- Google created Google Preferred as a way for advertisers to run ads in the top content on YouTube. But advertisers have found lots of problematic content in the Preferred lineup.
- As more ad buyers dig into what’s really for sale through Google Preferred, there’s a growing sense among some that Google oversold the premium, brand-safe nature of these videos.
- Google has been purging some channels from Preferred, but advertisers still find their ads next to questionable videos, including clips with foul language, sexually explicit talk, and content aimed at kids.
- “This is not TV,” said one ad buyer upset about the content. “Not even close.”
If you’ve spent any time on YouTube, you know there’s something for everybody.
Sometimes the videos are weird.
There’s a series of videos on the channel called Heroes Team that feature people dressed as Spider-Man and Elsa from Disney’s “Frozen” having a baby together. Sometimes the humor is racist, like a recent clip posted in a video-game channel called Cloud9 Mango in which a fan at a Philadelphia Eagles game is described as “Asian as f–k.”
Often, they’re sexual, too. Ballroom Throwbacks features videos of dance-offs with the performers in various states of undress. Here’s a link – but it’s definitely not safe for work.
It’s the internet. There are far worse things out there.
But for advertisers who pitch their products on YouTube, these kinds of videos are a nightmare. Worse, all the channels, at one time or another, have been part of something called Google Preferred. It’s an ad offering launched about five years ago as a way for marketers to run ads on the top channels on YouTube. You can see why they’d have a problem with this. After being assured their products would be pitched against premium content – and charged more for it – marketers are now saying that Google Preferred is full of landmines. They cite videos they didn’t expect to be considered premier content or those that slip through Google’s filters and wind up accompanying their ads.
The Cloud9 Mango videos, for example, remain part of the Preferred lineup. Over the past week, Business Insider spotted ads proceeding these videos for Universal Parks and Resorts, including one touting The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.
In the minds of many in the ad industry, Google Preferred was supposed to be the closest thing to buying ads on TV that YouTube had to offer.
- It promised a clean, well-lighted environment for brand advertising, the kinds of ads that have typically run on national TV – like sexy car ads and commercials for the Gilettes, Budweisers, and Cokes of the world.
- They say that Google presented Google Preferred as a way to run ads next to videos only from the best YouTube creators, a group of born-on-YouTube influencers increasingly popular among teens and young adults.
- With Preferred, Google was seen as vouching for these channels
Losing some control
In reality, Google Preferred is all over the map in quality. And because the channels featured in Preferred are selected by an algorithm, advertisers don’t always know what they’re getting.
“When you commit to this, you get what Google defines as premium, and you lose some control,” said Jeff Liang, the chief digital officer at ad-buying agency Media Assembly. “I don’t think advertisers understand how the algorithm works. Unlike TV where you know exactly what the show is about, you still don’t have that control with YouTube. You don’t know where your ads are going to end up.
“If you talk to Google, they’ll say, ‘We have a lot of YouTube stars,'” Liang added. “Brands don’t know who they are, so this collates them for you. But in terms of how big Preferred actually is, that’s very difficult to get from these guys. That’s something they don’t really share. You’re really trusting them. The brand-safety issue is absolutely a problem for them.”
Some advertisers and their agencies say this goes beyond a problem for Google. They argue that Google Preferred has not lived up to its premium billing. Many ad buyers spoke with Business Insider on condition of anonymity because, they said, they did not want to damage their relationship with a crucial partner like Google.
These buyers said they felt misled by Google, and they’re not happy. Google says it removes channels that aren’t appropriate and that it is working on giving the brands more control over what the ads run against. Some of the ad buyers said they give the company credit for its response, but that doesn’t keep them from worrying that they could see their wholesome pitch running into trouble.
The year of brands living dangerously
Ever since the subject of “brand safety” blew up earlier this year – after a string of bombshell stories from the Times of London and The Wall Street Journal found lots of big brands’ ads next to ISIS videos, clips with Nazi jokes, or anti-Semitic fare – advertisers are scrutinizing everything.
That led to several big ad agencies to dig a lot deeper into what kind of content is featured in Google Preferred and whether brands even belong there.
They say that Google did not actually know the extent of the videos that were featured in Google Preferred – and the company does not have an actual person watch every video in every Preferred channel. But they add that Google has dragged its feet on providing detailed reporting on Preferred campaigns.
