Publishers vs. the Censorbot

As Google becomes more crucial to the revenues of online news sites, its practice of withholding ads from edgy stories threatens Web journalism.

On July 7, the Web site linked to a story from The New York Times about racist groups and skinheads joining the army. Once again, the publisher claims, Google wiped out his ads. As near as he can tell, the use of the word "skinhead" must have run afoul of Google's ban on Web sites that publish racist content. In both cases, the ads vanished for several weeks. The publisher estimates that his company lost at least $7,000 while waiting for Google to reevaluate his content again and bring back the ads.

When the publisher contacted Google and asked for explicit guidelines about what constitutes illicit content, company representatives refused. "I asked them for a set of keywords, and they wouldn't give me one," he says. "I don't know what the words are; we just have to approach it by toning down the language in our articles. ... It's just ridiculous. I don't think the [advertisers] are going to have a problem with us reporting the news. ... But they're Google, and we're a small site. So we'll have to conform to their regulations if we want their money."

Ghosemajumder says Google constantly refines its method of matching stories to advertisers, whittling down the number of topics that would kill ad revenue, and adds that publishers should always alert the company when they think an ad has been inappropriately pulled. But he refuses to offer a list of forbidden words, claiming that Google's vetting procedure is much more complicated: "We're not trying to create very specific rules so much as we're trying to determine, 'What is the topic of a particular story such that viewers would have a negative reaction?'" In the end, he acknowledges, some stories may be too unpleasant to be paired with paying advertisers.

As the Internet becomes more important for newspapers, and publishers from The New York Times to Village Voice Media look to Google for scarce online revenues, serious journalism about international conflict, crime, or any of the less-pleasant aspects of human nature could find itself gasping for support. If stories about the Arab-Israeli conflict, the occupation of Iraq, or the genocide in Darfur are destined to appear without advertising, editors and publishers may conclude they can no longer afford to cover the world's most important stories. In an era of targeted, contextual advertising, what will happen to the stories no sponsor wants to touch?

This article was published originally on August 2, 2006, in the East Bay Express.

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