Google steps up fight against 'bad' ad barrage

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by USA TODAY

kvue.com

Posted on January 17, 2014 at 12:47 PM

SAN FRANCISCO — Google yanked 59% more "bad" advertisements from its online systems last year as the world's largest Internet search provider stepped up a battle against a barrage of counterfeiters, suspect downloads and other malicious activity on the Web.

Google removed more than 350 million bad ads in 2013, up from about 220 million the year before. That's almost 1 million suspect ads a day. The increase was partly driven by the overall surge in online advertising, most of which is legitimate. But as Google introduces new products, scammers adapt and develop new ways to game the system.

"It's a challenge," says Mike Hochberg, ads engineering director who oversees hundreds of engineers and policy experts focused on this at the company. "Google continues to add new types of ads and formats all the time, and that creates new work to track down new ways of creating bad ads."

Google's online ad business has become so lucrative, generating billions of dollars a year in profit for itself and its partners, that the company's platforms, such as AdWords and AdSense, are a huge draw for what it calls "bad actors" looking to grab some of this money.

In 2011, Google agreed to pay $500 million to settle allegations by the U.S. Department of Justice that ads for Canadian online pharmacies contributed to the illegal importation of prescription drugs. Last year, Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood said Google was still allowing ads for illegal online pharmacies that sell dangerous or counterfeit drugs without a prescription.

Google published a scorecard on its constant battle against such activity for the first time in early 2013, and the company is releasing the second report now.

Hochberg says the reports and Google's increased efforts to limit bad ads and online scams were not related to the counterfeiting settlement.

"Ensuring that we are serving good ads for users has been part of our ad programs from day one," he says. "Last year, we decided to put out a pseudo scorecard of what we have been doing."

The latest report suggests Google is making progress. The number of advertisers Google disabled dropped from more than 850,000 in 2012 to slightly more than 270,000 in 2013.

"We attribute this decline to many scammers — counterfeiters, for example — being thwarted by our security efforts," Hochberg says.

Google banned slightly more than 14,000 advertisers for trying to sell counterfeit goods in 2013, a decline of more than 80% compared with 2012. Again, Hochberg put that down to Google's increased efforts to stop such activity.

The volume of complaints about ads hawking counterfeit products dropped by 85% in 2012 and by another 78% in 2013, and attempts to market counterfeit goods decreased by 47% in 2012, and 82% in 2013, according to Google.

"This activity peaked somewhere toward end of 2011 and early 2012," Hochberg says.

While ads for counterfeit goods have been on the decline recently, there has been an increase in other questionable activities, including artificially inflating the number of clicks on ads, showing ads on websites with violent or pornographic content and downloads that install toolbars and other software that interfere with browsing by inserting ads unexpectedly.

Google took aim at toolbar downloads in particular last year. The company tightened policies, requiring that such software be pre-approved by the company, be installed on only one browser at a time, can be uninstalled with one click and provide clear disclosure on what is being installed and what changes are being made to a user's devices.

By the end of 2013, Google had blacklisted more than 200,000 publisher sites in its ad network and removed more than 250,000 publisher accounts for violations such as artificially inflating clicks and impressions or including ads on sites with violent content.

Google disapproved more than 3 million applications to join its ad networks in 2013. That number may be mind-boggling to some, but Hochberg notes a chunk of these applications were probably from the same entities re-applying multiple times.

"The great majority of ads are good," he says. "My team's job is to keep a lid on the bad stuff."

"Bad" ads accounted for less than 1% of the total in 2013, he noted, while declining to be more specific. Google has cut this percentage rate by about half each year since 2011, he says.

Busting bad advertising practices in 2013

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