Yes, Google Preferred does provide ad space next to videos produced by top popular YouTube creators. But since the start of the year, many ad buyers have found that Preferred also features:
- videos with sexually explicit discussions.
- foul language and misogynistic talk.
- a significant amount of content aimed at kids but that could attract adults.
- a fair amount of content that is not in English, which matters to advertisers marketing in English.
- a large number of videos featuring adults dressed as kids characters that border on the bizarre.
To be clear, the types of ISIS and outright hate videos that set off alarms earlier in the year (which led to a large YouTube-ad boycott) are generally not making it into the Preferred algorithm. More often, brands are concerned about whether the videos showcased on the Preferred channels are appropriate for their brands. Of course what is appropriate is highly subjective and differs by advertiser.
“We built Google Preferred to help our customers easily reach YouTube’s most passionate audiences, and we’ve seen strong traction with a record number of brands using it this year,” said Debbie Weinstein, the managing director of YouTube and video solutions. “When we’re made aware of channels that don’t belong in this offering, we remove them, and are looking into ways to offer our brand partners even more control for what they buy next year.”
Regardless, a growing number of top agencies say they feel as though Google Preferred is not what it was billed to be. It’s likely why several top advertisers, including AT&T and Chase, have yet to return to running ads on YouTube.
How YouTube sold Preferred
- Getty Images/Imeh Akpanudosen
At its annual Brandcast event in New York in 2014, Google formally introduced Preferred. Outside the event, teen fans lined up to see the YouTube star Bethany Mota, known for her fashion tips and life advice.
The message was clear: YouTube has a growing number of clean-cut stars making videos you may not know about, Mr. or Mrs. Media Buyer, but your kids probably do.
During the show, Google explained Preferred features the top 5% of channels on YouTube in a variety of categories, ranging from gaming to comedy to parenting. The channels are selected using an algorithm that factors in popularity, how long people stay on these channels, how often they share content, and other forms of engagement.
“We know that content matters,” said then president of Google Americas, Margo Georgiadis, at the event. “So we curated Google Preferred. It’s the top 5% of content on YouTube in areas like food [and] music”
“You can think of it like prime-time television,” said YouTube product manager Meredith Bailey.
Except that in prime-time television, ad buyers know exactly where their ads are going to run. Agencies even get flagged ahead of time when big network shows are going to feature hot-button issues like, say, teen pregnancy or gun safety, in case they want to steer their advertisers away from such very special episodes.
That level of detail wasn’t initially part of Preferred, which features about 9,000 channels, according to people familiar with the matter. In fact, some agencies say it’s only this year that Google has discussed which channels are actually in Preferred in any real detail.
At the 2014 presentation, Google executives focused on talking up budding YouTube stars like Zoella and Michelle Phan. The web-video company Soul Pancake even spoke about how YouTube helped bring recognition to a talented young performer with a terminal illness.
And if advertisers left the event and didn’t ask too many questions, they likely came away with the idea that Google Preferred allowed them to buy ads alongside the most popular young creators on the platform. And many over the past few years started moving TV ad budgets to YouTube.
What really irks ad buyers about YouTube
From Google’s point of view, Google Preferred was designed primarily to make it easier for TV buyers to understand the vastness of the platform. It was about the most popular content on YouTube, not necessarily a handpicked package of brand-friendly videos.
But it’s the idea that Google used the word “curate” that bothers some buyers. “That’s total bulls–t,” one said.
Along with the TV analogy, “This is not TV,” another buyer said. “Not even close.”
You can buy web-video ads on the open internet for about $10 to reach 1,000 people. Yet YouTube Preferred commands ad prices that are double or triple that and often comparable to at least cable TV. The difference being, as one ad buyer remarked, “Their inventory really sucks.”
Then there’s this blurb from Google’s industry blog (emphasis added):
Google Preferred aggregates YouTube’s top content, such as Michelle Phan and Good Mythical Morning, into easy-to-buy packages for brand advertisers.
Google Preferred offers brand advertisers access to the most popular YouTube channels among U.S. 18- to 34-year-olds. Brands using Google Preferred choose from 12 lineups-or packages of channels-across categories such as Beauty & Fashion, Entertainment & Pop Culture, or Foods & Recipes and share their messages alongside some of the most engaging and brand safe content on YouTube.
