Married to an Elephant: Coping with Google’s New Advertiser Editorial Policies


The late Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau once likened living next to the United States to sleeping with an elephant. “No matter how friendly and even-tempered is the beast,” quipped Trudeau, “one is affected by every twitch and grunt.” You don’t get a lot of sleep.

Google, a fast-growing 300-lb. gorilla, isn’t generally fazed by the movements of other wild beasts in its kingdom, but the recent AOL partnership must feel a bit like getting hitched with a five-tonne  Elephas Maximus Maximus.

Google’s advertisers, in turn, are being forced to adapt to the changed circumstances that come with marital bliss.

An extensive set of advertiser editorial rules have been put in place as part of Google’s effort to enact what it calls “an industry standard.” It might be argued that quality control and standards are to the long term benefit of advertisers, because they are designed to maintain the ad program’s legitimacy in the eyes of consumers. Google admits that the AOL partnership was part of the impetus for these standards. In many ways, this is a healthy development, akin to the “style guides” that journalists writing for major newspapers must conform to. Consistency is what inspires confidence and builds brand trust.

Quality control standards also protect advertisers from one another. Because the average cost-per-click of an advertiser’s campaign goes down as their ads achieve higher clickthrough rates, some advertisers are willing to tempt consumers with over-the-top and misleading claims. This will now be more difficult to do. A level playing field benefits all advertisers in general, even while it seems to hurt some specific campaigns in the short term.

Make no mistake, these really are new rules. There were far fewer rules with the old CPM-based AdWords program, and in some cases, advertisers were encouraged to use “calls to action” such as “Click Here” in their ad text. So is that allowed anymore? Nuh-uh.

The new rules make it more difficult than before to achieve success on AdWords Select with gimmicks and misleading copy, since gimmicks and misleading copy will be disapproved by Google Editorial. So it’s even more important than ever to learn the legitimate targeting techniques that can separate cost-effective campaigns from poor-performing campaigns.

And for those times when conscientious advertisers do get caught in the editorial web, a few brief words of advice. First, don’t take it personally. The editorial staff, understandably, want to keep their good jobs at Google, and consequently, are likely to be overzealous in the early going. Cut them some slack… and then ask for the same treatment in return. Second, Google is still trying to automate as much of AdWords Select as possible and that includes editorial review. So certain punctuation issues may be brought to staff’s attention via an automatic mechanism; an appeal might get some knee-jerk disapprovals overturned.

Above all, consider that Google has chosen to call these rules “guidelines.” They can exercise discretion, and as a paying advertiser, you’re within your rights to ask for clear explanations of why your ads are being disabled. For one thing, I’d hate to see an advertisement which achieved 1% clickthrough rates or higher (well above industry averages) be ruled out of bounds because it was appearing on supposedly “irrelevant” keywords. Isn’t relevance in the eye of the beholder?

While editorial decisions are at some point final, the AdWords people are listening to advertiser feedback, and have already relaxed the enforcement of some rules in response to this feedback. The end result should be a decent compromise amongst Google, its advertisers, and the new audience being reached through Elephas Maximus Maximus. The elephant, according to my field guide, likes its editorial content “grey with large areas of depigmentation.”

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