Three strikes and you’re out: Google’s new ad policy pilot

Last week, Google announced the launch of a three-strike penalty pilot scheme to better police the products and services being promoted through the Google Ads platform.

Strikes apply when advertisers breach violations of any of the three following policies:

Enabling Dishonest Behaviour

Unapproved Substances

Dangerous Products or Services

The strike system will work as follows, and applies to the content of the advertiser’s ad copy, as well as the content on the landing page:

There are few key points to understand before we can discuss the impact on advertisers:

  1. Unlike many of Google’s products or announcements, this is not an update to benefit advertisers, but an update to allow Google to more effectively remove harmful content from their platform.
  2. Account suspensions have existed for years already, however I’ve only ever had one client (out of around 150 brands) have their account suspended for promoting fat-burning supplements and making unsubstantiated claims. Account suspensions are likely to become more common as a violation deterrent in the wake of the pilot.
  3. After each strike, advertisers have 90 days to fix any violations to avoid receiving another strike. If the violations are removed and no repeat offence occurs within 90 days, the slate is wiped clean.
  4. If your account is suspended it’s not as simple as creating a new account. There are multiple individual identifiers for advertisers (billing details, VAT numbers, registered address) and your new account will be suspended upon creation.

I would never suggest that it’s a bad idea for media owners to pilot initiatives designed to avoid promoting harmful content (in fact, I’d love to see social networks implementing a similar strike system if users promote hate speech or violence), however advertisers may be surprised at the impact this may have on their (seemingly entirely compliant) accounts.

You may argue that the act of enabling dishonest behaviour, promoting unapproved substances, or touting dangerous products or services would be pretty difficult to carry out unknowingly. For example, it’s very unlikely that a jewellery store would have a section on their site for weapons, but there are plenty of accessories depicting daggers or pistols. Google have stated the strike system will apply to on-site content as well as ad copy, so I’m interested to see how effectively the context will be considered where ‘violations’ have seemingly taken place. This isn’t even considering sites such as eBay, Gumtree, or Amazon where a disparate range of users have created product listings selling all manner of items, sometimes with inflammatory or inaccurate descriptions.

It’s becoming more and more common for all sorts of sites to include sections for user-generated content, for example blogs, which provides brands with only minimal control over the content created. Consider sites such as NetMums where the breadth of topics is gargantuan and ever evolving; the NetMums content policy would have to be at least as rigorous as the Google pilot to ensure none of their content could violate the policies.

If you’re unlucky enough to erroneously receive a strikey, you’ll still have to contend with:

  • Attempting to get in touch with Google to appeal
  • Changes required to your ad or site content; for some brands changing the wording on the website is a huge global development project so you may well end up exceeding the 90 day grace before the next strike is given
  • A need to overhaul product naming conventions if these count as violations

If you’ve ever needing to tackle similar issues with Google before (pharmaceutical licenses, trademark registration or challenges, tacking financial services policies) you’ll know it takes a huge amount of time, patience, and know-how to get the required feedback and to implement any changes accordingly to get back in the good books.

Lastly, I’m willing to bet that most of you reading this have relegated Google’s automated emails to your spam or archive folders. Seeing as the first strike comes in the form of an email warning, now is the time to update your notification preferences to make sure you’re receiving any such emails. The ads in violation of policy will be disapproved and stop running, so even from day one of violation, you could end up with multiple ad groups without any active ads. If you don’t receive the warning email and so fail to address the violations within 90 days, your account will be placed on a temporary pause for 3 days. I don’t know about you, but I would not want to explain in a marketing meeting how ‘Google switched our ads off because I didn’t see their email…’.

Google have released only limited detail on how the pilot is being rolled out, so we can’t confirm if this will impact certain regions more than others in the short term. The upshot is: all advertisers need to be aware of any policies they may be (intentionally or entirely accidentally) violating because the staggered system Google are piloting could allow accounts to be suspended indefinitely within 2 weeks:

Day 1: Warning received, offending ads paused

Day 2: If advertiser tries to promote the same offending messaging, ad account suspended for 3 days

Day 3,4,5: Account suspended; ads not running

Day 6: If advertiser tries to promote the same offending messaging, ad account suspended for 7 days

Day 7,8,9,10,11,12,13: Account suspended, ads not running

Day 14: If advertiser tries to promote the same offending messaging, ad account suspended indefinitely

It may seem this could only happen if the advertiser is intentionally in violation of policy, but if advertisers don’t notice the warning email or address the reasons for the strikes they’ll be pretty scuppered.

Here’s what you need to do:

  1. Update your email preferences/ensure Google Ads emails aren’t filtered out of your inbox
  2. Read through the three policies linked at the top of this article and make any changes necessary to ensure your ads and site content aren’t in violation
  3. Ensure landing pages are linking through to non-UGC content where possible to avoid accidental strikes
  4. Ensure you (or your team or agency) are monitoring your ad accounts Yes, it feels like a lot, but this is the best way of avoiding issues of any kind
  5. If you’re more worried now than you where when you started reading this, drop me an email and I can help to ensure ads and content are compliant.


By Niki Grant, Director of Search