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Has the industry gone too far with keyword blocking?7 min read

7 min read

Trump is the #1 most blocked keyword worldwide. #2 is coronavirus.

The subject of brand safety has provided many an hour of head-scratching debate for those in the programmatic and wider advertising industry for some time now. The topic made national headlines in early 2017 when The Times published their investigative article reporting that major brands were funding hate by placing ads on extremist websites and YouTube videos. “Big brands fund terror through online adverts” was the headline. A raft of advertisers, including Jaguar Land Rover, were quick to pull all of their digital ad spend in what has since become a watershed moment of sorts. The conversation has grown in importance ever since.

The brand safety field comes in many shapes and sizes, one of the most common being keyword blocklists (the practice of avoiding appearing on web pages that contain certain keywords or phrases by implementing blocklists within an advertiser’s buying platform). In recent years, such lists have become a contentious issue for both advertisers and publishers, with media agencies and those in the middle having to strike a delicate balance in order to ensure campaigns are successful.

The divide is twofold: advertisers want to mitigate the risk of appearing next to unsavoury publisher content, but in their quest to do so, often thwart safe and relevant campaign scale by applying exhaustive blocklists that are, in many instances, left unchecked. The publishers, on the other hand, are left financially worse-off due to blanket and out-of-date blocklists that lack context (“shoot” being a common blocklist entry that affects sports publishers due to its connotations of terrorism and violence).

Newswork, the body representing UK newspaper publishers, estimated that the keyword ‘coronavirus’ was set to cost UK publishers £50 million in advertising revenue in the space of just three months, while a recent study by cybersecurity firm CHEQ found that US publishers lost a staggering $2.8bn due to incorrect blocking of safe content in 2019.

In the following article, Croud’s programmatic team assesses both sides of the divide, asking the question, has the industry gone too far with keyword blocklists?

Omri Kedem, Programmatic Media Director

You only have to look as far as recent publisher revenues to see that keyword blocking has gone too far. Or rather, keyword blocking has gone too far in the wrong direction.

Too many trading desks have archaic keyword blocklists with tens of thousands of keywords. Most traders probably don’t even know where these lists originated. These lists will likely have been created by an automated tool or inherited from a prior agency, and all will include keywords that inhibit efficiency. In too many cases, keywords are being added without context, and are not being considered on a client by client basis.

In addition, these vast keyword lists are now being assembled to bluntly sidestep tricky topics; in turn, demonetising important conversations such as the Black Lives Matter movement. How can we ensure smarter, not more extensive, keyword blocking?

Smart semantic keyword tools:

A number of partners, such as Integral Ad Science and Oracle Contextual Intelligence (previously Grapeshot), provide a semantic keyword blocking solution to be smarter with exclusions. Instead of taking words too literally, they ensure that both the context and sentiment is taken into account. This way, homonyms like Die (to cease living / a cube marked with numbers one through six) or shoot (as would a gun / as would a football player!) are not avoided without context.

These partners also create segments that are relevant to real-time current affairs such as Black Lives Matter and COVID-19. This ensures that positive stories are still advertised against; in turn, ensuring that these stories are still monetised by publishers and are not being sidestepped by editors!

Catherine Meyrick, Senior Programmatic Media Manager

I believe that traders are often too quick to implement extensive keyword blocklists. It goes without saying that we should avoid content that is damaging for the brand, as well as avoiding advertising in situations where the brand could be perceived as insensitive (for example, a theme park advertising on an article about a tragic rollercoaster accident is never going to go down well, and for good reason). That said, there’s an important distinction to be made between website content that is dangerous to a brand, and content that is talking about world events (as terrible as they may be) or is simply irrelevant. 

Coronavirus feels like a good example here – Almost all internet content created in the last six months references (directly or indirectly) the virus and its impact on our lives. 

Is this content going to be ‘relevant’ to all advertisers? Likely not, but given that every one of us has been impacted by the virus, it’s safe to say that the target audience for pretty much any advertiser is going to be consuming content on the topic. Isn’t the beauty of programmatic advertising that we can reach a specific audience regardless of ‘where’ they are on the internet? Human beings are complex creatures, with varied interests. We know that in order to advertise underwear, we can’t restrict our targeting solely to content on underwear (we all wear it, but we don’t spend much of our day thinking about it) – the same logic applies to any product or service that you might be selling. 

Aside from being potentially irrelevant, is coronavirus content actually damaging to advertisers? Again, no, in the majority of cases it won’t be. A travel company advertising on an article about travel restrictions imposed due to the virus is probably going to look a little silly and may give off the impression that they aren’t taking it seriously enough. They will therefore likely want to avoid this kind of content. For most other advertisers, however, this content should be considered ‘safe’.

In all, I feel that we need to apply a little more common sense when building out keyword blocklists, and to not forget that programmatic advertising is, first and foremost, ‘audience-first’.

Hayley Turner, Senior Programmatic Media Manager

All media buyers in agencies are aware of how crucial brand safety is to an advertiser in 2020. Appearing against an ad which is inappropriate, offensive or just irrelevant is the key competency that underlines brand safety.

Keyword exclusions can help give peace of mind and adaptability to traders in this ever-growing online environment. It ensures we are spending advertisers’ money in the safest way possible with an element of control in terms of the keywords you can de-target.

Although there are instances where keyword blocklists can barricade ads from serving on pages which could be suitable when understanding the context, it still feels necessary to continue to use these lists as a layer of protection. Each trader should regularly review and update these based on cultural trends and performance. 

Rebecca Millward, Programmatic Media Manager

‘Trump’ is currently the top blocked keyword for traders.  Another example, and the hot potato right now, is ‘coronavirus’. These are two keywords which will be blocked automatically by most, if not all agencies.  Two great examples of why traders need to keep on top of keyword exclusions, highlighting how important it is to keep your keywords topic and current.

However, it is still equally important to tailor your keyword blocking list to each client’s portfolio. A trader needs to ensure that keywords are utilised effectively to make a campaign successful and also strip any negative keywords that may have a damaging effect on the brand, both from a targeting point of view and financial impact. 

If you continue to serve a creative against a keyword which is not driving conversions or revenue for your client, this would be a drain on the budget and a waste of investment.  Keyword blocking acts as a safety net, minimising risk and also benefits as a directive to any successful campaign. 

Key takeaways

Keyword blocking is crucial for all campaigns. However, Croud recommends a few key takeaways to ensure you’re blocking keywords in a smarter way: 

Review your static keyword lists regularly

If you’re using a static keyword list, review regularly (every three months minimum!) and keep your lists up to date with current affairs. 

Always approach keywords on a client by client basis

What is considered as ‘damaging’ to one brand, may not to another!

Use contextual keyword partners

Using clever contextual keyword partners ensures semantics and sentiment of articles are taken into account.

Consider applying different keyword exclusion lists to news sites

News sites naturally cover serious and potentially upsetting topics without ‘promoting’ them. As a result, this is where keyword blocking needs to be reviewed most closely.

To find out more about Croud’s programmatic team and how we can help, get in touch.