It’s not just gay marriage that’s at issue. A Google flap should have people thinking about the future of advertising. Photo: Eric Bartholomew aka Uber Tuber; also on MySpace.

It’s a nearly unanimously-held belief: the future of digital content will depend, at least in part, on revenue from ads. This site is supported by ads. Musicians and digital producers will be looking to ads to support what they’re doing – sometimes in the form of direct ad revenue, sometimes in support for sites and communities they use (Facebook, YouTube, MySpace, and so on). Ads are very often what makes the Internet free.

But if ad-supported models are going to work, the system that delivers the ads has to work. This week, I believe Google failed to deliver the solution it promises its publishers. They violated their own policies, violated the principle of their service, violated the trust of their publishers, and then failed to respond to an issue that was deeply time-sensitive.

When Third-Party Ads Attack

Before I’m misunderstood, let’s consider advertising policy, which is not the same as editorial policy. In print publishing, whether a small-town weekly newspaper or The New York Times, ad sales relationships have been directly between a publisher and an advertiser. Running an ad does not mean an endorsement of the advertiser or their message or product. In fact, newspapers frequently run “op ed”-style ads that directly conflict with editorial policy, though not without being criticized by some for doing so. The Times runs a regular full-page ad from energy giant Exxon/Mobil, for instance.

In online publishing, we very frequently hand over those relationships to a third party. We expect, in return, that our interests as a publisher will be served by the third party.

This week, Google AdSense bombarded an enormous number of partner sites, Create Digital Music included, with banners opposing same-sex marriage in California, a right that had been protected in that state. Bizarrely, many music tech sites were targeted. The ads were offensive to many publishers; whatever your feelings about marriage and homosexuality, these were effectively ads in favor of discrimination. One ad run on this site was also factually inaccurate, suggesting that California protections for gay marriage can be equated to a mandate to teach about same-sex relationships in schools; various California officials have said that’s not true. Even if you want to debate the issue, that means the ads were claiming something that was false, which is not as debatable.

But tempting as it may be to focus on the political issue and the ads themselves, the ads are not the problem. The problem is that Google failed its publishers, failed the trust we place in Google, and then failed to talk about what it had done. It’s a failure of really historic proportions, and one that really merits a close examination and open debate if ad-supported content has any future at all. The fact that Proposition 8 passed and passed by a very narrow margin, is likely to turn up the political heat on that debate. Advertising was widely credited for the passage of the proposition, making us as publishers unwitting partners in the passage of a proposition many of us would have opposed. But let’s not lose sight of the fact that, Proposition 8 aside, the fault is Google’s for delivering well below the expectations of publishers.

Google’s Promise to Publishers

Unlike the traditional newspapers I used above, using Google AdSense is essentially entrusting your ads to an algorithm, to one that connects your content to relevant ads. Now, no one expects this algorithm to be perfect. Sometimes, it’s downright comical. When CDM covered Hatebeak, a parrot that “sings” death metal music, we got ads for bird feed

That said, the basic pitch Google makes to publishers is relevancy. Without relevancy, ads look out of place. They detract from the quality of the content we’re publishing. And most importantly, ads need to be relevant to make publishers money, which is the whole point. At least in the bird feed example, it was clear that the algorithm was making some match based on content, even if it wasn’t one an human might pick. (In fact, it might even work then – interested in parrots? Maybe you are interested in bird feed, even on a music site.)

But don’t take my word for it. Take Google’s:

AdSense for content automatically crawls the content of your pages and delivers ads (you can choose both text or image ads) that are relevant to your audience and your site content—ads so well-matched, in fact, that your readers will actually find them useful.

They go on to say:

Competitive Ad Filter enables you to filter out specific competitors or specific advertisers.

Editorial Review makes sure that all Google ads are reviewed and approved by the Google team, ensuring that inappropriate ads don’t appear on your pages.

Of course, none of that happened here.

My site is not a political site. Prior to this issue coming up, there’s no way an ad specific to California, entirely political in nature, had anything to do with the context of the site. Now, after this has happened, I’ve started writing posts with words like “homosexual” and “gay marriage,” so those ads would be contextual now. But as of Monday when ads appeared here, they had no business on the site. In fact, it would have been just as inappropriate if an ad saying “Oppose Proposition 8” had appeared on the site. For political reasons, I might not have objected, but it certainly would not have been “ads so well-matched … your readers will actually find them useful.”

Naturally, Google does run some ads as a public service, like “Give to the Red Cross.” But an ad encouraging you to give money to help tsunami victims is relevant to everyone, and it’s an issue on which everyone can agree. Political ads are quite different. And, in fact, sites only run those public service announcements when Google’s algorithm can’t find contextual ads to deliver.

As many publishers point out, the bottom line is lost revenue when this system fails – part of the reason a lot of us are considering dropping Google permanently, even if we don’t see anti-gay ads again. Since Google is click-based, not impression-based, we were actually paying bandwidth costs and missing out on ad revenue in order to carry these ads.

