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Media Measurement Google Social Media

Google is under the spotlight (again) following bad ads claims


By Kendra Barnett, Associate Editor

August 18, 2023 | 15 min read

Two reports in as many months have raised red flags over media quality and reporting, as well as problematic ad placements on YouTube.

YouTube repoting

Google is under pressure to improve its reporting, media quality and transparency in the wake of two damning reports / Adobe Stock

New research suggests that Google-owned YouTube sometimes serves ads on content intended for children that could result in online tracking. It’s the second report in less than two months that raises major concerns about Google’s online video advertising practices and the quality of its media.

The latest report, published on Thursday, August 17 by Adalytics, a media measurement and analytics firm, finds that ads intended to reach adult audiences – ads, for example, for vehicles and credit cards – have been served on YouTube videos designated by the platform as ‘made for kids,’ such as the popular program Kids Diana Show. If a user watching the ad clicks on it, they are redirected to the brand’s website where their personal information might be culled by online tracking tools such as third-party cookies.

It has sparked questions about whether Google is violating the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (Coppa), the United States’ most comprehensive federal law protecting the digital privacy of minors. Senators Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) and Edward J Markey (D-MA) filed a request to the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) on Thursday morning urging the agency to open an investigation into potential Coppa violations of YouTube and Google following the publication of the report.

The lawmakers also urged the FTC to look into possible breaches of Google’s Consent Decree with the FTC, an agreement made in 2019 that required Google to change some of its advertising and data practices on the heels of its $170m settlement for previous YouTube violations of Coppa.

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A Google spokesperson said in a statement shared with The Drum that it finds Adalytics’ YouTube report “deeply flawed and misleading.” They went on to say: “Personalized advertising has never been allowed on YouTube Kids and in January 2020 we expanded this to anyone watching ‘made for kids’ content on YouTube, regardless of their age. The report makes completely false claims and draws uninformed conclusions based solely on the presence of cookies, which are widely used in these contexts for the purposes of fraud detection and frequency capping – both of which are permitted under Coppa. The portions of this report that were shared with us didn’t identify a single example of these policies being violated.”

A compounding issue for Google

The report is the second of two published this summer by Adalytics about Google’s ad practices. In late June, the firm published research that revealed widespread ad quality and media reporting issues with the company’s in-stream video ads offering, TrueView. TrueView is Google’s premier video ad offering and is extremely popular among major brands.

According to Google, TrueView media buys offer “more value” to advertisers since “they only have to pay for actual views of their ads, rather than impressions.” The company’s policies ensure that TrueView ads are audible, can be skipped and will not be cut off by users scrolling away. TrueView ads also only appear in “valid in-stream placements,” which Google says excludes webpage banner ads and the sides of webpages (or the “rail”). However, Adalytics finds that the company violates its own quality standards 80% of the time, with ads from major brands such as American Express appearing in muted, small formats on the sides of webpages and across websites that reportedly do not meet the company’s monetization standards. Many were found running on made-for-advertising sites – websites designed to attract advertising while neglecting content and user experience.

Plus, many media buyers may believe they are buying premium YouTube ad inventory when they use TrueView, when in fact much of their spend may be going to Google Video Partners (GVP), a program that promises audience extension by placing “in-stream” video ads across a broad network of apps and partner sites. For some campaigns, Adalytics says, anywhere between 42% and 75% of TrueView in-stream ad spend is actually allocated to GVP environments that did not meet Google’s standards.

In many cases, it would seem advertisers did not have a full understanding of the kind of media they were buying. “Several dozen” marketers who Adalytics spoke with said they would not have purchased TrueView third-party inventory – GVP ads – had they known about the product’s unreliability.

Concerns of advertiser control and media transparency

Some experts have suggested that Google makes it intentionally difficult to opt out of GVP when buying TrueView ads. “You have to really get into the instructions and execute a lot of different things to avoid being on GVP – that should be a lot easier,” says George Ivie, the chief executive officer and executive director of the Media Rating Council (MRC), a nonprofit organization that accredits media rating and reporting firms. “Maybe it should just be [that Google needs to] force opt-in if you want to be on GVP and otherwise stick you on non-GVP YouTube, which is what most people want to buy.”

Ryan Eusanio, managing director of digital activation at ad agency network Omnicom Media Group (OMG), explains that the limited controls and visibility given to media buyers over how much of their spend goes to GVP inventory runs “totally counter to our vision that an advertiser should always get to choose where their ads are being delivered.”

When originally launched, GVP was an opt-in option for advertisers to add on. However, it eventually switched to an opt-out model. A Google support page reads: “As of September 30, 2021, new Video action campaigns that you create in Google Ads use Google video partners automatically.”

But then, Eusanio says, transparency and control for advertisers declined further. “It then became you didn’t get to choose if you opt in or opt out – it’s just forced on your ads, but they enabled some targeting features, like inclusion listing that allowed people to at least control where they were showing up inside of the GVP inventory. In its current state, certain versions of the products don’t even have inclusion listing any more, but rather just exclusion listing, where effectively you are choosing where you don’t want to go.” For an advertiser, however, choosing from which partner sites and apps to exclude their media can be overwhelming due to the sheer volume of sites included, which number in the tens of thousands according to Eusanio. Exclusion listing on GVP “really isn’t that useful,” he says.

