Google, Censorship, and Search Marketing

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From a search marketing perspective, censorship, or put nicely, “content regulation,” is something that we’ve been living with on Google and the other engines for years.

Google and the other engines have gotten into hot water recently in the press and the public for bowing to the demands of censors in foreign countries. Last week, engine representatives were called before a hostile Congressional committee and subjected to withering criticism, especially from Representative Tom Lantos.

“Your abhorrent activities in China are a disgrace,” scolded Lantos. “I do not understand how your corporate executives sleep at night.” The engine executives, including Google’s Elliot Schrage, seemed stunned at the criticism. But Schrage admitted that “the requirements of doing business in China include self-censorship – something that runs counter to Google’s most basic values and commitments as a company.” Schrage went on to defend Google’s cooperation with the Chinese censors, arguing that it’s better to launch a partially censored product in China than none at all.

How this battle will ultimately shake out is anybody’s guess. From a search marketing perspective, however, censorship, or put nicely, “content regulation,” is something that we’ve been living with on Google and the other engines for years, so here’s a quick rundown of what Google does to regulate organic and paid results, right here in the U.S.A.

Organic Restrictions

Google’s official policy on censoring organic search results has grown more restrictive in recent months. Until January of 2006, Google’s statement read:

“Google does not censor results for any search term. The order and content of our results are completely automated; we do not manipulate our search results by hand. We believe strongly in allowing the democracy of the web to determine the inclusion and ranking of sites in our search results.”

In January, Google changed this statement to reflect the fact that it does sometimes censor organic results: “It is Google’s policy not to censor search results. However, in response to local laws, regulations, or policies, we may do so. When we remove search results for these reasons, we display a notice on our search results pages.” In other words, Google’s default is to not censor organic results, unless local laws force it to, and if this happens, users will be informed that results have been omitted from its SERPs.

This compromise belies the popular belief that Google’s organic results are “pure” products of its algorithm. This fact has long been known by search marketers who have practiced “blackhat” SEO tactics designed to trick its algorithm, and been “shocked” when their sites disappear from Google’s SERPs after human operators discover the manipulated results.

Paid Ad Restrictions

With organic results, Google’s default is to let the algorithm rule unless the content is prohibited by local law, but with paid results, it’s a much more restrictive game, and decisions as to whether an ad is acceptable are made by humans, not algorithms.

Although any given Adwords ad may be put into rotation before a human censor approves it, the ad will likely be checked shortly afterwards. To continue running, it must conform to a highly detailed set of rules governing its presentation. These rules, whose rationale is to produce “a great user experience” occupy a lengthy page at: https://adwords.google.com/select/guidelines.html

The obligation to comply with local laws causes Google to regulate the types of products which may be advertised on its SERPs. Prohibited products currently include drug cleansing shakes and urine test additives, beer (but not wine), bulk messaging products, cable descrambler boxes, counterfeit designer goods, illicit drugs and drug paraphenalia, fake documents, fireworks, gambling sites, hacking/cracking sites, so-called “miracle cures,” prostitution services, tobacco products, traffic devices, and weapons.

Sellers of prescription drugs may advertise pharmaceuticals on Google but only if they’ve join the Adwords Online Pharmacy Qualification Program, which works with an organization called SquareTrade to ensure that the seller is a licensed pharmacy.

A full list of restricted products is at: https://adwords.google.com/select/contentpolicy.html

Other Content Restrictions

The use of trademarked terms by Adwords advertisers is another area where Google restricts the content of ads, although it does not restrict the buying of trademarked keywords. For example, one can bid on the term “Ford” but the use of the term “Ford” is generally forbidden in a text ad unless you are a Ford dealership and have cleared the use of this term with Ford. This policy is the product of a lawsuit brought by GEICO against Google seeking to restrict the use of the term “GEICO” in competing insurance companies’ ads.

Running Adwords Campaigns For Chinese Audiences

China is a huge and promising market, but because China’s government regulates advertising and trade more extensively than in the West, marketers wishing to run ads geo-targeted to Chinese audiences must acquire business licenses and certifications for the following product categories: Agricultural Chemicals, Books and Periodicals, Cosmetics, Food and Foodstuffs, Health Supplements, Medical Appliances, Medical Services, Real Estate, Patents, and Veterinary Medicine.

Should you do business with China? Well, if you’re an American and have bought any consumer goods in the last five years, you’re already participating in trade with China as a buyer. And one can make a strong argument that liberalizing China’s society is a goal better served by increased trade and enhanced information access, even if such trade and information is subject to content restrictions.

Mr. Frog is a leading Search industry visionary. Mr. Frog is a member of the Did-it Search Marketing team which accompanies him to most major
marketing conferences.

Google, Censorship, and Search Marketing
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