That said, we still don’t really know why this happened with the Prop 8 ads. Did the advertisers just buy up random keywords, getting them the technology placements? (And if so, does Google have a policy for such advertiser abuse?) Or does Google’s contextual targeting actually consider these ads relevant?

Whatever the answer, it gets worse.

Google’s Political Ad Policy

Below: one of the ads in question. Funny, on CDM when we think of protect childrens’ education, we think of expanding funding for teaching music. But worse, it violates Google’s own policies.

We as pu
blishers are Google’s customers. You would think that massive online publicity for this story and widespread complaints from publishes would prompt some sort of response from the company. That hasn’t happened, minus a condescending and inadequate blog post on the Inside AdSense blog explaining how to block ads. (More on why that’s unhelpful in a moment.)

To get any explanation from Google, I had to rely, ironically, on a news article in which I myself was quoted. An unidentified Google spokesperson told the [London] Times Online:

Google allows ads that advocate for particular political position, regardless of the views that they represent. We’re currently allowing ads advocating both for and against Proposition 8.

That statement is based on Google’s published political advertising policy:

We permit political advertisements regardless of the political views they represent. Stating disagreement with or campaigning against a candidate for public office, a political party, or public administration is generally permissible.

There’s just one problem: that’s not the whole policy. Also from Google:

However, political ads must not include accusations or attacks relating to an individual’s personal life, nor can they advocate against a protected group.

Protected group, eh?

Don’t promote violence or advocate against a protected group.

Ad text advocating against any organization, person, or group of people is not permitted.
Advertisements and associated websites may not promote violence or advocate against a protected group. A protected group is distinguished by their:

  • Race or ethnic origin
  • Color
  • National origin
  • Religion
  • Disability
  • Sex
  • Age
  • Veteran status
  • Sexual orientation/Gender identity

Emphasis Google’s. Note the last bullet point.

Supporting Proposition 8 isn’t advocating violence, of course. But it is is “advocating against a protected group” and advocating against “a group of people.” It doesn’t get any more clear-cut than this, Google. There’s no more damning way to advocate against a group of people than to run ad texts explicitly advocating non-equal treatment under the law. And some of these ads went further, suggesting that “group of people,” that “protected group” endangered childrens’ education.

We just elected our first African-American President in America – something that my pro-McCain, Republican-voting friends have said, despite their regrets about the election, really impressed them. If the Web had existed in the 1960s, political advocates might have run ads opposing voting protection for blacks. There’s no question now that such an ad would be advocacy against a group, even if the ad wasn’t explicitly “I don’t like black people.” This is the same issue.

If Google doesn’t follow their own ad policies in this case, there’s no guarantee that we can trust anything Google says about their ad programs. As a publisher, I can’t trust a relationship with any vendor that can’t follow their own policies.

Control for Publishers is Inadequate

A story in Information Week noted that some posters in online forums claim Google’s controls for blocking ads are sufficient. They’re not.

There are two methods for blocking ads on AdSense, and neither one in this case was appropriate or adequate.

Competitive Ad Filter: This filter is designed to allow you to block ads from competitive sites. In this case, it failed on a number of levels.

  • You need to know what you’re blocking. It’s called a competitive filter for a reason – the assumption is that you know in advance what ads you don’t want to appear. In this case, we didn’t expect ads from “”
  • It’s domain-specific: If we did succeed in blocking these ads, the Prop 8 supporters could simply point to a differen domain and get around the block.
  • There’s no way to review ads: I relied on readers in California to even know the Prop 8 ads were running in the first place. I was fortunate those readers gave me the benefit of the doubt and that they responded so quickly.
  • The ad filter isn’t real-time: Google’s own blog post concedes that it can take several hours for the filter to take effect. That’s truly unacceptable, because other changes like what the ad code looks like are immediate. And in this case, the day before an election, we couldn’t afford to wait several hours. My own true recourse was to shut off Google Ads entirely. Now I’m finding it difficult to switch it back on.

Ad Review Center: This sounds promising at first. But it’s off by default, it can be necessary to automatically approve ads for ad auctions to work properly, and most importantly, it doesn’t actually have anything to do with contextual ads. The Ad Review Center is exclusively for placement-targeted advertising; that is, ads placed specifically on your site by advertising. The Prop 8 supporters used contextual advertising, based on keywords. So this is really entirely irrelevant.

