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Google Policy: How to Walk the Fine (Grey) Line

Published: February 15, 2017

Author: Will Aronson

In the vast world of Google, there are various realms where marketers are left in a grey area. Google’s organic ranking algorithm is widely discussed and analyzed, but Google doesn’t provide the detailed explanation of which factors actually affect ranking and by how much. And though we know some core components of Quality Score, Google won’t reveal the whole recipe. With Google’s advertising policies, it’s a similar story. Though certain pieces of the policy are clear and well understood (no alcohol, gambling, or weapons), there are also grey areas that can cause confusion and uncertainty.

Let’s take a brief look at how policy is changing at Google and how you can better prepare for any potential run-ins with the policy police.

How is policy changing at Google?

The two biggest changes we’re seeing are that policy is being enforced more aggressively, and that there is more of it.
More and more advertisers are facing restrictions to their AdWords activity – be it ad disapprovals, restriction from running on the GDN, or other limitations – or in extreme cases being shut off altogether. Previously, an advertiser in an at-risk industry might be able to skate by for a good period of time, but we are now seeing swift and harsh action by Google to enforce its policies.
As data collection and privacy policies change across the globe, Google’s policies must follow suit, which means more policies with which advertisers must comply. And of course as Google introduces new products to AdWords, particularly those around the use of first-party data such as Customer Match, new advertising policies emerge.
Because of these changes, it is more important than ever to stay on top of any new policy changes at Google, and if any threaten your activity, be fully prepared and ensure compliance as soon as possible. The grace period that may have previously existed between when a new policy was announced and when it was actually enforced (and how aggressively) is a thing of the past.
One thing that is not changing is the degree of visibility that advertisers are given into policy decisions. As has long been the case, Google’s policy team operates as its own entity, clearly separate from other Google support and account management teams. Though your account teams can provide information on policy (see more below), they don’t have full insight into the actions of the policy team and cannot always give clear information on why policy decisions were made. This can be a scary prospect for companies that toe Google’s policy line but want to be sure they stay in compliance.

How should you handle policy concerns?

So, if you’re in an at-risk industry, how should you move forward?
1) First and foremost, as mentioned above, make sure you are staying up to date on all of Google’s policy announcements and changes. After all, if you don’t know what the policies are, how else can you ensure you are in compliance? Keep an eye on Google’s advertising policy page – it includes a detailed description of all existing policies, plus a handy tab with recent and upcoming changes. Bookmark it.
In addition, listen to your Google account teams, who have this kind of insight as well. Your Google teams should be able to share information around upcoming policy changes that might impact you, and it can never hurt to ask them directly to alert you of any upcoming changes.
2) Once you know that your account is at risk or that policy changes are on the horizon, communication in advance with Google is essential. Though the policy team operates separately from the Google teams that advertisers interact with on a regular basis, account teams can be very helpful in providing guidance around how to comply as they do have a degree of familiarity with policy that advertisers often do not. We have had our account teams review ad copy or landing pages, for example, and they have helped us mold language to ensure compliance.
Though working with Google and keeping an eye out for policy change information available will help, it’s not a failsafe. There are gaps between what your account team can or will provide in terms of guidance, and what the policy team will ultimately look for.
3) Along with working closely with Google to ensure compliance, it’s important to work very closely with your (or your client’s) legal and development teams. They will be responsible for approving and executing any on-site changes for compliance purposes, so staying in lock-step with those teams is essential to complying with Google’s policies in advance.
4) Finally, beyond directly protecting yourself from penalty by Google, it’s important to make sure your portfolio of marketing activity is in position where a potential hit to Google activity will not greatly impact your business’s bottom line. This means diversification. Ensure that you’ve enabled all other relevant marketing channels so you have a diverse baseline of activity for your business. SEO, Bing search, display, social, native, and email are all high-volume channels that can help create that baseline. This will minimize your exposure and protect against the impact of a Google policy violation. Getting hit with a policy violation is painful on its own, but when Google comprises the majority of your incoming traffic and conversion volume, it’s that much more painful. Diversification is key.
This grey area means Google policy can be a scary place to navigate, but with advance preparation for upcoming changes, and a watchful eye, issues can easily be avoided. And if violations do occur, remain nimble – remember that there are always other avenues to achieve your marketing goals if Google makes it more difficult to do so. Flexibility in those times is invaluable. However, I have found that Google genuinely wants to help its advertisers remain in compliance, so it’s perfectly fine to rely on their support and guidance throughout.

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