Google’s YouTube Ad Practices Under Fire for Misleading Advertisers

Google allegedly misled advertisers regarding the positioning and visibility of their YouTube video ads on third-party websites and apps. As a result, media buyers may have lost billions of dollars as their digital ad budgets were spent on subpar video ad formats, such as small, muted, auto-playing, or interstitial units on independent websites and mobile apps

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Google‘s ad business faces scrutiny once again as revelations from a recent Adalytics report expose the tech giant’s violation of its own standards and cast doubt on the transparency of its advertising practices. Over the span of several years, Google allegedly misled advertisers regarding the positioning and visibility of their video ads on third-party websites and apps. These advertisers include Fortune 500 brands, the US federal government, and numerous small businesses.

Google’s TrueView skippable in-stream video ads, which are a proprietary offering, did not adhere to the company’s own quality standards. As a result, media buyers may have lost billions of dollars as their digital ad budgets were spent on subpar video ad formats, such as small, muted, auto-playing, or interstitial units on independent websites and mobile apps.

Let’s first understand what TrueView in-stream ads are and how they work!

Google’s TrueView in-stream ads

TrueView in-stream ads are a type of video advertising format offered by Google. These ads are designed to be displayed either before or during a YouTube video, allowing users the choice to either watch the ad or skip it after 5 seconds. TrueView ads follow a cost-per-view model, meaning that advertisers only pay when a viewer chooses to watch their ad, rather than paying for impressions.

Google’s policies explicitly state that TrueView ads must be skippable, audible, and not initiated solely by passive user scrolling.

These revelations raise concerns about the transparency of Google’s advertising practices, leaving advertisers and industry observers questioning the company’s adherence to its own quality standards.

How Google Misplaced TrueView In-Stream Ads

A major infrastructure brand’s budget distribution for their YouTube TrueView in-stream ad campaign revealed a significant discrepancy. Approximately 16% of their TrueView skippable in-stream video ad budget was allocated to or YouTube’s apps, while the majority of the budget was directed towards the extensive Google Video Partner (GVP) network, encompassing tens of thousands of different websites and mobile apps.

However, a noteworthy observation was made regarding the majority of these GVP mobile apps and websites. They displayed TrueView skippable in-stream video ads in formats that deviated from the expected standards, including out-stream, muted, auto-playing, interstitial, and non-visible ad slots. These formats are inconsistent with the intended TrueView or skippable in-stream ad format. This discrepancy highlights a significant misalignment between the brand’s advertising objectives and the actual implementation of its video ads across the GVP network.

After examining specific ad placements, Adalytics, an ad performance analysis platform, presented some examples of TrueView skippable in-stream ad placements to advertisers and media buyers. These examples uncovered a troubling disparity between advertisers’ expectations and the actual reality of the placements. Several dozen marketers expressed their dissatisfaction, stating that had they been fully informed about these placements beforehand, they would not have chosen to invest in this inventory for their TrueView skippable in-stream ads on third-party platforms. Marketers were particularly taken aback and disappointed by the fact that the video ads were played in a muted manner, contradicting their understanding of the intended user experience of TrueView ads.

What makes this situation more noteworthy is that both YouTube and Google have explicitly outlined in their policies that TrueView in-stream ads must be skippable, audible, and initiated by viewer action. However, reports from brands and advertisers, including prominent Fortune 500 companies, indicate that a significant portion of their TrueView in-stream ad budget, ranging from 42% to 75%, was allocated to sites and apps within the Google Video Partner (GVP) network that failed to meet Google’s own standards. This raises concerns about the adherence of the GVP network to Google’s stated guidelines and the implications for advertisers’ campaigns.

Many media buyers were left in a state of surprise upon realizing that a major portion of their advertising budgets, particularly within a so-called “walled garden” environment, was directed towards muted, auto-playing video ads on third-party websites like and Furthermore, funds were also allocated to foreign-developed Android mobile gaming apps designed for toddlers, which deviated from the expected target audience and brand suitability.

