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Blocked out: the dangers of overzealous keyword blocking

June 26, 2019 | By Alynn Beyder, Senior Product Marketing Manager, Publisher Optimization—IAS @integralads

Brand safety has become an integral part of every marketers’ media buying strategy. One way that brands manage where their ads appear is by utilizing keyword blocking. While this can be a useful layer of protection, it isn’t a one size fits all or set it and forget it solution. Without proper monitoring, keyword blocking can create unintended—even unfortunate—consequences. 

Blocking basics

No airline wants its message to run adjacent to news about a rash of problems with a particular type of jet. One way to avoid this sort of inherently negative placement is through the practice of keyword blocking. 

Advertisers can choose to block certain categories of content — for example, anything related to drugs or adult content. They may also block particular keywords, such as “explosion,” “shooting,” or other topically sensitive terms. Of course, publishers are focused on providing relevant content to their audiences. However, they must also keep advertisers’ brand safety priorities in mind. Finding a delicate balance between the two can be tricky. 

There is no “one size fits all” approach to achieve brand safety in the world of digital advertising. But keyword blocking can be a useful tool—if handled correctly. While effective in the short term, keyword blocking lists can get excessively long or stale if not maintained properly and updated on a regular basis. And this can hurt a brand more than help. Some advertisers may find that their ads are excluded from a publisher’s site entirely due to exhaustive keyword blocklists. Thus, they inadvertently miss out on the opportunity to reach their desired audiences.

When blocking breaks

Keyword blocking alone is not an optimal solution, but it can provide a layer of protection for conservative buyers. To make the most of this approach, however, it is important to revisit blocklists at least once a quarter. This is especially important given that words or phrases associated with a particular incident that was controversial news in March, for example, will have likely changed significantly by June. 

Integral Ad Science recently reviewed keywords that were deemed as unsafe in the past due to breaking news, but that now may be acceptable. Remember the Las Vegas mass shooting that took over your newsfeed in 2017? IAS data uncovered that advertisers reacted to that breaking news story by blocking against “Las Vegas” and even “Mandalay Bay,” where the infamous shooter rented a room. Nearly two years after the incident, more than 120 advertisers are still blocking “Las Vegas.” Approximately 40 are still blocking “Mandalay Bay.” 

The unintended consequence it that publishers promoting travel deals to the strip or tips on where to catch the best fourth of July fireworks are losing out on revenue opportunities due to dated keyword blocking. And at the same time, marketers who want to reach these travel-hungry audiences are deprived of the opportunity. 

Better blocking

Ensuring brand safety is harder than ever, and there likely won’t be a catch all solution anytime in the near future. However, it is important to recognize that with keyword blocking, a “set it and forget it” mentality will not work. In fact, the entire process must be approached carefully from the outset and subject to regular review.

If your buyer insists on maintaining keyword blocklists as a key part of their strategy, then it is critical to reinforce good list hygiene. Too many blocked keywords limit distribution and will cost ad revenue. And ill-conceived or outdated block lists will deprive marketers from reaching the audience you are able to provide. This is an important issue that is negatively impacting publishers and marketers alike. I encourage you to work with your ad tech vendors and directly with buyers to help spread awareness and refine the approach to keyword blocking.

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