The Prop 8 Ad Debacle: Failure on Every Level

The Proposition 8 ads that appeared were a failure on a number of levels. For those of you keeping score at home:

  • The ads weren’t relevant. While the ads appear to have been geo-targeted, AdSense promises ads relevant to content. I don’t want ads for plumbing contractors in Rhode Island, even if you’re reading there, because I want content-relevant ads.
  • Publishers lost money. Because the ads were irrelevant and offensive to many readers, publishers on all kinds of blogs reported suddenly-plunging click-through revenue. That may not mean much to small sites, at least in one day. But the loss on bigger sites must have been pretty painful. (And ironically, this means Google didn’t make as much, either!)
  • It wasn’t a fluke. Ads were delivered in large quantities to this site, and to many others. Tech sites may even have been targeted specifically; ads ran on Slashdot and Techcrunch.
  • The ads violated Google’s own political policy. If this doesn’t count as advocating against a group based on sexual preference, nothing does. So either Google broke their own policy, or their own policy is meaningless. And it’s clear Google left the ads in the network days after the issue appeared, so they can’t plead ignorance – even less so given that they use their editorial review as a selling point for the service.
  • Publishers c
    ouldn’t do anything once the ads were placed
    . Not only did we find out the ads were running the hard way, but we had no real-time ability to block the ads – and they were, by definition, time-sensitive. The way to block the ads effectively? Disable Google Ads.
  • Google doesn’t have a support outlet. While there’s an informal discussion group, there isn’t a clear, formal way for publishers to complain to Google.
  • Google was completely unresponsive. Again, we’re Google’s customers. Days later, we’ve still heard nothing from Google officially, other than a thinly-veiled, defensive blog post explaining their (inadequate) blocking mechanism without mentioning the issue by name, and some faceless statements in the press that we could have copied and pasted from their FAQ.

We Need a More Perfect Web

I’d like to see several things come out of this mess.

I hope that we start to have a real debate about advertising policy. The issues here were to me pretty clear-cut, but advertising policy in general deals with all kinds of tough issues. It’s time to start talking about that as publishers and advertisers alike.

I hope that we get some response from Google. We need to know what actually happened and why. And, frankly, I would need a significantly expanded toolset for publisher control before ever considering running AdSense on my site again.

But I also hope we see more competition in the marketplace. There are various similar services, but in my experience they often don’t have enough ad inventory to be relevant on a site like CDM. That’s too bad. I think Google might have performed better here if they themselves faced more vibrant competition, and I think the whole ad market might improve, too. There are huge opportunities for advertisers online in these kind of sites, and the economic downturn means it’s even more important to make those solutions work better. I know Microsoft and Yahoo are readying services. I look forward to seeing them.

This was, on every level, a complete mess. But now that the issue is out in the open, the end result could be better advertising systems – if the advertising vendors actually pay attention, and respond.

Just as importantly, this debacle could also mean a new climate in which discriminatory ads aren’t tolerated. Publishers are dropping AdSense left and right, and they should. This violated Google’s principles and policy, and many of us believe it’s wrong to run ads that discriminate against a group of people.

There’s no question this is an important issue for musicians. Amidst all the hype about projects from the likes of Nine Inch Nails and Radiohead has been the assumption that our own sites, and community sites we depend on, will be supported by ads. That means that what impacts ads impacts us.

If you believe the future of the Web is bright, then you must also believe that we can all do better.


Google caught up in row over gay marriage vote [Times Online]

Google Instructs AdSense Publishers How To Block Its Ads [Information Week]


Google Ads Disabled; Your Partner is Your Business

  • So does this mean you won't be taking Google's money?

    Living in a society with diverse beliefs means being tolerant and sometimes this means accepting and even supporting behaviors and viewpoints which are different from your own.

  • Well, you don't have to leave Google AdSense out of any loftier principles. You can leave it because it's a service, and this makes clear the service doesn't work. You're supposed to get relevant ads, and these aren't relevant ads. You're supposed to have control, so that as a publisher you can run ads that reflect well on you and are successful for you — and it turns out we really don't have that control. And you want a vendor that's responsive and consistently follows their policies. Google has done well at that in the past, but here they've just gone off the rails.

    "Living in a society with diverse beliefs means being tolerant and sometimes this means accepting and even supporting behaviors and viewpoints which are different from your own."

    Yes, that's correct. That's all the more reason to drop this kind of advertising. This crosses the line from policy debate to something that is specifically targeted at one group of people. I don't feel that's appropriate to this site.

    But more importantly, *I'm the publisher* of this site, and I make all sorts of decisions about what appears on it. In this case, Google has proved that they're a very poor partner in publishing CDM, not because of this ad specifically, but because they don't give us the control and choice we need.

    Prop 8's supporters are certainly welcome to campaign for what they believe in. But on this site, we have the right to make some choices, too. The Prop 8 battle is over, so we *won't be seeing those ads ever again*. The point is, what I've learned from this is that AdSense isn't really about relevant, publisher-controled content as it claims to be. And that's a deal-breaker.

  • anonymous

    this site has ads?

  • wax

    after years of hanging out on the interwebz, including the glorious early gopher days, I've pretty much filtered out from looking at ads on any site that carries them –

  • dean wermer

    besides dittoing anonymous, i.e., I really don't notice the ads on this site very much (which is a tribute to the presentation and content of the site, even though it might benefit CDM to get more clicks), the simple fix would be for google to adjust its policy so that you'd have to opt-in in order for political categorized ads to appear. An opt in for political ads seems appropriate to me, as featuring political ads suggests an endorsement in a way that featuring ordinary ads does not, and political views are deeply protected/held by content providers (so all google is doing by not providing an opt-in is pissing off its customers in a very strong manner).

