SEARCH ENGINE LAND—As promised, Google AdWords has begun the process of disapproving (and disappearing) ads that violate their advertising policies for what they refer to as "sexually explicit content." Clients who promote adult entertainment are now receiving emails informing them of the now-official policies.
A typical email reads:
We wanted to alert you that one of your sites violates our advertising policies. Therefore, we won't be able to run any of your ads that link to that site, and any new ads pointing to that site will also be disapproved.
Here's what you can do to fix your site and hopefully get your ad running again:
1. Make the necessary changes to your site that currently violates our policies:
Display URL: *************
Policy issue: Sexually explicit content
Details & instructions: http://support.google.com/adwordspolicy/answer/69787?hl=en&utm_source=policy&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=gen
2. Resubmit your site to us, following the instructions in the link above. If your site complies with our policies, we can approve it to start running again.
Repeated violations of our advertising policies could result in a suspension of your AdWords account, so it's important to address any issues as soon as possible by reviewing our policies. To learn more about AdWords suspension policies, please visit http://support.google.com/adwordspolicy/answer/164786?hl=en&utm_source=policy&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=spsu.
The Google AdWords Team
The change in policy can actually be seen by anyone making Google search queries. As it now stands, for any number of searches involving terms related to sexual activity, where there were once sponsored ads on the right-hand side of the page, now there is only empty space. Even a somewhat innocuous term (at least in terms of its sexual explicitness) like "Amateur sex" returns no ads, though that is surely because the ads for that term led to sexually explicit destinations. Other more socially acceptable terms and activities, like "sex education," still return sponsored ads, as do terms related to sex toys and adult novelties, which acts to define that part of the business as separate from the other sectors of the adult entertainment industry.
While it remains likely that Google AdWords is currently tweaking and will continue to tweak the new algorithms as well as the specific search terms they will be applied to—in order to find what it believes is a balance it can live with—initial indications are that the reach of the new prohibition runs deeper and broader than most people may have anticipated, and covers a swath of content that includes all types of sexual genres and material, from the very extreme to the vanilla.
However, some terms you would think would have the blocks in place at the get go are still returning sponsored ads. For instance, while "porn" returns no ads, "porn stars" does, including a first-place paid ad that resolves directly to a page full of videos featuring explicit anal sex, a clear violation of the new policy. Same thing with "gay porn," which serves up no paid ads, while "gay porn stars" serves up a feast of sponsored ads that lead directly to pages featuring explicit sexual activity. Just a few other search terms that also still serve up sponsored ads are "live porn," "live sex" and "porn cams,' to name a few.
The uneven playing field indicates that the process of designing an algorithm that can do what Google claims it is going to do may be harder to achieve than the geniuses in Mountain View, California, believed was possible, or wanted people to believe was possible, and that the tweaking will continue for a while.
But the inception of the new prohibitions has already been an eye-opening experience for webmasters who listened when Google announced the upcoming changes to policy, and tried to adapt to them. AVN heard from Colin Rowntree today, who said that his efforts to abide by the new "sexually explicit content" policy have thus far been for naught.
"Reacting to Google's advanced warning of new AdWords content guidelines a few months ago," he told AVN, "we created landing pages and tours per their new restrictions on nudity and text content to stay in compliance when this took effect. I always pretty much assumed that BDSM site Wasteland.com would never come into compliance due to the nature of the site (you can only pour so much perfume on a pig), but when I saw today that our lovely 'soft' site, Sssh.com, had the boom come down on it, I was astonished. And, digging a bit deeper, I discovered that Google unilaterally suspended so many 'adult' accounts. Go Google something adult. As mild as "sexy amateurs." Poof! No Adwords results at all!
"I know that Google is taking the path of least work here by simply suspending everyone and requiring some sort of fixes and arbitration," he added, "but this is simply a horror show for anyone in adult to get the suspensions lifted."
Regarding the fallout for his business, Rowntree continued, "This, for us, results in an immediate significant loss of revenue for Adwords traffic. The other thing that disturbs me is the hundreds of thousands of dollars we have poured into Adwords campaigns over the years, always staying in perfect compliance with Adwords regs. And, after carefully revising our ads to stay within the new guidelines, to get cut off at the knees."
Indeed, that historical facet of this move by Google—the fact that adult industry money has been so instrumental in making Google what it is today—will continue to smart long after the financial effects are dealt with by webmasters that cannot allow a single entity to determine their fate, no matter how consequential that entity it may be.
In that sense, according to longtime SEO expert Stewart Tongue, Google may live to regret its actions. "Google may feel they are making a smart business decision by walling in their own garden and weeding porn out of it," he said, "but they aren't the first digital farmer to make that mistake. Those of us who recall using dozens of America Online discs as coasters can also reason out what the likely success rate will be when Google results provide less and less of what adults with an income are actually looking for online. It isn't exactly a secret that a guy who writes 'lesbian' into Google, more often than not isn't seeking the latest in LGBT political news.
"If Google abandons porn," he added, "porn will survive as it always has; if porn abandons Google, the end result may be far worse for the company that once said it would do no evil and the evil organizations it now submissively serves."
Of course, it could also be that Google has no interest in abandoning porn, but instead has every intention of continuing to make money from sponsored ads by other avenues that will come into play in the near future, including perhaps on related search engine platforms that are exclusively adult.
And of course, Google has not expressed any intention to itself stop delivering explicit sexual content directly to the masses, free of charge, even as it penalizes many of the producers of that very same content, though certainly not all of them.
As industry vet Q Boyer explained, "Taken in combination with Google's apparent algorithmic preference for sites that offer oodles of free porn, this AdWords porn ban has the effect of significantly diminishing the visibility of responsible sites that have played by Google's rules and put millions of dollars in their pockets over the years, while increasing the visibility of sites that disregard intellectual property law and federal recordkeeping regulations. For social conservatives celebrating this policy change, the irony is that what they are celebrating is the increasing ubiquity of free online porn, and the further obscuring within Google's listings of the only porn sites that do anything meaningful to prevent minors from accessing their content."
To be sure, nothing stays the same with Google for long, and no one knows exactly what's in store for adult content and non-paid search results on the mother of all search engines, but the trend by Google to follow its creed of making decisions based on what it believes is in the best interest of the surfer—even if that means abetting what are essentially online monopolies to the detriment of diversity—all but ensures that the company will, at least for the moment, continue to enact undue influence on an industry that helped it grow from a teeny seedling into a monolith that can afford to forget where it came from.
Or, as Rowntree put it today as he realized the scope of the impact, "'We built this city on Rock and Roll' ... Today, the music died."