Google has been privately criticised by some of the UK’s biggest news publishers, which say the tech group has failed adequately to explain its approach to blocking and filtering adverts alongside coronavirus-related content online as media groups face plunging digital advertising revenues.
Many brands are using keyword blacklists and sensitive content filters in relation to coverage of the pandemic, which prevent their ads from running next to stories including specific terms such as “coronavirus”, “pandemic” and even “Boris Johnson”.
Such blacklists are a common reputational safety feature for advertisers, making sure for example that marketing for an airline does not appear next to a story about a plane crash.
But some media groups have accused Google of a lack of transparency over its approach following concerns that the practices have led to more innocuous coronavirus coverage, such as explainers and uplifting human interest stories, being caught up in the filters.
The UK government has also intervened after Newsworks, a campaigning body for the newspaper industry, said keyword ad-blocking could cost the industry an estimated £50m and disproportionately hurt smaller and regional news websites.
Earlier this month John Whittingdale, minister for digital, led a conference call that included senior figures from the Daily Telegraph, the Daily Mail, the Guardian, Verizon Media and Newsquest as well as advertising associations and representatives from some of the biggest adtech companies to address the issue.
Three groups — DoubleVerify, Integral Ad Science and Oracle — gave detailed presentations about their approach and the likely impact on advertising revenues, according to three people on the call. The companies also signalled they were open to discussions about waiving fees for publishers to receive further detailed analysis about how ad-blocking would affect their websites.
However, a representative for Google said the US group was unable to provide similarly detailed analysis and that the news industry had never asked for it in the past, according to those present.
“What Google is not giving us is transparency,” one publisher on the call said. “If they don’t tell us how the advertising system is sorting this information, we cannot have an honest debate about it.”
Another person on the call said: “Everyone had done their homework, except Google.”
Google said that it was in “constant discussions” with publishers, advertisers and the government on how it can “help [the industry] during this difficult period” and that it had waived fees for news publishers that use the company’s Ad Manager platform.
“We’ve worked for many years to be a collaborative and supportive technology and advertising partner to the news industry through our products, partnerships and programmes,” it added.
Government officials confirmed that “work is still ongoing with Google, but ministers have been clear they want to see progress”, ahead of another call scheduled to take place on Thursday.
The use of blacklists and filters, although intended to help readers and companies deal with difficult topics sensitively, has heaped further pressure on the industry as it grapples with plummeting advertising spending. One of the biggest news publishers said ad rates for display advertising had fallen on news websites by up to 40 per cent.