Google’s ad rules complex, controversial

Documents reveal details about what popular search engine accepts, rejects

Jerry Vasilatos, who sells playing cards that feature 54 reasons to defeat President George W. Bush, was shocked to see his ads on Google suddenly disappear in May. After e-mailing the search engine several times, he learned why: He violated Google’s policy prohibiting ads that advocate against an individual or group.

“It’s really ridiculous,” Vasilatos said. “I can understand them wanting to remove ads from hate groups or groups that advocate violence, but ads that are critical of the president?”

Google’s self proclaimed mission to make the world’s information accessible is being questioned by some of its customers. The search engine bars advertisers from pitching a range of opinions and products on its Web site and on those of its partners.

Details of Google’s ad policy were disclosed in internal documents obtained by The Chronicle. Subsequent interviews with the company also revealed new information about its procedures.

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The specifics of Google’s ad policy provides a rare look into the inner workings and complexities of creating advertising guidelines. In this case, the rules cover everything from mail order brides to escort services to political attacks.

Among the highlights:

— Google gives special scrutiny to ads promoting the Church of Scientology. Workers are told to make sure the ads clearly disclose their affiliation to the church, presumably so that users know exactly what they’re clicking on. If the ads don’t, workers should reject them. No other religions are mentioned.

— Ads for abortion services are acceptable. However, such ads are prohibited if they make reference to religion, and they cannot run on a query of the word “abortion.”

The policies come to light as Google prepares for a highly anticipated initial public offering. The company estimates that it will be valued at up to $36 billion, more than such corporate stalwarts as Ford Motor Co. or McDonald’s.

That Google has an ad policy isn’t unusual. Television, radio and newspaper companies — including The Chronicle — require ads to meet certain standards.

However, the full details of such policies rarely become public as Google’s has. Only a rough outline is available on the company’s Web site.

Balancing factors

In a statement, Sheryl Sandberg, Google vice president of global online sales and operations, emphasized that her company tries to balance many factors in setting its advertising policies. Customer experience and legal issues are just some of the considerations.

“We aim for consistent, fair and thoughtful policies, while enabling Google to adapt our policies to new issues as they arise,” Sandberg said. She added that “our policies will always involve an element of discretion and we reserve the right to reject or approve any ads.”

Whatever the ad rules, Sandberg underscored that they do not affect Google’s algorithmically generated search results. Web sites whose ads have been rejected can still appear as the top link for a query.

Google is among the Internet’s biggest destinations for advertisers. The company had nearly $1.5 billion in revenue last year, 95 percent of which came from advertising.

Targeting the pitches

Underpinning Google’s business is AdWords, a program that allows advertisers to make targeted sales pitches alongside search results. For example, a shampoo company could choose to advertise for queries that only include the words “hair,” “dandruff” or “split ends.”

Google also runs the ads on partner Web sites including America Online, Ask Jeeves and Earthlink.

Vasilatos, who sells the deck of Bush cards, said there was no way to reasonably advertise his cards on Google without running afoul of the rules. Pitching them as just plain cards — compared with “54 reasons not to elect the unelected fraud,” as he did before — would be misleading and probably hurt sales, he said.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has also had some of its negative ads rejected. So too has Oceana, an environmental group that campaigned against Royal Caribbean cruise lines for alleged water pollution.

Anti-language slips in

Google declined to comment about individual clients.

Vasilatos criticized Google for what he calls inconsistency. Ads for some other Web sites that feature “anti-language” haven’t been removed, he said.

Indeed, on a recent day, ads with negative content running on Google included one from, which mentioned an “Anti-Bush” T-shirt. Another by highlighted a “Beat the Bushes” bumper sticker.

“If I truly violated their policy, why would they let all these other Web sites on there advocate against individuals or groups?” Vasilatos said.

Sandberg said her staff is well trained and does a good job of applying the company’s policies.

Buried by backlog

Google workers manually review each ad. But the backlog is so big – there were nearly 350,000 ads in December 2003, according to company documents — that it can take days and sometimes months after the sales pitch starts running before a review can be done, according to advertisers.

About a month ago, Google quietly toned down its ad policy about anti- content just as the presidential elections were heating up. Previously, the rules applied not just to the ads themselves, but also to the Web sites they linked to.

This earlier standard prompted accusations of censorship. Web site owners complained of receiving e-mails from Google that told them to remove offending language and products from their own sites if they wanted their ads restored.

