Google Search Ads End Up on Pornographic and Sanctioned Sites

When Apple, Goldman Sachs and other large brands bought Google search ads over the last year, these ads not only appeared across search queries like “best credit cards,” but also on more unsavory sites, according to research from ad-tech research outfit Adalytics.

These websites featured copyrighted and pornographic content, as well as sites for Iranian and Russian corporations sanctioned by the U.S. government. The findings are spurring marketers to reassess their Google Search and Performance Max (Pmax) spend.

This is the latest example of the systemic difficulties advertisers face in knowing where their ads run in the convoluted programmatic ecosystem, and particularly within Google’s systems. Previous Adalytics research has found ads appearing in undesirable environments for advertisers, plus opaque reporting for other Google products including Pmax, YouTube‘s video partner network and YouTube Select.

When advertisers buy search ads, they can extend their reach via Search Partner Network, websites that use Google’s search interface and are eligible for ad monetization. According to Google, websites that violate its policies—which prohibit publishers from monetizing pornography, committing intellectual property offenses and having backing from an entity sanctioned by the U.S. government—are not eligible for inclusion.

However, Adalytics found a minority of unsavory websites within the Search Partner Network.

The report found more than 36,000 websites in the Google Search Partner Network eligible for advertising, 390 of which are pornographic and four of which are websites belonging to entities sanctioned by the U.S. government. Adalytics also found more than 2,200 domains in the Search Partner Network that seemed to violate copyright laws. The report found Adweek ads on an Italian porn site.

“I vaguely knew that Google allowed websites to embed search widgets on them,” one media buyer told Adweek, who requested anonymity to discuss industry relations and was briefed on the report’s findings. “I didn’t know they were serving ads, and I didn’t know they had such a terrible management system that it could be running on the sites listed in the report.”

Apple and Goldman Sachs did not respond to comment by press time.

Reassessing ad spend

Google tells advertisers that their search ads can end up on its Search Partner Network, but it doesn’t let brands know which partner websites these ads air on, according to official Google documentation. A Google spokesperson confirmed that advertisers can request these reports from their Google account managers.

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