How to solve the conundrum of Google

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Tom Laranjo, managing director at Total Media Ltd
Tom Laranjo, managing director at Total Media Ltd

There are three factors to consider when assessing the challenge Google faces in policing the content on its sites, says Total Media's managing director.

It is no great surprise to witness much of the world’s media angrily lobbing accusations at Google regarding their seeming lack of action in protecting brands from having their advertising appear next to extreme content.

As the preeminent global, digital brand, Google has had things their own way for a long time and, as any market leader will attest, when you are out in front of the pack there is no one to hide behind when things go wrong.

My job is not to defend Google or its tactical mistakes in addressing this issue. However neither is it my job to pitch incendiary or over-simplistic accusations at Google just to be seen to be on the "right" side of the issue. My job, and what our clients demand of us, is to provide a considered and objective view.

With this goal in mind, assessing the challenge that Google face in policing content on their sites, one needs to consider three factors – societal, business and technological.

Societal: Citizen regulation

As a typical Guardian-reading, liberal lefty my immediate reaction to the current news cycle around Google is "be careful what you wish for."

Demands for Google to better regulate content loaded onto their site and to determine what content is appropriate for brands is not something that should be at the sole discretion of Google.

According to comScore, the average person in the UK spends about 19 percent of all minutes online within a Google property. Therefore Google wield an unparalleled influence over what we see and what we "know."

The one saving grace of this is that people are asked to help police the content on these properties. This format, though imperfect, allows for people to have a stake in what content should be deemed appropriate and not to have this determined for them.

My own politics would have me remove a host of content from many a website, some mainstream, but I would be loath to have a company choose for all of us what content is OK and what is not. Many of the same journalists now attacking Google are the very same journalists who, rightly, argued recently that Facebook should not act as a global super-editor when they tried to apply more aggressive algorithms to determining what content Facebook can host or refer to.

Between them, Facebook and Google are responsible for 32 percent of our time online and we should beware journalists, agencies and brands demanding action before considering all the implications beyond advertising.

Business: Performance is key

The second issue around content policing is one of business performance. A media advertising agency’s primary role is to deliver content to the right audience to stimulate action (sale, top of mind awareness, online search etc.) at the most cost effective price.

Google are almost uniquely able to satisfy this objective and have been able to dominate the digital advertising landscape.

To, at a stroke, remove all advertising from Google’s many channels would result in significant increases in cost to many of our clients and have a pretty immediate effect on their campaign’s performance. For a short period of time, for PR purposes and to showcase action, I can see the appeal of a suspension of activity. This is precisely the time not to have a knee-jerk reaction, but to collaborate with Google and our clients to review appropriate safeguards, but defend business performance.

One of my media peers is fond of talking about the power of business memory and on this point I agree. At a time of crisis, a willingness of businesses and agencies to cooperate rather than castigate may herald improved future relations between Google – who have often been accused of hubris and arrogance – and the advertising industry.

Technology: Elevate the evaluation

The final consideration is technological. No technology or safeguard is 100 percent reliable or bullet proof. Any claim otherwise is either naive or misleading. This though does not mean that we are powerless to act.

Viewability, brand safety and semantic filters can be and are applied to most digital advertising campaigns. Further options include the application of black lists or indeed white lists where agencies and brands can be very specific about those websites we want to be on and those we do not.

Now is a great time to elevate the evaluation of the capabilities and limitations of these technologies and agree how we must look to improve on all the tools at our disposal. This though will not be best achieved through a monologue from Google or indeed any one agency or brand.

What will push the standards up is multilateral cooperation, development and dialogue where all stakeholders – brands, agencies, technology providers and publishers – push each other to do better and better. Total Media, for one, is not sitting here idly waiting for Google to tell us how to solve this issue.

Getting the balance right

So, to recap. A broader societal conversation about who has the right to determine what content is OK and what is not. A sensible business conversation about how to maintain performance while improving standards. A multilateral effort by all stakeholders to improve the technology that supports safe viewing experiences. These are the tools I think we have at our disposal to improve the experience for brands and more importantly for consumers.

I do not expect this view to surface above the shouts for action and punishment. However I do think this is where we will end up in the near future. Our agency might just start a little sooner than the majority of others.

Balance may not be sexy, but more often than not, it’s the right approach.

—Tom Laranjo is the managing director at Total Media Ltd.