Google: How we fought bad ads, sites and scammers in 2016

30/01/2017

Google has released its annual Bad Ads Report sharing new data on how it fought bad advertising practice over the past year. Scott Spencer, Director of Product Management, Sustainable Ads, Google, discusses how the web took on inappropriate and harmful content online.

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A free and open web is a vital resource for people and businesses around the world. And ads play a key role in ensuring people have access to accurate, quality information online. But bad ads can ruin the online experience for all of us. They promote illegal products and unrealistic offers. At their worst, they can trick us into sharing personal information and infect our devices with harmful software. Ultimately, bad ads pose a threat to users, partners, and the sustainability of the open web itself.

We have a strict set of policies that govern the types of ads we do and don’t allow on the Google Network and Google products in order to protect our users from ads that are misleading, inappropriate, or harmful. And we have a team of engineers, policy experts, product managers and others around the world who are waging a daily fight against bad actors. Over the years, this commitment has made the web a better place for you—and a worse place for those who seek to abuse advertising systems for their own gain.

In this spirit, I’m happy to report that in 2016, we took down 1.7 billion ads that violated our advertising policies. That’s more than double the amount of bad ads we took down in 2015. If you spent one second taking down each of those bad ads, it’d take you more than 50 years to finish...it’s a good thing our systems work much faster.

Last year, we did two key things to improve our systems. First, we expanded our policies to better protect users from misleading and predatory offers. For example, in July we introduced a policy to ban ads for payday loans, which often result in unaffordable payments and high default rates for users. In the six months since launching this policy, we disabled more than 5 million payday loan ads. Second, we beefed up our technology so we can spot and disable bad ads even faster. For example, “trick to click" ads often appear as system warnings to deceive users into clicking on them, not realizing they are often downloading harmful software or malware. In 2016, our systems detected and disabled a total of 112 million ads for “trick to click,” 6X more than in 2015.

Here are a few more examples of bad ads we took action against in 2016:

Ads for illegal products

Some of the most common bad ads we find online are ads promoting illegal activities or products, like illegal pharmaceuticals and gambling (in countries where it’s prohibited). Although we've long had a policy against bad ads for pharmaceuticals, last year our systems detected a significant increase online. We disabled more than 68 million bad ads for healthcare violations, up from 12.5 million in 2015.

Similarly, we saw more attempts to advertise gambling-related promotions without proper authorization from regulators in the countries they operate. We took down more than 17 million bad ads for illegal gambling violations in 2016.

Misleading ads

We don't want users to feel misled by ads that we deliver, and that means we require our advertisers to be upfront, honest and provide people with the right information to make informed decisions. Some ads try to drive clicks and views by intentionally misleading people with false information like asking, “Are you at risk for this rare, skin-eating disease?” or offering miracle cures like a pill that will help you lose 50 lbs in 3 days without lifting a finger. In 2016, we took down nearly 80 million bad ads for deceiving, misleading and shocking users.

Bad ads on mobile

In recent years, we’ve seen the rise of bad ads developed exclusively for the mobile web. If you’ve ever been on your phone and suddenly, without warning, ended up in the app store downloading an app you’ve never heard of, a “self-clicking ad” could be to blame. In 2015, we disabled only a few thousand of these bad ads, but in 2016, our systems detected and disabled over 23,000 self-clicking ads on our platforms, a huge increase year over year.

Ads trying to game the system

As we improve our systems to find the bad ads, their scams get better or change. Bad actors know that ads for certain products — like weight-loss supplements or payday loans — are not allowed by Google's policies,so they try to trick our systems into letting them through. This can become a cat and mouse game. We saw a dramatic increase in scamming activity in 2016, but we were ready for them. Last year, we took down almost 7 million bad ads for intentionally attempting to trick our detection systems.

In 2016, we saw the rise of tabloid cloakers — a new type of scammer that tries to game our system by pretending to be news. Cloakers often take advantage of current trends and hot topics: a government election, a trending news story or a well-known celebrity. Their ads can look like headlines for real articles on a news website. But when people click on that story about Ellen DeGeneres and aliens, they go to a site selling weight loss products.

To fight cloakers, we take down the scammers themselves, and prevent them from advertising with us again. In 2016, we suspended over 1,300 accounts for tabloid cloaking. Unfortunately, this type of bad ad is gaining in popularity because people are clicking on them. And a handful of scammers can pump out a lot of bad ads: During a single sweep for tabloid cloaking in December 2016, we took down 22 cloakers that were responsible for ads seen over 20 million times by people online in a single week.

Promoting and profiting from bad sites

When we find ads that violate our policies, we’ll block the ad and sometimes the advertiser, depending on the violation. But sometimes we also need to suspend the website promoted in the ad, the site users see after they click on it. So, for example, while we disabled more than 5 million payday loan ads last year, we also took action on 8,000 sites promoting payday loans.

Here are some examples of common policy violations we saw among bad sites in 2016:

· We took action on 47,000 sites for promoting content and products related to weight-loss scams.

· We took action on more than 15,000 sites for unwanted software and disabled 900,000 ads for containing malware.

· And we suspended around 6,000 sites and 6,000 accounts for attempting to advertise counterfeit goods, like imitation designer watches. These figures have been trending down year to year as it's increasingly difficult for counterfeiters to circumvent our measures.

In the online advertising ecosystem, it is not only ads which can cause a bad user experience but also the publishers and website owners who make money by running ads on their sites and content. For publishers that use our AdSense platform, we have strict policies in place to keep Google's content and search networks safe and clean for our advertisers, users, and publishers. When a publisher violates our policies, we may stop showing ads on their site, or even terminate their account.

We've had long-standing policies prohibiting AdSense publishers from running ads on sites that help people deceive others, like a site where you buy fake diplomas or plagiarized term papers. But last year, we saw a need to expand on our prohibited content policies: The new AdSense misrepresentative content policy, introduced in November, helps us to take action against website owners misrepresenting who they are and that deceive users with their content - just as we disallow misrepresentation in our ads policies. From November to December 2016, we reviewed 550 sites that were suspected of misrepresenting content to users, including impersonating news organisations. We took action against 340 of them for violating our policies, both misrepresentation and other offenses, and nearly 200 publishers were kicked out of our network permanently.

Improving the ads experience across the web is a top priority for our business and one we’re tackling by fighting bad ads, bad sites and scammers. It’s also why we support industry efforts, such as the Coalition for Better Ads, to protect users from bad experiences across the web. While we took down more bad ads in 2016 than ever before, the battle doesn’t end here. As we invest in better detection, the scammers invest in more elaborate attempts to trick our systems. Continuing to find and fight them is essential for creating a sustainable, open web from which we all enjoy

By Scott Spencer
Director of Product Management
Sustainable Ads, Google

Read the Bad Ads Report here

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