Google has misled advertisers by failing to meet promised standards when placing video ads on third-party websites, Adalytics has revealed. The research comes in light of similar findings that the tech-giant has made more than $10 million over the last two years, by allowing misleading advertisements for fake abortion clinics aimed at preventing women from having the procedure – as estimated in a report last week from the non-profit Center for Countering Digital Hate.
The Adalytics report alleges that advertisers including Fortune 500 brands, the US federal government, and several small businesses may have been misled for years about Google’s TrueView skippable in-stream video – the company’s “proprietary cost-per-view, choice-based ad format that serves on YouTube, millions of apps, and across the web.” However, in contradiction to its stated quality standards and practices, Google may have cost media buyers and companies up to billions of ad dollars in digital spend, by placing their ads on muted, out-stream and auto-playing video ad units – running on non-verified mobile devices, apps and websites – in a bid for monetisation.
Adalytics also partnered with ad agencies to analyse their clients’ ad-buy placement reports, collating data by companies who archived the web to find occurrences when ads ran on sites that didn’t meet the Google Video Partners (GVP) requirements. Of the more than 1,100 campaigns and billions of ad impressions observed as part of this study, the report found that as much as between 42 to 75% of TrueView in-stream ad spend was allocated to GVP sites and apps which did not meet Google's outlined standards. As a result, several major brands and government entities have been affected including Johnson & Johnson, Ernst & Young, American Express, Samsung, McDonald’s, and Dyson, with violations going back as far as 2020. The Wall Street Journal also independently observed ad placement violations on their site in line with the research, but could not “confirm the extent of the phenomenon.”
In select instances, multiple TrueView skippable in-stream ads were found to be playing on consumer devices or served ‘stacked’ one on top of the other in the form of an in-stream ad, with the ‘skip’ button being obscurely hidden from the user’s interface. As per Google’s TrueView standards, all ads must be skippable, audible, and cannot be initiated by a user scrolling through a page. As such, making it impossible for the consumer to skip video ads after a period of five seconds results in forcing the user to view the ad: an explicit violation of Google’s quality standards, the study revealed.
These infringements may have also cost Google’s advertisers more in digital spend, through skewing skippable in-stream ad video completion rates, with the study finding that for one major consumer goods brand, only 20% of their TrueView campaign budget was delivered against actual YouTube channels. The remaining 80% was delivered against third-party apps and websites including Candy Crush Saga, and 'fandomwire.com'. This was in line with wider analysis conducted on TrueView in-stream placement reports by Adalytics, citing that 80% of TrueView spend on mobile apps was going to gaming apps.
The findings are reflective of wider ongoing issues around the ambiguous nature of digital advertising, and lagging regulatory constrictions to appropriately monitor online ad spend. As the race for monetisation and market share hastens, so too does the implication of greater transparency and traceability for brands wanting to decipher where their allocated ad dollars are going.
Joshua Wilson, commercial director for JAPAC at Crimtan shares, “Publishers are looking to maximise and monetise their content in any ways they can. Be it big or small all publishers actively want to do this. This is why we see video ads playing outside of the guidelines: it’s an attempt at bigger revenue gains. Policing this will be a challenge, as anyone can monetise their content with Google ads.”
He adds that regardless of the research findings, brands need to do their due diligence to ensure that their media budgets are spent according to their own objectives.
“Instead of putting all their media budget into one channel, brands can work with [media] quality vendors and programmatic vendors to ensure that their media budgets are spent efficiently. What we can do in the ad tech space is bring visibility to the quality of placements and optimise to the premium environments our clients expect.”
Gordon Domlija, co-founder & managing partner at ElucidateX (and former APAC CEO of Wavemaker), agrees that regulatory catchups and greater digital hygiene practices are imperative to seeing a long-term paradigm shift for accountability in the online ad landscape.
“Hot on the heels of the recent EU anti-competitive ruling, this is rightly making headlines; but also highlights a much bigger problem. Particularly in this region, where there is no overarching regulatory body to protect advertisers, and where most media agencies are so in bed with big tech such as Google, that they don’t perform due diligence on buys or provide effective alternatives. The whole system needs cleaning up.”
Google has disputed the claims alleged by the Adalytics study, sharing that they do not accurately reflect its commitment to copyright and quality standards. They've also pledged to investigate the matter further and take appropriate action based on the full findings.
Shawn Lim contributed reporting to this article.