Crossing the line

For example, Bill Wyatt, who owns Y-Que Trading Post, a T-shirt shop in Los Angeles, was e-mailed a partial list of products on his Web site that allegedly crossed the line, including a T-shirt saying “Kerry Sucks (Too).” He reluctantly complied with Google’s suggestions by moving the products to another Web site, causing sales to suffer, he said.

Google’s new policy, disclosed during an interview with Sandberg, makes it unnecessary for advertisers to edit their Web sites except in cases of hate speech and inciting violence. However, the company has yet to publicly announce the latest rules.

On the topic of Scientology, Google’s rules haven’t wavered. The company allows ads from all religious organizations, though they single out Scientology for attention.

The guidelines say the ads must “clearly indicate in their ad text that they are a Scientology related site,” and if not, they should be disapproved. No other religions are mentioned.

Scientology scrutinized

In addition, Google prohibits Scientology from targeting ads specifically to Germany. That nation has had significant legal conflicts with the church over whether it is a religion or a business.

Ed Parkin, a spokesman for the Church of Scientology International, was unaware of Google’s policies. He called them peculiar and discriminatory after being told about them.

“On it’s face, it is discriminatory,” Parkin said. “However, the peculiarity is that Google doesn’t seem to be applying it. We haven’t had a problem with them.”

Sandberg wouldn’t comment specifically about Scientology. But she would say, in general, that Google has special instructions for reviewing the ads of certain customers to ensure that they are relevant and accurate.

It’s not the first time Google and Scientology have crossed paths. The church forced Google to remove certain anti-Scientology Web pages from its algorithmic search index in 2002 under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

No guns or liquor

Similar to other companies, Google rejects ads for firearms, hard alcohol and prostitution. Google also recently banned gambling ads and kicked off all online pharmacies, except those that have a special permit issued by a third party to ensure that they are reputable.

Some more unusual examples on the forbidden list include software that helps e-mail spammers and Web sites for hackers or crackers. On the acceptable list are pornography (except for Web sites featuring images including rape and children), escort services and mail-order brides.

Proper spelling and punctuation are always required. However, Google’s internal documents list hundreds of “bad words” that are labeled suspicious or forbidden.

Look, but don’t inhale

What’s clear in Google’s documents are the complexities in crafting an ad policy.

Sales pitches for illegal drugs and paraphernalia including most water pipes are banned. But drug related apparel, such as T-shirts and mugs that feature marijuana leaves, are acceptable.

Abortion also shows up on Google’s radar as being acceptable. However, such ads cannot include references to religion. Religious groups are prohibited from running ads on queries for the word “abortion.” And abortion ads can’t appear on searches about religion.

For all products and issues, Google’s workers are advised to consult with a manager if they come across borderline cases. Managers can make exceptions on a case-by-case basis, according to Google’s policies.

Trouble in marketing

One area where Google has found particular trouble is in allowing advertisers to run marketing messages on certain trademarked keywords that are not their own. Several companies such as Geico insurance and American Blind and Wallpaper have filed suits against Google for the practice.

For example, a competitor to American Blind and Wallpaper ran its ads on queries including the term “American Blind and Wallpaper.”

In regulatory filings, Google has said that it may be subject to more trademark infringement suits. It acknowledged that adverse rulings in the cases could compel the company to change its policies and potentially harm its business.

Google’s main competitor, Overture, owned by Yahoo, says it is stricter with selling trademark terms. However, it too has been sued.

Overture has no specific polices that prohibit advertising with an “anti” message, according to Jennifer Stephens, a company spokeswoman. Nor do its policies make any mention of Scientology, she said.

“As long as it’s relevant and the descriptions are clear, we’re OK with it,” Stephens said.

In fact, some advertisers who have had run-ins with Google have migrated to Overture, such as Dan Jordan, owner of, an online store that sells politically conservative souvenirs. His ads for items such as “Boycott France” bumper stickers, among other things, now run without problem, he said.

“We’ve been with them since we stopped advertising with Google, and we got a lot more traffic than we ever got on Google,” Jordan said.


Some of Google’s policies:

• Ads bashing politicians are rejected.

• Abortion ads can’t refer to religion.

• Scientology ads are given extra scrutiny.

• Hacker sites and spam software aren’t allowed.

• Online pharmacies must be certified.
– Source: Google documents

Read the San Francisco Chronicle online


(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
San Francisco Chronicle, USA
Aug. 9, 2004
Verne Kopytoff, Chronicle Staff Writer

Religion News Blog posted this on Monday August 9, 2004.
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