Why, Now More Than Ever, Keyword Blocking Needs Fixing

Eighty percent of ads served on premium news sites are subject to keyword block lists.

That’s according to research by CHEQ into the economic cost of keyword block lists for online publishers around the world. The global study also predicted that US news sites will lose $1.3 billion in revenue due to coronavirus keyword blocking from February to June. Meanwhile, around the world, UK online news sites will lose $105M, Japanese news sites will lose $47.4M and Australian online news publishers will see a revenue loss of $42M.

Although keyword blocking has been an industry-wide issue for a long time, the issue has never been more prevalent, with at least one-third of page views for news sites now related to COVID-19.

“Coronavirus” was the second-most blocked term online in the US in March, coming in just behind “Trump”, according to Integral Ad Science (IAS).

However, it’s not just COVID content that we should be concerned with. Vice found the use of block lists has reached an all-time high, leading marketers and publishers to steer away from important and necessary subjects, including race, religion and LGBT issues.

With many headlines currently related to the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests following the tragic death of George Floyd, AdAge recently reported that marketers are increasingly preventing their ads from appearing alongside them, with some blocking keywords including ‘George Floyd’ or ‘BLM’.

As well as this, with Pride month in full swing, many studies have revealed the negative implications keyword blocking has on this community. A report from CHEQ revealed LGBTQ+ publishers see nearly three quarters (73%) of neutral or positive LGBT online news incorrectly flagged by brand safety block lists, denying them vital ad revenue.

Orlando Reece, CEO of Pride Media, said: “We create content from an LGBTQ+ lens and use words that our community [just like the general community] do not find offensive, such as ‘lesbian,’ ‘queer’, etc. These words are part of our lives and how we communicate and identify with one another. Brand safety needs to be a conversation involving people, not technology that is ill-equipped for today’s digital publishing landscape.”

So why is this happening?

Of course, brands are not intentionally avoiding appearing next to stories surrounding these important issues.

When keyword blocking was in its infancy, many advertisers were intentionally heavy-handed with their blocklists because there were so many examples of brands appearing next to harmful content and having their reputations severely damaged.

Although the technology we now use for keyword blocking is more advanced, and there’s a much bigger focus on premium environments, many brands continue to use a very heavy stroke with their blocking, meaning they often wipe out entire content categories rather than just the specific topics they’re trying to avoid.

How do we fix it?

As an industry, we need to take responsibility for how we’re applying keyword blocking, and advertisers need to be aware of which keywords sit behind their content categories.

However, this is no quick fix, and brands need to commit to reviewing what they block on a regular basis, especially in the uncertain and fast-paced environment we find ourselves in.

Working with multiple third-party vendors is a great start, as it gives you multiple points of view and a lot of valuable feedback that you can learn from and implement into your blocking strategy. However, it’s not enough.

At Unruly we task our Brand Safety team with regularly checking which URLs we’ve blocked and why. We then challenge ourselves and the vendors we work with to see if the content should have been blocked, and if it shouldn’t have, we look at what we can do to make sure it doesn’t get blocked again going forward.

This is the only way we’re going to be able to guarantee safety and allow news publications to continue working and generating revenue, which in turn funds advertising and keeps our industry moving forward.

Find out more about our brand safety offering.