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Google accused of ripping off advertisers with video ads no one saw. Now, the expert view

Web giant also hits back ... right as YouTube steps up war on advert blockers

Analysis Google is accused of misrepresenting the placement of YouTube video ads by playing them on low-quality third-party websites where they may never have been viewed. If so, that means Google has been taking millions if not billions of dollars from advertisers for video ads that perhaps no one actually watched.

Funnily enough, some of those advertisers are now said to be demanding refunds.

In a report out this week, ad-world watcher Adalytics claimed "42 to 75 percent of TrueView in-stream ad spend was allocated to GVP [Google Video Partner] sites and apps which did not meet Google’s standards."

Decoding the jargon, that means as many as three-in-four commercials (aka in-stream ads) booked via Google and shown in videos on other websites and apps weren't actually seen or not properly shown – such as being muted, positioned off to the side of the page, scaled down to some small size, etc. And that's despite the TrueView promise that, well, ads are truly seen.

TrueView, as Google puts it, "is Google’s proprietary cost-per-view, choice-based ad format that serves on YouTube, millions of apps, and across the web. TrueView gives advertisers more value because they only have to pay for actual views of their ads, rather than impressions."

The Adalytics report contends Google's TrueView ads give advertisers less value because, contrary to the Chocolate Factory's commitments, "many TrueView in-stream ads were served muted and auto-playing as out-stream video or as obscured video players on independent sites."

Digging in

When advertisers pay for TrueView ads, the content may run on YouTube or in videos embedded within websites or apps that are part of the GVP network. The advertisers are paying for ads that are viewable, have sound, and can be skipped.

But largely, according to the report, advertisers have been paying for ads that are not viewable or are muted or cannot be skipped. Such ads could qualify as "invalid traffic" – to use an industry euphemism that encompasses both deliberate ad fraud and accidental click registration.

As a result of the above findings, Google may be asked to refund much of its TrueView revenue. Media buyers interviewed for the report have indicated that's how they would respond if they were to find that TrueView ads had run on third-party websites. Indeed, it's said that at least some of those in the industry want their money back.

The organizations and companies that purchased these ads are: US and EU government organizations; state and municipal entities; Johnson & Johnson; Ernst & Young; Bayer; Samsung; Microsoft; Mercedes-Benz; and many others.

Google hits back

Google responded to these claims with a blog post insisting it cares deeply about where clients' ads are placed. Marvin Renaud, director of global video solutions at Google, said the report "used unreliable sampling and proxy methodologies and made extremely inaccurate claims about the Google Video Partner (GVP) network."

Renaud insisted most YouTube ad campaigns are served on YouTube (rather than third-party sites) and that advertisers have an option to prevent their ads from running on GVP sites. "90 percent of ads on GVP are visible to people across the web" it claims, saying that Google has strict, enforced policies for third-party partners and that "Google Video Partners supports independent, third party verification from DoubleVerify, Integral Ad Science, and Moat for viewability and invalid traffic."

Dr Krzysztof Franaszek, founder of Adalytics Research, told The Register, "Google has not disputed the findings in our core research. The published Adalytics research report mentions the words 'in-stream' or 'out-stream' 274 times. The published Google response mentions those words zero times."

"The published Adalytics research report mentions the words 'volume', 'muted', 'audible', and 'sound' 116 times. Google's published response makes zero references to sound," he added.

Nandini Jammi, cofounder of ad watchdog CheckMyAds, also expressed skepticism about Google's rebuttal. "What I found striking about Google's statement is that [Marvin Renaud] insists that advertisers can opt out of Google Video Partners, when Google's own documentation declares the exact opposite," said Jammi in an email to The Register.

"We're hearing that Google is now informing advertisers that they can opt out of GVP by contacting their rep. But most Google Ads customers don't have a rep. How do they get out of it? There are so many strange contradictions here that don't add up, that I'm not inclined to believe Google's defense of their system."

Others too are raising questions.

"How many more of these big scandals is it going to take to wake advertisers up to the global scam called digital advertising?" said Dr Augustine Fou, an independent ad fraud researcher who runs the Marketing Science Consulting Group, in an email to The Register.

"Of course not all digital advertising is bad. Digital ads shown to humans are good and work as advertising.

"But the 100s of trillions of ads bought and sold today are not ads shown to humans or ads shown where they are supposed to be shown, as this latest example shows. Eight in ten ads were not shown on YouTube, where the advertisers buying the ads thought they would be shown.

"When the ads run on GVP (Google Video Partner) sites, they are also subject to other forms of fraudulent behavior – eg: autoplaying ads, sound off, stuffed in tiny windows, running hundreds of embedded videos at the same time along with the ads, off page or popunder, 'skip ad' button covered up so the ad could not be skipped."

What's more, said Fou, ad verification firms – like those Google cited in its blog post – failed to catch the issues with TrueView. These fraud detection companies, he argues, provide measurements that don't really indicate what's going on and allow ad fraud to continue year after year.

As he put it in a recent LinkedIn post, "The accreditation and certifications by entities created by trade associations are crap and not to be trusted. They are of literally no use and do not reduce fraud or improve viewability for advertisers buying ads."

He attributed the problem in part to the fact that third-party companies often get their data from Google. "Obviously this is no better than YouTube grading its own homework," he said. "This is NOT 'independent third party' anything."

The ad industry has allowed Google to take near total control of their ads, and that's given way to a major accountability problem

Jammi said the lack of visibility into the buying and selling of ads will make it difficult for marketers to evaluate what's going on.

"The ad industry has allowed Google to take near total control of their ads, and that's given way to a major accountability problem," she said.

"Today, it's not possible for advertisers to independently verify Google's reporting, because ad verification vendors can only run their audits using the data that Google makes available to them. As Google attempts to respond to the allegations in the report, the fact that we have no credible way to audit them is a real red flag."

Fou said he expects Google will have to pay refunds to advertisers. "Google has paid out refunds before, but those come with gag orders so the recipient of the refund cannot talk about it for the rest of their lives," he said.

And it may be more than a few companies seeking refunds. Franaszek said, "Over 80 percent of the media buyers we surveyed during this research said that they would consider TrueView in-stream ads sold on muted, out-stream video to be a form of 'ad fraud.'"

"Advertisers are definitely owed refunds," added Jammi. "But as to how much? That remains to be seen. As stated above, advertisers don't have reliable and independent data to assess the value of their refunds. It doesn't feel right that Google alone gets to decide what the value of those refunds will be."

What would be more meaningful, Fou suggested, would be if "the sham of certification and fraud verification" were made clearer so large advertisers could come together in a class action lawsuit that would finally force Google to address the issue head on and not dismiss it. ®


Facebook and now Google have vowed to cut off access to news in Canada.

This is because the North American nation passed a law – the Online News Act aka Bill C-18 – that will require the tech giants to negotiate deals so that news publishers get a cut of the revenue generated by users sharing those media companies' content.

Meta doesn't want to play ball, and so Facebook and Instagram will restrict what news users can see in Canada. Similarly, Google will remove links to Canadian publishers from search and other parts of its empire.

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