Buyers say that Google has recently backed off the idea that they promise brand safety with Preferred. One reason: Google doesn’t watch every video on every Preferred channel.
Eyes wide open
For the first few years that Google Preferred was for sale in the market, most advertisers “didn’t pay a lot of attention to what their agency ended up buying,” said Andreas Goeldi, chief technology officer at the video-analytics firm Pixability.
“There was a cascade of ignorance,” Goeldi said. “YouTube looks like a well-lit place. If Google says it’s fine, it’s definitely fine.”
Since early this year, when all the brand-safety issues came to light, marketers have been on high alert and asking harder questions. “They are really overwhelmed with the granularity on YouTube,” he said. Naturally, he recommends buying YouTube ads with the help of a third party.
That’s why right now several ad agencies and tech companies have junior staffers poring through every YouTube clip carrying their clients’ ads. More than one media buyer said they have had to alert their IT department that they may end up watching questionable content as a result.
The tech marketer HP recently pored through the channels it was advertising on YouTube via Preferred and ended up removing 1,400 channels “to bring the network up to a higher qualitative standard, leaving 7,400 of the best channel available to run on,” said Dan Salzman, HP’s global head of media, analytics and insights. “HP is asking for increased transparency into the quality and nature of the content prior to an ad being run especially if Google Preferred is sold as a premium video opportunity.”
Google has also spent part of 2017 purging some channels from Preferred. And in September the company finally rolled out video-by-video-level reporting for advertisers so that they can find out exactly where their ads will run.
That should make agencies happy, though it will give them a lot of data to dig through on YouTube ad campaigns.
“We at GroupM, on behalf of our many clients who use Google Preferred, are pleased with the partnership and improvements Google has shown in the Google Preferred offering over the past year,” said Susan Schiekofer, chief digital investment officer at the ad-buying giant GroupM, in a statement.
“Our next step of improvement is to continue to work toward reporting on video level, not channel, reporting for each campaign. Google is moving this work forward and this will allow our reporting to be even more granular. We believe the work we have done together delivers the best of Preferred within our brand safety standards.”
Before this year’s purge, buyers have been conducting their own Google Preferred deep dives. “The first time we did the audit,” said one buyer. “It was bad. Really bad.”
That Google Preferred requires so much policing is what irks many ad buyers. After all, it is called Preferred.
The very gray areas
And to be sure, the content in some Preferred videos could be compared to advertisers sponsoring Howard Stern or edgy cable shows like FX’s “You’re the Worst.” Brand safety can be very much in the eye of the beholder.
Take SevenSuperGirls, which features a group of wholesome teenage girls cheerleading, going to the beach, and doing all sorts of fun things. Their videos frequently generate millions of views. And based on the comments section, they seem to have lots of young fans.
Business Insider founds ads for Capital One on this channel.
Not appropriate for any brand
But Comedy Central’s Tosh 2.0 recently argued that channels like this one could be popular among creepy old men. That kind of attention makes advertisers nervous. One buyer called it “child exploitation.”
And then there’s the world of Elsa, Spider-Man, and the Joker. There are tons of videos on YouTube featuring adults dressed up as these characters, getting into all sorts of mischief. These videos are frequently featured on Google Preferred channels like Toy Monster and Heroes Team.
While The New York Times recently reported on kids being tricked into watching adult-themed videos on the YouTube kids app, these channels seem aimed at a broad audience on YouTube.
YouTube is cracking down on channels using kids characters in questionable ways, reported The Verge. In the meantime, advertisers debate whether their brands should or shouldn’t be alongside this surprising popular content. But these channels are still in Preferred.
Some see videos that are just plain weird while others seem something more nefarious. “I don’t think these videos are appropriate for any brand,” said one buyer.
Credit for taking it seriously
Ad buyers credit Google for taking the Preferred criticism seriously.
“They are really trying,” said one top ad executive.
Google is also planning to overhaul how it packages Google Preferred in 2018, according to people familiar with the matter. Ad buyers acknowledge that given the ongoing decline in TV ratings, particularly among young consumers, they’ll have little choice but to continue advertising on YouTube, albeit with lots of caution.
“The way we address it is brand by brand,” Liang said. “All have different risk tolerances.”