Two weeks after companies began yanking ads from YouTube because they were popping up next to hateful videos, Google is trying yet again to halt the crisis.
Alphabet Inc.’s main division is introducing a new system that lets outside businesses verify ad quality standards on its video service, while expanding its definitions of offensive content.
A slew of major marketers halted spending on YouTube and Google’s digital ad network after ads were highlighted running alongside videos promoting hate, violence and racism. Google’s initial response, a promise of new controls for marketers, failed to stymie the boycott.
The crisis ignited a simmering debate in digital advertising over quality assurance, or “brand safety,” standards online.
Google since as improved its ability to flag offending videos and immediately disable ads, Chief Business Officer Philipp Schindler told Bloomberg News in a recent interview. Johnson & Johnson, one of largest advertisers to pull spending, said it is reversing its position in most major markets.
Since the boycott began, Google has allocated more of its artificial intelligence tools to deciphering YouTube’s enormous video library. The company is a pioneer in the field and has used machine learning, a powerful type of AI, to improve many of its products and services, including video recommendation on YouTube and ad-serving.
Automatically classifying entire videos, then flagging and filtering content is a more difficult, expensive research endeavor — one that Google hasn’t focused on much, until now.
“We switched to a completely new generation of our latest and greatest machine-learning models,” Schindler said. “We had not deployed it to this problem because it was a tiny, tiny problem. We have limited resources.”
In talks with big advertising clients, Google discovered the toxic YouTube videos flagged in recent media reports represented about one one-1,000th of a percent of total ads shown, Schindler said.
Still, with YouTube’s size, that can add up quickly. And the attention on the issue coincided with mounting industry pressure on Google, the world’s largest digital ad-seller, for more rigid measurement standards. A frequent demand has been for Google to let other companies verify standards on YouTube.
Google is allowing this now, creating a “brand safety” reporting channel that lets YouTube ads be monitored by external partners such as comScore Inc. and Integral Ad Science Inc., according to a company spokeswoman.
Google has made quick progress on its own, he said. Using the new machine-learning tools, and “a lot more people,” the company in the last two weeks flagged five times as many videos as “non-safe,” or disabled from ads, than before.
“But it’s five (times) on the smallest denominator you can imagine,” Schindler said. “Although it has historically it has been a very small, small problem. We can make it an even smaller, smaller, smaller problem.”
James Cakmak, an analyst at Monness Crespi Hardt & Co., said the advertising imbroglio may end up benefiting Google because people’s online engagement “has segmented in two arenas. You can’t just ignore a platform with one billion-plus users indefinitely.”
People spend time either on major platforms or niche destinations, Cakmak wrote in a note to investors.
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“The channels of engagement should become abundantly clear, with dollars allocated accordingly. This is good news for the two sides of the spectrum, but everyone in between is likely to get squeezed, with at least a portion of the dollars, if not half or more, going to platforms like Google,” he noted.