Upon review, Adalytics discovered that numerous TrueView skippable “in-stream” ads were delivered on sites and apps where the ad placements violated Google’s own definitions of in-stream. The observed characteristics of these placements included:

  1. Ads displayed in small, out-stream video players positioned in the corner or side of the user’s device viewport.
  2. Ads presented in fully muted video players, depriving viewers of audio engagement.
  3. Instances where consecutive TrueView ads were displayed with minimal or no video content between them.
  4. Video ads auto-playing without any viewer interaction or initiation.
  5. Ads playing continuously in a loop, potentially leading to repetitive and intrusive viewing experiences.

A digital advertising professional who previewed the report expressed concerns about the practice of repackaging low-quality, brand-unsafe out-stream ads as in-stream, describing it as a significant problem and even questioning its legitimacy.

Furthermore, Adalytics identified instances where multiple TrueView skippable in-stream ads were simultaneously rendered on a user’s device and cases where these ads were stacked on top of each other.

Additionally, some placements intentionally obscured or hid the “Skip” button outside the user’s viewport, preventing viewers from exercising their choice to skip the ad after the designated 5-second period. This action directly violated Google’s own quality standards for TrueView ads. Such tactics may have artificially inflated video completion rates for TrueView skippable in-stream ads, potentially leading to higher costs for Google’s advertisers.

These findings indicate a serious deviation from Google’s stated quality standards and raise concerns about the integrity of TrueView ad placements, potentially resulting in negative impacts for advertisers and higher expenses associated with their campaigns.

According to a media buyer who had early access to the research, they expressed their views to Adalytics regarding the findings. The buyer explained that it is uncommon for advertisers to intentionally choose audience networks within platforms like YouTube, as these networks typically offer lower-quality inventory. The buyer suggested that YouTube and Google might be using this approach as a method to secure additional budget from advertisers and create the impression of reaching a larger audience. This strategy may be successful because it takes advantage of advertisers’ limited understanding of the situation.

Among the notable brands that may have unknowingly purchased muted, auto-playing, and misrepresented TrueView skippable in-stream inventory are The Wall Street Journal, The United States federal government (including the Department of Health & Human Services), The European Parliament, Johnson & Johnson, The New York City municipal government, HP, Ernst & Young, Newark, Delaware Police Department, JPMorgan Chase Bank, American Express, Samsung, Disney Plus, Mercedes-Benz, Microsoft, IBM, and many others, totalling 131 brands in total.

During the observation, it was discovered that Google had been displaying brands’ TrueView ads on websites that had received numerous copyright violation takedown requests, implying that these sites may be associated with piracy. This raises concerns regarding brand safety and casts doubts on the validity of Google’s TAG Certification and MRC Brand Safety accreditation.

According to Google’s policies, the company claims to comply with valid copyright requests and takes action to remove infringing content. However, it seems that Google allows repeat offenders of copyright infringement to continue generating revenue through TrueView ads.

Additionally, it was observed that Google delivered thousands of TrueView ads to declared bots originating from Google Cloud data center servers. Since 2016, YouTube has not allowed independent third-party measurement and verification tags to be applied to its advertising inventory.

Ad campaign placement reports for TrueView skippable in-stream ads have uncovered a puzzling discovery. Some of the mentioned mobile apps and websites in these reports seem to be either non-existent or completely devoid of any ads. This intriguing revelation raises suspicions about Google’s placement reporting tools. Could these tools be plagued by software bugs, rendering their data unreliable? Or is there a more insidious possibility that invalid ad traffic is manipulating the system, deceiving advertisers in the process? The plot thickens as advertisers delve deeper into this enigma, seeking answers to unravel the mysteries behind their ad placements.

The implications of these findings extend beyond mere budgetary concerns. Advertisers and industry professionals are left questioning the integrity of Google’s advertising practices and the extent to which their campaigns are truly reaching their intended audiences. Now only time will tell how this unfolding saga will reshape the future of advertising and the relationships between advertisers and tech giants like Google.


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