  • David

    Political ads appear as an endorsement. When I've seen a political ad or view that I deeply disagreed with in the past, I stopped visiting the website. Google is responsible for the ads that they serve, and it is unconscionable that they do not provide an opt out.

  • Edmond

    I really love your site, first and foremost. But your vision seems to have been clouded by the sort of politics you preach against.

    Education Code section 51933 specifies that schools that teach
    "comprehensive sex education" have to teach "respect for marriage and
    committed relationships". This is something no school district can get

    School districts *do* have a choice as to whether they teach sex education at all. This is why Jack O'Connell said it's not a requirement. But he's using smoke and mirrors to hid the fact that 96% of schools DO teach it. I mean, come on. I learned it, and you probably did too.

    Do you think the Governor's proposed tax hike won't affect you because you can opt-out of buying things, thus skipping the sales tax?

    So, this "marriage" word is the crux of it. Even the major religious groups supporting Prop 8 believe in domestic partnership rights for gay couples. They just don't want their religious rights trampled as long as they're paying taxes. They want to be able to opt out.

    But according to the National Center for Lesbian Rights:

    "State law explicitly provides that 'instruction or materials that discuss
    gender, sexual orientation, or family life and do not discuss human
    reproductive organs and their functions' is not subject to the parental notice and opt-out laws. California Education Code § 51932(b)." (Pg.31)

    Let people have their rights to vote how they like, and please stop suggesting that 52% of voters, including those with children, are bigots.

    On with the music!

  • DEH


    Thanks so much for writing about this issue and sticking to your principles. It means so much to many of your readers. Rest assured that you are doing the right thing and we are with you.

  • This whole issue actually makes me upset enough about Google to reconsider buying an Android phone.

  • bp

    Over the years, I've spent several million $ via Google adwords as an advertiser through my day job.

    I can say, without question, that there has been a huge decline in the returns and quality of the Google channel especially in the past 2 years. I am certain they have loosened the rules and turned more of a blind eye to the fraud that have resulted in more noise in the system and lower quality standards in an attempt to drive revenue.

    Your post is spot on so I don't have much to add there but I just want to comment on one aspect from the advertisers point of view which may help fill in some other aspects of the cycle and how the ads end up on your site.

    An advertising creates an ad. The ad is linked to a page. Google is suppose to review the page to see if the ad 'matches' the page. Google has had limits in the past about what you can say in an ad as well but those seem to not as strict as they once where. So in theory that part is a closed loop; ad + landing page are relevant.

    Then the advertiser chooses keywords that they want to be associated with their ad. There is *no* relevancy link enforced there at all. The advertiser can associate any keyword they want with their ad. The advertiser in this case could have easily decided to buy music related keywords that would have triggered the ads to show up on your site. The sad part about this is when they pitch the relevancy to you the publisher, the control is mostly on the advertisers end. The theory is that an advertiser wants the tightly coupled relevancy.

    As a publisher you can use the competitive filter to filter out these ads but you have already discovered the many flaws in that.

    Beside keywords, another aspect which ads are displayed is how much the advertiser is willing to pay for that ad & the click through rate that the ad generates. Google is trying to maximize revenue after all so those two numbers are really the only thing that is important in the end. Your normal ads may be punted in favor of an ad with half the click through rate but 3x the per click price. Google also allows advertisers to buy to a ranking position so the advertising can say, I don't care how little my click through rate is, keep jacking the cost per click up so I stay visible (caps allowed, etc). My guess is that happened here. This would have completely firebombed the network if the advertiser was willing to pay for it (which they seemed to be willing to do).

    In the long run most advertisers can't afford to do this as the rate of return doesn't balance out, but in a campaign scenario, with a backer who is willing to fund as much as what will be consumed, there is no limits. Google should have stepped in and shut the account off and they clearly could have but failed to do so. Google will try to hide behind the machines & algorithms and that is defensible for small scale issues but there was tens of millions spent via Google so this wasn't some rogue account under the radar (and trust me, they know about most of those too).

    The true break down in their 'system' is Google doesn't limit the advertiser to 'relevant' keywords for said 'product'. Until they do, the system can be manipulated. The only checks against it are the publishers who make their voices heard and walk away from Google if they are not responded to. Google won't make that change otherwise as their is too much money at stake and all their actions are about driving more advertising & higher fees, not less. "Do no evil" is nice but when you work in advertising there is no way not to be evil eventually.

  • Gogmagog

    I'm going to play devil's advocate here, even though I'm for gay people having marriage rights.

    I understand your anger and frustration about not being able to filter out the ads quick enough, and of course it's your prerogative to choose a different ad vendor.

