Either the FBI is recruiting in Iran – or some govt Google ad buyers are getting a lousy deal

Advertisers may be surprised to find where their banners appear

Google Search ads paid for by US and EU government agencies and legislators, and by major companies, have been spotted in embarrassing and legally dubious places, including sexually explicit websites, plus sites in Iran and Russia in possible contravention of economic sanctions.

Adalytics, an advertising metrics firm, on Tuesday published a report that raises questions about whether those buying ads are adequately informed about where their ads appear, who profits from them, and whether the resulting ad revenue violates sanction rules.

The report – which Google dismissed as based on cherry-picked examples in a generally healthy ecosystem – states that Adalytics does not allege sanctions-busting or money laundering violations. Instead, Adalytics has positioned its report as observations about where ads placed by US and EU government entities and major companies can be found.

"A major Fortune 500 brand that has been working Adalytics for some time was recently surprised to learn that their search ads – which they assumed were exclusively being served on the search engine page google.com – where in fact also being served on many websites that make up the Google Search Partner (GSP) network," the report asserts.

"These included websites such as Breitbart.com, pirated content sites, hardcore pornographic sites, and hundreds of putative Iranian websites, which may potentially be under US Treasury Office of Foreign Assets (OFAC) sanctions."

Adalytics claimed the unidentified brand's ads were also being served on websites specifically named on the US Treasury OFAC Specially Designated Nationals (SDN) sanctions list.

For example, the report includes a screenshot of a Federal Bureau of Investigation search ad soliciting job seekers on the website of the Tehran-based Iranian Alloy Steel Company. A similar screenshot shows an FBI careers ad on an Italian pornographic website.

The Register fancies the FBI would prefer not to be seen recruiting among those who indulge in such material.

A screenshot of an FBI ad on an Iranian website

A screenshot of an FBI ad on an Iranian website ... Click to enlarge. Source: Adalytics

Ads bought from Google can appear beyond the web giant’s own properties thanks to its operation of a “Search Partner Network” that the Big G explains can “extend the reach of Google Search ads and listings to hundreds of non-Google websites, as well as YouTube and other Google sites.”

“On search partners sites, your ads and listings can appear on search results pages, site directory pages or other pages related to a person's search.”

Some Partner Network members may choose to embed a Google search widget in their websites to provide free search functionality. The screenshot above suggests a visitor to the Iranian website entered "FBI" as a search keyword and the resulting ad popped up.

The Partner Network is provided by default: when advertisers set up Search or Shopping campaign ads, they're presented with the option to opt-out of the Search Partner Network, which extends the reach of ads to sites like YouTube as well as smaller websites in the network.

The Register asked Google why the Partner Network is not opt-in. Google's spokesperson declined to answer on the record but pointed to past data about how the company sees better click-through rates and ad conversions when Search Partner Network participation is the default.

In other words, the Search Partner Network works, and makes Google money.

Peeved politicos

The Register asked US Senator Mark Warner (D-VA) about the report and he responded with a statement urging the government to become more involved in the policing of the online ad industry.

"For over eight years now I have raised grave concerns with the FTC and the Department of Justice over the extent to which digital advertising intermediaries maintain a concentrated ecosystem rife with fraud," said Warner. "The apparent monetization of sanctioned entities' websites should be the final straw for the government to take action to clean up this market."

Paul Tang, a Dutch member of the European Parliament and of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists & Democrats, told The Register in an email, "Google's advertising algorithms demand scrutiny. The EU Commission must wield its audit powers to demand transparency and accountability about the secret 10.5 billion dollar in ad spend every year through the PMax and other ad bidding algorithms."

Jason Kint, CEO of Digital Content Next, a trade group for digital content producers, told The Register the report is worrying.

"My read was there are a lot of victims who obviously wouldn't want their ads running on the documented sites as part of Google’s partners/extension program," he said.

"It’s another symptom of market power and Google failing to self-regulate. If clients and individual researchers can find this stuff, then why can’t Google?”

Kint described Google’s practices as inflicting “harm for those who operate clean well-lit websites."

Google, however, disagrees. A statement from the ad biz, plus background material, questioned Adalytics' methodology and motives, even as Google acknowledged some of the report's findings by taking steps to prevent some of the identified sites from receiving its ads.

“Adalytics has established a track record of publishing inaccurate reports that misrepresents our products and make wildly exaggerated claims. We’ll of course review the report, but our analysis of the sites and limited information already shared with us did not identify ad revenue being shared with a single sanctioned entity," said Dan Taylor, VP of global ads, in a statement provided to The Register.

According to Taylor, the examples Google was made aware of before the report’s publication came from its Programmable Search Engine (ProSE), an embeddable search widget that lets websites provide access to Google Search, and which is only a small component of Google's Search Partner Network.

"Ads may appear based on the user’s specific search query; they are not targeted to, or based on, the website they appear on," said Taylor. "Websites who merely implement ProSE do not get any ad revenue from those ads."

Publishers that participate in Google AdSense can apply to the AdSense for Search program to receive a revenue share of ads displayed in response to a ProSE search. However, according to the company, none of the examples Google was made aware of did so.

Google requires that websites implementing ProSE abide by its terms of service, which prohibit usage on adult websites. Evidently, some websites don't comply. ®

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