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Is Your Ad Campaign Funding Hate and Misinformation?

Jeremy Lopatin | September 20, 2021 | Company News, Digital Advertising

Is your ad campaign funding hate and misinformation? If you’re not careful, it might be.

Many companies view Google Ads placement exclusion lists as a way to make sure they’re only paying for clicks from potentially qualified customers by excluding irrelevant websites from their Display Network advertising campaign. And while that’s important, exclusion lists are also vital for ensuring your ads (or your clients’ ads) aren’t showing up in areas of the internet that don’t align with your brand messaging, or frankly, with your company’s ethics.

Websites that promote hate often generate revenue through advertising. If your ads appear on a hate site and someone clicks on them, you are inadvertently funding their operation. This is even more prevalent with misinformation, conspiracy, or “fake news” websites whose business model is often entirely reliant on these ads. The simple logic is that they fabricate a sensationalist headline, write content that toys with people’s emotions, and wait for the views to roll in. Some of those readers will see an ad and click on it. That ad could be for your business.

Example of misinformation

The kind of content your ads could be funding, if you’re not careful

Now I know what you’re thinking: There’s no way our business would be relevant to someone reading a hate or conspiracy website, so it’s unlikely our ads will ever show there, and even more unlikely someone would click on them. And the existing prospects in our retargeting campaigns wouldn’t visit hate sites either.

But you’d be surprised. Our agency, Climb Marketing, has strict rules for which industries we’ll manage ads. We won’t work with political campaigns, companies that sell snake oil products, porn, casinos, or any other industry that may cause social or environmental harm. And still, we’d occasionally see a click for one of the ad campaigns we manage taking place on a disreputable website.

This didn’t sit well with us. So in February of 2021 we started working on a universal placement exclusion list to implement for all of our clients advertising on the Google Display Network. A month later, we had a list of 1,196 of the worst websites on the internet: sites that promoted racism, Islamophobia, homophobia, conspiracy theories, political extremism, domestic terrorism, and more.

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How did we do it? As a foundation, we started with the Southern Poverty Law Center’s list of active hate groups and compiled a database of their current and former websites. From there, we started mining the databases of organizations that track fake news across the internet, compiling an enormous list of conspiracy and misinformation platforms. Finally, we checked this list against any other relevant exclusion lists we could find on the internet, just to make sure there was nothing we missed. The result was a database of 1,196 websites we never wanted to look at again.

Not all of these websites were currently serving ads on the Display Network. Some had in the past but got banned for violating Google’s policies, and others hadn’t even attempted it yet. But the nature of these shady areas of the internet is that they’re always changing. A domain name used for a hate group today might suddenly represent itself as a news site tomorrow in order to appear more trustworthy and gain new converts for a fringe political movement. We even found one hate group posing as a professional society of doctors. So we decided that we want to include domain names associated with these groups even if they weren’t currently running ads, as a way to future-proof the list against those kinds of shady tactics.

When we compared our new exclusion list to the list of websites on which a client’s ads had shown, there was almost always at least one match. So the first step was implementing this exclusion list for all of our client campaigns and communicating the change during our normal monthly client meetings. But we still felt like there was more we could do.

One option was to monetize the project by using this list as a differentiator in our marketing materials (i.e. “When you work with Climb, you know your budget isn’t funding hate.”). But we quickly realized that this would limit the impact of the list to just the advertising budget of our client list. And as a boutique B2B marketing agency, that’s just a drop in the bucket of the ~150 billion US dollars spent on Google Ads each year.

So we basically said, “Screw it, everyone should have this list.” And we’re rolling with that. It’s now available at no cost to anyone who we believe will use it properly – even our direct competitors. We have a web form where you can request a copy, or you can just shoot us an email.

So what does the future have in store for the placement exclusion list? Our current plan is to update it about every six months to include newly identified hate and misinformation websites. We’re maintaining it as a Google Sheet, so if you have access, those updates will happen automatically. We’re also exploring ways to make the list even better – for instance, what’s the best way we can approach comprehensively excluding questionable YouTube videos or channels? Make sure you subscribe to our newsletter to stay in the loop on how the list is developing over time.

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