    You feel the ads weren't relevant to your site. However, if one considers the ads as being political, then one can see how they made there way onto this or any site. Google (and many people probably) view political ads, like PSA's, as applicable to everyone. The gotcha, of course, is that some political issues are more sensitive than others. Further, some political issue really push the boundary between being merely political "something more"; call them quasi-religious, quasi-moral, whatever.

    So, in Google's political advertising policy it states that it won't show ads that "advocate against a protected group." Advocate how? Advocate what? That's not even a legitimate sentence, and so is very ambiguous (Google's lawyers know what they're doing). I can, of course, understand how you feel that it is advocating against gay people, because I feel the same way. However (and this is really a very cursory summation), conservatives and others feel that since a union between people of the same sex is "unnatural" (their view), denying them marriage rights is to deny them something they never really had to begin with. Most people probably wouldn't really care if a law was passed that forbade them from surgically replacing all their bone marrow with jelly. We don't really expect that to be our "right."

    I tend to lean more liberal in my social views, but I make it a point to be tolerant of other people's opinions too. I have a strong suspicion this wouldn't have even been an issue if ads against prop eight were being shown on your web site.

    Lastly, in Google's defense I'll state the obvious: they are a huge business entity, one of the largest in the entire world. Things move slowly in those kinds of environments, even the automated ones. I'm sure there are very good reasons, technical and otherwise, why it can take several hours for a request for an ad filter to be processed.

  • Peter, ur doin it rong. You are not a customer of Google. Google is a customer of yours. They pay you for screenspace and thus eyeballs and theoretically clicks. This is a fundamental point. If you are an _advertiser_ you are a customer of Google, but as a publisher, you are selling a service to Google, not buying one from them.

    I feel this point is important, as it directly addresses almost everything you say. Ultimately, if you take the money, you also take the chance that comes with it. Google is the goose that laid the golden egg to most popular bloggers, but the simple fact of the matter is that (as you discovered) it is a single point source of failure. TANSTAAFL.

  • anders

    so – if you click on those ads do the people responsible for them pay money?

    What if you clicked on them all friggin day long?

    What is everyone clicked on them all day long?

  • bp


    Yes, if you click on them the advertisers pays. For blogs or sites that distribute the ads, they get a cut. So support a site by clicking the ads. However, if you have no intent on buying, perhaps better to click on ads for people you don't like or don't want to see their ads (drive down the ROI and the advertiser may stop, though it may also encourage them because people are clicking).

    Google is suppose to filter out fraud and that could be in the form of many repeated clicks on the ads from the same IP outside a usage deviation. My experience shows they are not as vigilant on this as they once where. I have also seen examples where the publisher may not get paid for what Google sees as invalid clicks but that may not necessary be passed on to the advertiser. The advertiser often has to call Google out on it but Google holds the cards and you have to find your own tools to monitor the activity.

    Still, if the click-through rate all of a sudden got way out of wack based on norms, then Google may take action on the publisher where the ads live. I seem to remember CR getting on the wrong side of them a few years back due to spikes on gear fridays.

  • GetBack

    We honestly don't care. This is a music website. Get back to covering digital music topics!

  • Perversely, I think the economic shock of the past couple of weeks allowed the Proposition 8 ads to appear on your site.

    The quality of Google's ad pool has dropped dramatically over the past few weeks. I have seen many ads in the last week or two that usually wouldn't run because they'd be outbid by higher quality campaigns.

    Google's definition of "relevance" differs from our use of the term. For them, it means presenting ads that maximize their revenue. In a healthy ad market, this usually translates into appropriate ads featuring music software and hardware. We perceive the match between advertisers and our interests as "contextual relevance." Since advertisers bid against each other to appear on a site, a smaller pool of advertisers will inevitably result in decreased relevance.

    Because of the downturn, many companies have scaled back their Google campaigns, and the Proposition 8 ads — which normally wouldn't have offered sufficient revenue to appear on CDM — suddenly hit the top of the heap.

  • Maybe the ads appeared because of the word "create," as in Creationism, the conservative right-wingers answer to Evolution.

  • I care, and i respect those sites who disabled their adsense during and after this blunder.

    I will be supporting Google less and less as I am able.

    The pure a simple point of the issue is the put the reputations of thousands of people on the line for chump change.

    The Android has built herself a lazer and is shooting beer cans off our front porch… time to unplug the hussy.

  • Eric

    I think this is being a bit overly dramatic. Look at it another way. If people against Prop 8 wanted to have their ads run by Google and Google told them "Sorry, no political ads". It seems likely to me that you would be complaining about how it is immoral and corrupt to erode their "right to free speech". That their views were getting the door shut on them.

    To be tolerant, you have to accept that other people have different beliefs than the ones you agree with. I think most people on this site probably agree that Prop 8 shouldn't have passed. Probably people seeing those ads didn't run out and vote on Prop 8. So the real bottom line here is that they weren't good ads for this site and people didn't click them. That means you didn't get as much ad revenue as you could have, and Google didn't get as much ad revenue as they could have.

