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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

Ad quality is content quality. And quality content needs better classification

February 3, 2020 | By Tobias Silber, CBO – GeoEdge @tobiassilber

As stakeholders across the digital media industry work to fine tune the programmatic market, the issue of ad quality continues to reveal new challenges. This makes sense. “Ad quality” is really an umbrella term, and under that umbrella we find ad security, ad performance, aspects of brand safety, and more. But ad quality is about even more than the ad itself. It’s about content – on the publisher’s page and beyond. Content quality is a deeply significant piece of the perceived quality of an ad, and it needs to be considered more closely and carefully in these conversations.

For the sake of clarity, when we say, “content quality,” we’re not accusing your editorial team of slacking. We’re talking about making sure content is classified accurately and specifically, so fewer off-message ads end up next to that content. And we’re certainly talking about where the user goes when they click on an ad: What is on that landing page? Does the content of that landing page send a message that feels inappropriate or unwelcome, compared to the publisher page they just came from?

Faking it

Another question: Does the ad’s creative accurately represent the content it leads to? Yes, we’re all familiar with “fake news.” But the problem of “fake ads” has also spread, more quietly but widely. These ads may be inconsistent with the publisher’s ad policies. They may also feature misleading creative.

Sometimes, the creative tells all you need to know, and the ad is simply the wrong ad for the environment in question. Unfortunately, though, often the only way you can tell it’s the wrong ad for this environment is to click through and see where you land. And for the unsuspecting user, landing on a clearly inappropriate page can wreck user experience.

It is impossible to fully separate the publisher’s site from the ads on that site, and in turn from any of the landing pages behind any of those ads. When the user clicks through a seemingly innocuous ad and is surprised to end up on a highly partisan page, or a page with adult content, they may close out that site in seconds. However, they will remember which publisher site they came from. Publishers have a responsibility to their users to provide positive, relevant experiences, and it’s a liability to the publisher when an ad links out to a site the publisher shouldn’t be associated with.

Creative opportunities

But let’s go back to the right ad creative for the right environment. Inappropriate creative can be instantly spotted. And, at this moment in digital, a lot of categories could be considered inappropriate. Political ads are an obvious case. Major digital players, including Netflix, Spotify, and Twitter, are now banning political ads, or at least election ads. The trend is to get ahead of potential brand safety and UX issues by blocking entire ad categories wholesale.

However, when you block, say, all political ads, you likely also end up blocking harmless ads as well. For example, ads about local politics, which could ultimately be more of a service to the user than a source of controversy.

The nuclear option should not be a publisher’s go-to. Publishers should step back and ask: Are our content categories too broad? Is that inadvertently causing ad quality issues? When we categorize content, are we representing our brand and our vision accurately? These are questions publishers can answer, and the answers will not only help publishers monetize, but enrich the entire programmatic ecosystem.


This requires collaboration between publishers and their supply partners. Together, they can clarify and codify more accurate content verticals for the publisher’s site. Passing keywords to SSPs and other ad platforms is old hat. We need to go deeper for a couple reasons.

First, platforms do have an interest in demonstrating their value to publishers by delivering monetization, and keywords are only effective if targeting around them is enforced. Second, buyers won’t always demand an exact match of keywords anyway, if the site is a high-end premium publisher. They may value certain sites for the publisher’s name and brand higher than the page’s content itself.

Ad platforms need to recognize that when they collaborate with publishers to classify content more clearly and specifically, they open the door to more business for the entire programmatic market. Brand safety concerns have long been a huge deterrent to brands increasing their investment in programmatic. Alleviating those concerns will lead to more programmatic spend, more supply – which in turn makes the platform more valuable to publishers.

Creative solutions

All stakeholders need to look at and classify not only the ad creative, but the landing pages. In programmatic, it’s essential to classify landing pages in real time, before the page renders. While this may seem technologically daunting, ad quality and security vendors (such as the company I work for, GeoEdge) have already the groundwork for this kind of real-time detection of and response to issues in the programmatic market.

For publishers and ad platforms, it will likely be necessary to introduce more content verticals – more specific content categories that can be allowed or blocked, for the ad creative and for the content of the landing page. This will take some effort upfront but will create efficiencies in the long run that are truly useful on the programmatic level.

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