Eusanio clarifies that Google “enabled some new [GVP] opt-outs” for OMG and its clients, which he said “had not been brought to us before, despite me asking for them many times.” They “apparently existed the whole time” but were not available to Omnicom media buyers, he says.

OMG has always advised clients against buying GVP ads, Eusanio says. “We’ve taken a position that we should not be buying GVP inventory as a best practice. And that’s been largely the case for the last two and a half years, or however long the product has been in market.” Regarding the findings of the Adalytics report, he says: “I can’t say I was surprised.”

Mapping the aftermath of the reports

Google, for its part, has rejected the claims of this report outright. “Adalytics used a flawed methodology to make wildly inaccurate claims about Google Video Partners,” a spokesperson told The Drum.

However, following the release of the report, Google scrapped the term “in-stream” from the name of its In-Stream Ads, renaming the product Skippable Ads.

The company has also reportedly issued payments to some advertisers whose ads may have been served on GVP inventory that doesn’t meet Google standards. Google was explicit in speaking with The Drum that these payments are not “refunds.” A spokesperson said: “As part of ongoing relationship building, we sometimes issue credits to advertisers – this is not uncommon.” According to Google, these credits have totaled less than $1,000 since Adalytics published its report in June.

Meanwhile, media measurement providers including Integral Ad Science (IAS) and DoubleVerify put out statements that contradicted Adalytics’ findings. The firms conduct independent research about ad impressions on YouTube and across the GVP network. IAS’s research finds that nearly 97% of buys from January to July of 2023 ran on YouTube’s owned and operated properties and just 3.4% ran on GVP inventory.

However, one source who spoke with The Drum on the condition of anonymity pointed out that neither IAS nor DoubleVerify has inside access to the numbers since Google doesn’t enable third-party tracking pixels for the purpose of media measurement on YouTube. In essence, measurement firms must rely on the reporting shared by Google itself to assess media performance on YouTube.

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The industry’s response to Adalytics’ research

Leaders in the advertising and media buying space are generally alarmed by the findings of both recent Adalytics reports.

“There were some very compelling issues raised by the [Adalytics GVP] report,” says the MRC’s Ivie. Outside of concerns about media transparency and user controls for buying or not buying GVP inventory, Ivie argues that Google should “have a stronger process for qualifying” GVP network websites, considering that some of these sites may not meet buyers’ expectations for quality.

Plus, in Ivie’s view, in-stream and out-stream media shouldn’t be “mixed” in a way that complicates the buying process for advertisers who only want one or the other. “If an advertiser only wanted to advertise in-stream, then they shouldn’t have out-stream commingled in it,” he says. “The Adalytics report asserted that that was happening, and now we’ve started looking at it.” Though he says that “it doesn’t look to us like it’s happening that much,” he adds that “it possibly could be happening – and that’s an issue.”

And for the executive, who has helmed the MRC for 23 years, the reports have him questioning his own organization’s role in holding Google accountable. “It raises legitimate questions around our audit scope … we could have done a better job telling people that our audit [of YouTube] didn’t include GVP. But the question is, should we be auditing GVP? Maybe there should be a broader industry discussion about more complete audit scopes of these platforms,” he says. The MRC can only audit companies that request an audit. Additionally, auditing GVP would be difficult from a technical standpoint as many of the sites within the network may not be individually identifiable to auditors.

Other industry leaders express more than mere concern, going so far as to urge the ad industry to demand improved media transparency from Google now. Following the release of the second Adalytics report on August 17, Sean Cunningham, president and chief executive officer at the Video Advertising Bureau (VAB), a major trade organization, said in a statement: “The worst thing an advertiser could do now is join the unconvincing and weak chorus of Google excusers – those wanting to marginalize, rationalize and distance themselves from what are likely major advertiser betrayals. What is at stake is your recourse as an ad spender, a recourse that will die at Google unless they are made to pivot to real transparency – like full granular disclosure on the lifecycle of every YouTube ad and ad impression, for starters.”

Still, not everyone is so critical of Google. A leader at another industry trade group who asked to remain anonymous tells The Drum they are highly skeptical of Adalytics’ methods. “Adalytics has taken a very small percentage of traffic and video partnership views and extrapolated against all of Google and to some extent admitted that it just took a very small sample size,” the source says.

“When I read that report, I just had a big eye roll. I was like, ‘Come on – if you’ve been in this industry for more than two years, you know that this is what the status is. We’re past the point of pointing a finger back at Google, Meta, TikTok and saying, ‘You’re not sharing stuff with me and I don’t know what you’re doing.’ That’s a bunch of bogus nonsense. If you’re a large advertiser or agency, you can ask for whatever disclosure you want and you will get it.”

The source went on to say that it appears “fashionable” to criticize Google’s every move right now, especially because, beyond the ad industry, Google is facing a lawsuit from the Justice Department over competition and antitrust issues and is under scrutiny by the FTC. They say: “For everyone complaining that they don’t know [the quality and performance of their media on Google], no one’s spend is going down.”

In addressing the level of knowledge that media buyers have in the programmatic ecosystem about the specifics of their media buys, the source rejects the idea that greater visibility is needed. “The truth is there is nothing non-transparent at this point in the ecosystem,” they say.

Despite all of this, the source admits that Google should have responded to the report differently. “I wish Google had taken the report more seriously, even if it was making an extrapolation that was just not correct. They should have … responded meticulously in terms of their existing controls, what they really do to verify inventory and how much they work with the MRC.”

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