    In the absence of serious human effort, the world would quickly slide off into chaos. People seem to forget that and assume that somehow the world would inherently be perfect and that when something goes wrong that the only explanation is that someone did something evil. The reality is that the good only happens through the hard work of people, and a mistake or glitch is the result of a person, such as myself, at work, making a mistake.

    So by all means, dump Google as your ad provider and sell your ad space to someone else if you feel they've done a poor job. The outrage should end there. Just because you passionately disagree with the opinions of several million unenlightened people doesn't make this the right course of overreaction in my opinion.

  • Flip


    "So, this “marriage” word is the crux of it. Even the major religious groups supporting Prop 8 believe in domestic partnership rights for gay couples."

    Ok, let's apply that to any other classic example of discrimination by changing one word:

    "So, this “marriage” word is the crux of it. Even the major religious groups supporting Prop 8 believe in domestic partnership rights for black couples."

    Do you get my drift? There is no such thing as "separate but equal". PLUS! There's always that pesky little thing about separation of church and state…

  • cubestar

    "Let people have their rights to vote how they like, and please stop suggesting that 52% of voters, including those with children, are bigots."

    Yeah, because there is never a time where the vast majority of a given population would ever indulge in what their children will one day consider repugnant behavior.

    Nope, no history of that in Amurika, not at all…

  • wkc

    Separation of church and state, okay. What about separation of church and education (which is mediated by the state)? Prop 8 is unjustifiable as long as the "civil union" taught and encouraged in grade schools is not identical to the one that is available to 100% of citizens irrelevant of sexual orientation.

  • MonksDream

    At the risk of being redundant I'll say what should be obvious from Peter's fist post on this subject: The content of the ads that ran, however one feels about it, is entirely irrelevant to this discussion. This is not about CDM's editorial views on same-sex rights.

    Google sells its service to both advertisers and publishers on the basis of relevance and suitability. The advertisers get exposure to interested eyeballs and the publishers get revenue from the response to the ads. This entire system is based on trust. Advertisers trust that their ads will be seen by potentially interested readers, and publishers trust that the ads on their sites will be relevant to their readers and that relevancy will be determined based on the content of their sites. It is clear that this system broke down or was abused. Peter, as a publisher, then found out that he had no real control to choose or modify what ads his site published and, to date, has had no response from the service provider, Google.

    Peter cannot trust that similarly unsuitable (by his definition) ads won't appear on his site or that he will have an effective way to deal with them, or the service provider, if that recurs. So, until that trust can be re-established his only recourse is to stop using the service. And he is well within his rights to complain about an unresponsive service provider. His views on Prop 8, or everyone else's for that matter, are entirely beside the point.

  • Thanks for the feedback, everyone.

    I can definitively say I'm not looking to make this topic a regular feature on the site, because it's outside our focus. But I think at least touching upon it is relevant to music, as the point I'm making is *not* about Prop 8 or gay marriage, but about the way Google delivers ads. If we can't count on ads being relevant — political ads appearing or otherwise — and if we can't count on Google to follow its own policy guidelines or provide adequate filtering options or respond to customer concerns, then we simply can't count on Google AdSense. And AdSense is by far the major provider of advertising to people publishing themselves on the Web. So I do think that's a big deal.

    The fact that this is a hot-button issue only brings that into sharper relief.

    I don't think this is an unfixable issue. As many have said, a "no political ads" filter for publishers would be a great place to start. I do like a lot of Google's products, and I'm happy to work with them again if they can remedy some of the shortcomings of their offering.

    @Eric: I never said Google shouldn't run political ads. The problem is, this isn't a political site. If Google replaced its ad revenue with a zillion ads for cat food on this site, that wouldn't be relevant, either. (Having experimented with other ad networks, I wouldn't be surprised – but I also know click rates would plunge to near-zero, seeing as this isn't Care for Digital Cats. Create Digital Marriage?)

    And as a publisher, I'm going to choose tools that let *me* choose when ads are and aren't appropriate. And when Google does run political ads, I think it's not unreasonable to expect Google to follow their own policy for that advertising. Google has very strict policies for publishers, and they adhere to those very closely. (Heck, they've been known to even de-list sites from the Google search engine for minor infractions.) So why did they let protectmarriage off the hook on their own policies?

    So, yeah, this discussion isn't terribly relevant to CDM. I'm not interested in telling the voters of California what to do — hence, I don't want this kind of ad. They're not relevant.

    This issue does deserve a free and open debate — hence ads on a music tech site aren't really the best place to debate the issue.

    @Edmond – see, this takes more than a headline to discuss. It doesn't belong in an ad. And the ad suggests that Proposition 8 impacts how this issue is taught. You're talking about CA's educational code, not Prop 8. As I understand it, they're two separate issues, and that's the opinion of the California Board of Education, too. If it's a gray area or up for debate, fine — that's even more reason not to have banners screaming one position on an unrelated site, a site for which I'm responsible.

