Google's advertising network is everywhere. Often the company's goal is merely to show as many ads to as many people as possible, but it also uses the influence it holds over the modern web to block malicious ads, take down "fake news" sites, and prevent scammers from reining in more victims. The company detailed its fight on these bad actors (in the moral sense, not the one that applies to Steven Seagal) over the last year in a new blog post.
More Than 1 Billion Worrisome Ads Taken Down
Google said it removed more than 1.7 billion ads that don't meet its guidelines in 2016. That's more than double the number it took down in 2015. The company explained that if it took a single second to remove each ad, it would take more than 50 years to remove everything. Google's systems work much quicker, as evidenced by the fact that this blog post wasn't published in 2066, and said two updates had the biggest impact over the last year:
First, we expanded our policies to better protect users from misleading and predatory offers. For example, in July we introduced a policy to ban ads for payday loans, which often result in unaffordable payments and high default rates for users. In the six months since launching this policy, we disabled more than 5 million payday loan ads. Second, we beefed up our technology so we can spot and disable bad ads even faster. For example, 'trick to click' ads often appear as system warnings to deceive users into clicking on them, not realizing they are often downloading harmful software or malware. In 2016, our systems detected and disabled a total of 112 million ads for 'trick to click,' 6X more than in 2015.
The first change is a moral judgment on payday loans, and the second is a technical improvement to Google's systems. Both have the same effect--preventing Google's nigh-ubiquitous ad network from being complicit in malicious plots against unsuspecting people. That's why it also removed more than 68 million bad ads for healthcare violations; more than 17 million bad ads for illegal gambling violations; and almost 80 million misleading ads.
Google also said it removed 23,000 self-clicking ads on mobile platforms; 7 million ads that tried to bypass its systems; and suspended 1,300 accounts for making ads that claim to be news articles but instead lead to advertising sites. The company didn't say how the remaining ads violated its rules.
Bye Bye, "Fake News"
Whoever came up with the phrase "fake news" ought to be forced to listen to Alanis Morrissette's Ironic--and someone explaining why none of her examples are true irony--until the universe experiences heat death. With that being said, it's a real problem that companies like Google have to grapple with: Should they harm their reputations while profiting from websites that mislead people, or should they lose money by taking a moral stand?
Google took the moral stand. In November 2016, the company introduced a new policy that it said "helps us to take action against website owners misrepresenting who they are and that deceive people with their content." In November and December it reviewed 550 sites, took action against 340 of them, and permanently banned 200 publishers from its platform. That's a lot of work to cut off these sites' revenue sources in just two months.
Facebook made similar changes to its advertising policies. The company's also pledged support to media organizations (though it's also mistakenly silenced a media outlet because of a malfunctioning algorithm) and to halting the spread of misleading information on its platform. Maybe between Google and Facebook, the web can be made a little bit safer and less cluttered by attempts to mislead people who believe everything they see online.