Brand Safety Strategies for Google Ads Display Campaigns

Here’s a classic problem for display advertising: brand safety.

That’s an almost-big word for a very simple concept: if you’re showing ads on random websites (or videos or apps… anywhere) if your ad appears on a page that is embarrassing to the advertising–then uh oh, you’re in big trouble.

Just think through some cases:

  • Your brand is not-evil, but it appears on a site for some evil-cause, like those evil supremacists.
  • You’re a politician and you’re ad appears in a community with the opposite ideology.
  • You’re advertising a product plastic, and your ad appears on a page that is against plastic.
  • Your brand is peaceful and it appears on a page with a news article all about violence.
  • Your brand wants to be young and cool, and it appears on a very uncool, grandma-targeted website.
  • Your brand doesn’t want to be on a spammy, sketchy-looking page Just Because.

And so forth.

You might think: it’s just an impression, no big deal!

But that’s not what your client will think–particularly if it’s a huge client or a mid-sized or larger agency. They care deeply.


Because in this day and age, online embarrassment is common and easy–and it’s very easy for one of a few embarrassing situations to happen, like a viral campaign start against your brand because that’s where it was seen, or an executive there himself to see an ad on an inappropriate place and get angry. Or more commonly and in a more pedestrian way, no brand wants to be associated with elements that it considers to be against the brand identity.

How do you solve this?

Unfortunately, Adwords and the Programmatic platforms don’t have a brand identity button to watch out for this–precisely because they can’t read your brand’s mind to know who it considers to be off-target. (And if it made it easy to stop showing ads on spammy pages, then 80% of ads wouldn’t get shown!)

There are two techniques I often use to maximize brand safety.

The first is that, in Adwords, there are a few options to eliminate certain categories of sites: you can exclude violent sites, error pages, and a bunch of other site types. I often turn those in order to eliminate all of those sorts of risks.

One of those options that are noteworthy is the forum option: I tend to exclude forums. Why? You never know what someone will write on a random post page, not edited or reviewed by anyone–so the probability of embarrassment skyrockets there.

The second option I use is by focusing on a managed placements-first approach.

Managed Placements is the option where you can just upload the list of sites, directories within sites, or specific pages within sites, on which you want your ads to display. That’s usually in addition to all the other ad targeting display options.

Managed Placements are a powerful solution to the Brand Safety problem. Why? Because you literally find and choose every site you’d want your ads to appear on, so you can limit it as much as you want.

But there’s a downside to using managed placements for brand safety purposes: it is time-consuming to find and review each site. Very time-consuming. You have a list of 7,400 sites? Ah! That only took you 600 hours to compile, but now someone else needs to spend 500 more hours ensuring they conform to the client’s Brand Safety standards.

There’s only one way I know to make that process easier: working with a partner that specializes in this, like (Cool exact-match domain, btw!). They compile the lists of sites, understand the brand safety imperatives in general and for each client, and review each brand to ensure it complies with the corresponding brand safety expectations.

It’s actually interesting: their platform focuses primarily on finding on-target, non-spammy safe placements. The “brand safety” component, at first, seemed secondary to me.

But as I used the system more, it (slowly?) dawned on me that the brand safety angle of it is front and central and of deep importance. They actually took this sort of double-checking I’d always do and automated the hell out of it.

As a result? I’m now a fan and use their Managed Placements platform as a brand safety implementation tactic. You may want to give it a shot, too.

Or you could also try doing it one by one yourself manually. See you in 19 months!

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