    While I know many people tune out ads, I want the ads that are there to be there for a good reason. I want them to be, as Google describes, "useful" to readers. There's a long history of ad-supported publishing going back almost as long as the history of paper. Not everyone reads them, but enough do to allow advertising to help support better content. There's a place for it, and there's a way to do it right.

    I'm a big believer in transparency, which is why I raise this issue. We *will* move on to music issues again, but I think readers deserve to know what happened, what my response is, and why. If we're lucky, the folks running these ad systems are listening and the situation will improve — or, at least, we'll make more informed decisions about ad products, myself included.

  • Yeah, what MonksDream just said.

    I've said enough already, so I'll say what I said in fewer words:

    The ads weren't relevant.
    Google doesn't let us adequately filter ads.
    Google doesn't follow their own political ad policy (or it doesn't actually mean much).
    I have a choice in ad providers.

  • I think Chris Randall is correct. Google is a customer of yours. And it is always acceptable to refuse service to those customers who are a pain in the ass.

    Dump Google.

  • @Dave Hamel / @Chris Randall — well, whatever you call it, whoever is the buyer and whoever is the customers, absolutely, the partnership is mine to dump. The service is fundamentally flawed as it's operated now, so this is a no brainer.

    Google AdSense is most definitely dumped, at least until there's a remedy. In the meantime, looking at alternatives, and probably focusing more on selling ads ourselves.

  • kc!

    We decided to remove all Google ads from our magazine ( this week due to this issue and will most likely keep them off permanently moving forward until Google can get the problem fixed.

    Thank you for the insightful commentary!!

  • Well said, Peter. As a fellow content monetizer, I was (along with most of the rest of the web world that I frequent) shocked to find my sites absolutely bombarded with these hate speech ads. I did come to the realization that I could block their content, and will from now on try to be more pro-active about it next election cycle.

  • gwenhwyfaer

    Since you no longer have that ad revenue coming in, and since in any case I have AdBlock Plus installed, how can I send you a donation?

  • gwenhwyfaer

    Never mind – I found it. (Button at the bottom right of the Staff & Contributors page, for anyone else who's wondering.)

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  • Claude Ravel


    and seperation of church and state should include THE STATE not trampling on people's right to practice their religion. Teaching other peoples kids about sex in first and second grade is really fucked up the ass. Do you get my drift??

  • if you really want to see both sides of the issue, then Google is not to blame here, peter.

    prop 8 directly deals with defining marriage in the state's constitution. whether that law is discriminatory depends on your view of morality. so while the yes on 8 side is hoping to legislate their view of morality (and laws are morals in legal form), the no on 8 side interprets this as discrimination…

    Google was officially against prop 8, but they are not against free speech as long as it falls within their ad criteria.

    the criteria is clearly against discrimination of any kind, but it is not against what can possibly be interpreted as discrimination.

    if you see yes on 8 as a form of hate and discrimination, then you are forgetting the fact that neither side would have had anything stolen from them, merely a definition of a word. think about it… since it passed, gay couples possess no less legal rights under a civil union. if it hadn't passed, religious people would still be able to get "married."

    i'm speaking from the middle.

    if the christians behind this agenda stopped dragging jesus' name in the mud by considering the need to fix their own broken marriages, then we might actually have a group of people who are humble enough to engage in dialogue. as it stands, marriage is a fucking joke, and has become a tool for political power because christians don't understand their own faith in a spiritual kingdom, where right and wrong are formed on the inside of a person, not in a law.

    the gay couples offended by these christians have every right to be offended, because there is hypocrisy. but to interpret this law as hate is projecting more of a cultural sensitivity than it is a civil rights issue because, civilly, marriage and civil unions are almost the same (and Barack intends to make them absolutely the same, extending all federal rights to gay couples).

  • and i'm sorry, but you are completely right about the relevancy of the ads. yes on prop 8 ads we terribly managed, and Google should apologize for that.

    my point was just that google isn't to blame for running them.

  • janeoblivian

    did anyone see this? posted today:

    speaks to the horrible ways that google does business with customers.

    they need to be challenged.

  • I thought your site was about creating digital music, not about politics?

  • CDM has always covered the technologies musicians use — AdSense qualifies. A couple of people may think I'm overreacting, but I haven't heard any fundamental disagreement on that point: AdSense did not on any level provide "ads so well-matched, in fact, that your readers will actually find them useful."

    And whether I wanted it to or not, there's no question this particular political issue invaded the site Monday. As the comments indicate, there's a range of views on that issue, views that banners reading "Protect Traditional Marriage and Your Childs Education" [sic] can't begin to accommodate.

