Are YouTube’s new safeguards enough to clear up the controversy?

Machine learning, new monetization criteria and third-party measurement are giving some agencies hope - but does the scandal prompt bigger questions about online advertising?
By: Gil C /

Some might say it’s been a tough couple of weeks for YouTube. A rise in awareness about offensive and defamatory user generated content led to a flood of brands publicly pausing their advertising on the platform — which in turn led to a flood of bad PR for the Google-owned video platform.

Since then, Google has publicly announced a number of changes to its policies regarding content and the uploading processes that are designed, in part, to provide brands with greater quality assurance of the videos they are buying against.

The first change is an expansion of the safeguards on its YouTube Partners program, which will no longer allow creators to monetize their content until they have received 10,000 lifetime views (previously, any channel with any number of subscribers or views could make advertising revenue). At the point of receiving 10,000 views, YouTube will then vet and approve the channel for monetization.

Google has also introduced machine learning capabilities to potentially weed out and demonetize offensive content. According to a Google spokesperson, the YouTube tools have been built to understand the context of content, so it could, for example, distinguish between a racial slur used in a rap song and one used in a racist video.

It’s also expanded its partnerships with third-party measurement providers such as Moat, Integral Ad Science and DoubleVerify, giving them expanded auditing powers to assure more accuracy in metrics.

A Google spokesperson told MiC that these measures have been in development for a number of months, but that the company ramped up the development following the negative publicity storm.

Sam Sebastian, VP of Google and managing director of Google Canada, offered a statement to MiC saying that the platform has seen a willingness from Canadian advertisers to restart their campaigns. “While they know that no system can be perfect, they appreciate the actions we’ve taken and know we are taking this seriously and are committed to getting better and better.”

But are these measures enough for the industry?

Matt Ramella, head of digital partnerships and strategy for IPG Mediabrands Canada, pointed out that the new changes to YouTube’s Partner program are more geared at the creators than advertisers. “The new changes… primarily [help] to protect creators from abusive channels that impersonate and re-upload content from original content creators in order to make money,” he told MiC. “That said, it’s another small piece in the brand safety puzzle as the new safeguard allows YouTube to review a channel.”

Ramella said the agency was generally approving of the updates and confident with YouTube’s new measures.

Nick Barbuto, managing director of OMD’s Ignition Factory, said the granularity of YouTube’s AI measures were impressive and exciting, “not only from a brand safety perspective but also a targeting perspective.”

OMD’s parent group Omnicom’s official position is that Google’s proposals do hold the promise of a better environment for advertisers, however “the proof of these measures remains to be seen.” It has said it will continue to assess the situation along with clients.

But Scott Stewart, managing director, head of strategy at Maxus Canada, said the provisions may be somewhat of a drop in the bucket, and that YouTube has always had valid brand safety concerns. “I’m trying to figure out this whole pile-on here,” he said. “There has always been a risk. It’s like buying advertising on an open exchange — with user-generated content, there’s always going to be a risk, albeit a calculated risk.

Stewart also said that while there have been many high profile brands pausing their campaigns, he emphasized that they have been pauses and not permanent pulls.

“For plenty of advertisers, they’ve been more concerned about performance metrics than safety standards,” he said.

But Stewart said that YouTube’s troubles have started a different conversation, one that splits digital views into two different kinds of currency. “It’s starting to divide into scale, reach and time spent versus purely transactional,” he said. “You have to make a decision as an advertiser — is it all about awareness and building equity, or is it about customer acquisitions? If you’re a CPG and you’re buying 15-second ad units, you have to buy on YouTube just to get the scale.  But there’s a reason people are building DMPs and following users around the online ecosystem, and using it purely as an e-commerce mechanism. There’s definitely a growing polarization in terms of how people are using the digital space.”

And ultimately, he said, the situation with YouTube should remind advertisers that the industry is a buyer beware environment. “If you want to guarantee brand safety, then buy publisher direct,” he said.

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