches as of late July. In fact, the policy has hardly made Google the search engine of civility. In August a search for “Michael Moore” produced ads for both “Michael Moore Hates America” and “Beat Bush Gear.” A search for “liberal” turned up an ad placed by conservative lifestyle magazine The Right Review. The ad’s headline was “Fight the Liberal Agenda.” At the time, none of these ads had been determined to advocate against an individual, group or organization, leading some analysts to call enforcement of the policy “haphazard.”
The Google ad team, according to a digital media consultant, designed AdWords to work quickly and cost-effectively for small companies and website owners like Jon Perr, the founder of PERRspectives. But Perr, according to a piece he posted on his website, was told by Google editors that his site, almost all of which is devoted to the discussion of political opinions, should “remove these references…in order to run on Google.” Indeed, Google’s policy disproportionately affects websites like Perr’s. “Advocacy groups are going to be by their nature anti-something. If you’re a brand owner, you’re not anti-anything,” Sullivan noted.
Advocacy websites do not often achieve prominent placement in search result rankings, which forces their owners to find other ways to reach out to those surfing the web. Google often suggests purchasing an ad as a way to insure that information about a site is at the top of a web browser’s screen. According to Sullivan, “Ads are the last refuge for someone who wants to get their message across.”
Advertisers rejected by Google, including The Nation and Oceana, have been welcomed by Yahoo’s advertising arm, Overture, which imposes no such editorial censorship. Even as Google launched a $2.7 billion IPO in April, Yahoo was leading the charge to unseat the company as the darling of Internet consumers, devoting particular energy to developing advertising programs to outsell Google’s.
When Google’s founders developed a new approach to navigating the Internet in their Stanford University dorm room, they coined a company catch phrase: “Don’t be evil.” The saying was meant to be an insider’s dig at Microsoft, the corporate giant that they felt had abandoned the principles of “creativity and challenge” on which Google is based. In its rapid growth and drive for profits, Google seems to be in danger of forgetting its own mission, to “make the world’s information universally accessible and useful.” The consumers who turned “google” into a synonym for search should remind Google that the Internet was meant to be about access to more information, more perspectives and more speech. As one of the most dominant forces on the Internet today, Google has the power to make sure it stays that way.