    If this were a political site, I'd have quite a lot more to say about Prop 8. But I return to Google's definition, as I think it's more than a reasonable line to draw — even if I would rather have had content-relevant, non-political ads in the first place. Google says it doesn't want ads that "advocate against a group." Saying the term "marriage" can't apply to one group of people is advocating against that group, and the opinion of numerous outside observers and the California courts was that *renaming* partnerships has legal implications, as well. I'm certainly not saying it's not the right of Californians to debate that issue. But the policy I'd want on this site, the policy Google claimed to follow but did not in this case, is that any advocacy working against one group of people is not welcome *on this site*.

    This isn't a political site, and Prop 8 itself isn't relevant. I won't shy away from politics when it is relevant. I think the politics of AdSense is more than relevant, when "future of music" panels constantly talk about a bright, shining future for ad-supported content. If we can't resolve how to control the ads, that future starts to look downright muddled.

  • And yeah, again, if Google can't provide contextual ads, if they can't follow their political editorial review policy consistently, if they can't provide adequate filtering, and if they don't respond promptly to feedback, they sure as hell are to blame.

    I'm not going to reach any larger conclusions about Google the company. At this point, I'm waiting to hear more from Google AdSense, and my hope is that they hear some of the feedback from me and many others.

    If you do want to hear both sides of the issue, I can certainly imagine people on the opposite side of this and other issues would likewise want some say in the category of ads that appear on their site, as well. And that's appropriate, because it means a basic level of control. That's obviously not censoring politics. It's making sure that political discourse happens in the arena you intend, rather than getting pushed in slogans into the margins of your site without your knowledge or consent.

  • AnotherReader

    I sure hope every manufacturer of every product you've ever mentioned on this blog has never bought components from sweatshops, or run sweatshops themselves. Or engaged in environmentally harmful profit-maximizing measures.

    Let's be real, most of these little plastic/metal boxes we play with are built by sweatshop "workers" who poison their backyards in order them cheap enough for us to find appealing. Even if you DIY, where did the components come from? Did you DIY the capacitors?

    And your blog makes people want to buy those little boxes, making the sweatshop owners richer and more powerful – increasing their ability to exploit the weak in what amounts to slavery.

    So yeah, you must be totally outraged that google was socially irresponsible. How could they have put those awful, horrible, hateful ads on 'your' site? The nerve of some people.

  • @AnotherReader: Okay, this is getting old.

    The ads were not relevant to this site.
    They violated Google's own policy for advertising.
    They advocated against a group of people in a way that many readers and I felt was inappropriate on the site.

    The sweatshop example has nothing to do with advertising or Proposition 8. I'm sensitive to that issue; that's why we've done discussion with the Monome creators about sustainable parts and (where possible) domestic development, prototyping, and assembly. But you've just changed the subject entirely, which suggests to me you didn't really read my argument, which has to do with how Google administers their ad service — not just for this one ad, but in general.

  • @Edmond:

    Education Code section 51933 specifies that schools that teach “comprehensive sex education” have to teach “respect for marriage and committed relationships”. This is something no school district can get around.

    So why didn't Proposition 8 supporters just write a proposition to amend the education code? Obviously because "think of the children" is a wedge tactic — as it usually is — to bypass voters' rational faculties so they'll support odious legislation.

    Even if it weren't supporting codified bigotry, the ad would still be insulting to the audience's intelligence with the "protect your children" angle. I think most bloggers would rather carry ads that respect their readers.

  • The amount of backwards arguments trying to justify opposition to gay marriage are breathtaking.

    It is a civil rights issue, period. Give people their rights. If you don't want to be gay, then don't be.

  • Swami Digital

    A concise description of the issues. Thanks for posting the whole story. It's really disappointing that Google is behaving this way. Their opaque method of dealing with this clearly makes them come across like a corporate giant not in touch with their customers or community, which is something they claim to strive not to be.


  • aWi

    There's a new blog post on the adsense blog: political ads on adsense sites . It looks like they will be adding to the Ads Review Center the ability to block categories of ads.

  • I'm really incensed at Google, in part because several Google execs put money on the No vote. They could have opted not to take the pro-8 money, but they did.

    Then they placed the ads not just here, but all over the place. I saw it on, for example. They don't allow any political content unless it's directly about credit reporting or debt collection.

    Anyhow, I think that this issue — and others — may hurt Google in the long run, but I will never forgive them for helping push the vote the other direction.

  • Tony

    Thank you, Peter, for the detailed thought and description around this issue. Your response and stand against institutionalized discrimination is appreciated.

    This is not over.

  • Flip

    @Claude Ravel: No, that is false. Separation of church and state is not a one way street. No one religion should dictate the law, plain and simple. I think you need to brush up on your civics.

    Furthermore, Do you want to know what's "fucked up the ass"? A society which in which one of the most natural acts in the world is taboo in education. If you feel strongly about making sure your kids are uneducated about human sexuality, send them to a private school. Plus, I don't know about you, but I wasn't in a sex education class till I was 13 years old. I highly doubt any public schools are showing first graders how to put on condoms.

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