Ad Tech & Programmatic

Google search ads ran on sanctioned and pornographic websites, report finds

The company’s ad placements are in hot water—again.
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6 min read

We’d wager a guess that the United States Army probably doesn’t want to advertise on an animated pornography website.

But ads for the US Army and plenty of other advertisers appear to have run on websites like the one mentioned above, in the form of Google search ads, according to a new report from the ad-tech auditing firm Adalytics.

According to the report, the ads appeared within embedded search widgets, via Google’s Programmable Search Engine product, on websites belonging to sanctioned Iranian and Russian companies, Italian pornography websites, as well as sites that Adalytics said were already included in some advertiser blocklists, like the far-right website Breitbart. Google serves ads across websites where its search widget is embedded, known as the Search Partners Network, and advertisers that buy Google search ads are automatically opted in to have their ads appear across this network of sites.

The report says advertisers including Uber, BMW, Apple, US Sen. Ted Cruz and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, and, naturally, the FBI, appeared as sponsored ads in Google search results displayed on these websites. Even ads for the brand safety vendor DoubleVerify appeared, Adalytics found, underscoring that even companies pledging to keep brands out of brand-unsafe environments don’t seem to be immune.

Krzysztof Franaszek, founder and CEO of Adalytics, told Marketing Brew in an email that “brands simply ask for transparency into where their ads are served via the Search Partners network…It is within the realm of technical feasibility to make this information available to marketers via Google’s software tools, if they so desire.”

In a thread on X, Google’s VP of global ads, Dan Taylor, said that the company was reviewing the report, noting that it hadn’t identified any advertising revenue shared with “a single sanctioned entity” and that the company’s Programmable Search Engine product represents “a miniscule amount of our Search Partners Network.”

Representatives for Uber, Apple, Cruz, Klobuchar, and DoubleVerify didn’t return our requests for comment. The FBI declined to comment. The US Army and BMW told Marketing Brew they were investigating.

“On November 28, we were made aware of an emerging issue with Google’s Search Partner Network, which led to US Army ads appearing on websites that do not align with our brand. All paid search ads that run through the network were immediately paused in response. The Army Enterprise Marketing Office, along with our agency partners, will continue to monitor the situation,” Laura DeFrancisco, public affairs chief at the Army Enterprise Marketing Office, told Marketing Brew via email.

“BMW does not directly advertise on the websites in question and has strict guidelines that outline where advertising should appear. We are investigating the matter with our partners at Google to understand how indirect advertising has appeared there,” Phil Dilanni, a company spokesperson, said in an emailed statement.

From bad to worse?

Using public databases to analyze code, Adalytics found tens of thousands of websites using Google’s embedded search engine with search ads. On those sites, Adalytics searched terms that could trigger ads, but it didn’t keep records of all of the search queries that returned specific ad placements.

It’s worth noting that, in some cases, a user would have to search a related term—like “brand safety,” in the case of DoubleVerify—in order to surface a specific search ad on one of these sites (and, given some of the content, that may seem unlikely). However, in other instances, the websites served automated search queries via pop-unders, meaning the site “automatically opens other tabs on the consumer’s browser, with pre-scripted search query inputs,” according to the report.

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The research is similar to a report from Adalytics, published in June, which alleged that Google was placing video ads on third-party websites that often didn’t meet its own standards. After that report, Google’s director of global video solutions, Marvin Renaud, claimed in a blog post that Adalytics used an “irresponsible and faulty methodology” to reach its conclusion.

The new report has similar themes. Google has tools that place ads all across the internet, including its own websites like YouTube and its search engine, as well as third-party websites not owned by Google, through extension tools like Google Video Partners and Google Search Partners. It’s a huge business: Google’s search and other business brought in about $44 billion last quarter. But some of those third-party websites seem…questionable. In another example, Adalytics found search ads for Abstrakt Vodka and Jack Daniel’s running on a site called KidzSearch. (Neither company responded to Marketing Brew’s request for comment.)

It can be hard for Google’s advertisers to determine where ads show up if they are served through the Search Partners network. According to the company’s own policy, Google “doesn’t provide information detailing the website where your ad was shown on the Search Network,” but adds that all sites included are “obligated to comply with our Google policies.”

In its Programmable Search Engine terms of service, Google prohibits its search engine from appearing on third-party sites that “contain any pornographic, hate-related or violent content or contain any other material, products, or services that violate or encourage conduct that would violate any criminal laws, any other applicable laws, service policies, or any third-party rights.”

While advertisers can opt out of their ads appearing across Google’s Search Partners network, advertising tools like Performance Max—which the company says leverages AI to automate media buying and has been repeatedly hyped during calls with investors—do not allow users to opt out of the Search Partners network.

Adalytics said that of the nearly $1 billion in search ad spend it analyzed, 6.7% went to Google’s Search Partners or to display ads that use unused Google search budgets, with most advertiser spend ending up on Google Search. Google spokesperson Chelsea Russo echoed this in an email to Marketing Brew, writing that “for the average campaign that includes the Search Partner Network in their reach, their spend lands overwhelmingly on Google Search.”

“Some of the brands we work with told us they have a zero-impression tolerance threshold for having their ads served adjacent to bestiality or zoophilia,” Franaszek told us. So even if it is a small percentage of the total, “one impression is too much for some of our brand partners.”

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