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Google AdSense Strikes Again With Vague, Arbitrary Warning Over An Ancient Article

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In May, the tech news site TechDirt.com received a warning from Google that a news article about a porn star’s intellectual property lawsuit published on its site was in violation of the AdSense adult content policy. TechDirt was told to remove AdSense advertising from the article page within three days or its AdSense account would be closed.

On Monday, ZDNet reported that San Francisco-based publisher, The San Francisco Appeal, received the following in an email from Google on Monday:

“This is a warning message to alert you that there is action required to bring your AdSense account into compliance with our AdSense program policies. We’ve provided additional details below, along with the actions to be taken on your part.”

Google included the article in which the “violation occurred”, but doesn’t explicitly state which part of the AdSense policy was violated. As far as actions required, Google vaguely states:

“Action required: Please make changes to your site within 3 business days.”

The page on SF Appeal that Google found in violation was an article in a sex column. The column on the whole wasn’t being flagged, as you might assume, but one post within that column, titled, “The Sexual Manifesto: Yes, It’s About Farts.”

What constitutes adult content can be subjective, so as a guide the AdSense policy on Adult Content states, “If you wouldn’t want a child to see the content or you would be embarrassed to view the page at work in front of colleagues, then you should not place ad code on it.”

We can all, mostly at least, agree that the article in question falls into the no kids/NSFW category and, yes, is in violation of the policy.

The Perpetual Mystery Of When Which Articles Get Flagged

We can debate the merits of the policy, and whether it’s needed at all considering that advertisers have the ability to opt out of showing their ads on “Sexually suggestive” content within AdWords, but there are odder things happening here.

First, this article is dusty. It was published on March 2, 2010. That doesn’t mean readers won’t find it and ads won’t get impressions. But, why did it take so long to get flagged?

Second, it’s part of a series of posts within a sex column. Why was this one page flagged and not all of the articles in the column?

Perhaps this is a sign that SF Appeal and other publishers may soon be inundated with many more requests to pull AdSense from older pages deemed to violate the adult content policy. Or maybe it’s just another sign that publisher’s can continue to expect arbitrary warnings about certain content.

The Google forums are littered with complaints and examples of old content suddenly triggering a warning from Google and odd content like bikini pictures getting flagged as adult content. The TechDirt case was one that verged on the absurd, as the article was actual news and the video that was flagged by Google appears on Google-owned YouTube with ads.

Vague Instructions Don’t Help Publishers

Google’s warnings also used to be more explicit about which piece of the AdSense Policy was being violated.

The notice SF Appeal received puts the onus on the publisher to figure out what’s wrong and how to fix it ways that can cause undue confusion.

It bears mentioning that, in this case, when Google says SF Appeal is required to “make changes to your site”, the fix is to removing the ad tag from that violating page. However, it’s understandable that publishers would interpret the warning as editorial censorship with Google telling them to alter or remove their content.

In some cases, it may be possible for publishers to alter content or remove an offending image without compromising the intended purpose of an article, but in most cases the remedy is to remove the ad tag from the page. Of course, if your a porn publisher, you’re out of luck. Still, it’s easy to see how these warnings are baffling to typical publishers.

Google doesn’t do itself — or publishers — any favors with its vague and ambiguous wording.


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(Some images used under license from Shutterstock.com.)

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