There’s a hell of a lot of groups violating Google’s ad policies these days. On Tuesday, Google said it stopped 5.2 billion “bad ads” in 2022, 1.8 billion more than 2021. At the top of the list are potentially malicious ads, and that number has grown tremendously over the years, according to the data.
The company lists the top bad ad as those that abuse its ad network, a catchall term for ads that contain malware as well as manipulative or spam ads. Google claimed it stopped 652.1 million of these ads in 2021, but that number nearly doubled to 1.36 billion in 2022.
Google execs said the jump in the number of ad takedowns was due to improvements in their machine learning algorithms meant to spot these ads, reporting mechanisms, and changes to the company’s ad policies. The company said it suspended 6.7 million advertiser accounts after identifying “networks” of bad actors deploying malicious ads. Google also claimed it targeted 17 million ads that were related to the ongoing war in Ukraine.
But that hasn’t stopped many malicious ads from appearing through Google, especially in Google search. As pointed out by Bleeping Computer last year, there’s been a rash of malware being spread through ads pretending to be legitimate software advertised in Google search results. Malware trackers have also noticed phony ads masquerading as legit sites continuing on into 2023.
Security researchers at firms like Guardio Labs shared in a December report how the Google Ads platform is being “massively abused” by threat actors. Websites containing malicious code and malware can essentially disguise themselves by appearing valid to any outside source, but the server redirects those who click on ads to a separate, rogue site containing malware.
Alejandro Borgia, Google’s director of ad privacy and safety, said during an online press conference that the company saw a spike in so-called “malvertising” or ads containing malware, in 2022. He added the company took “swift measures” and then saw that spike subside.
“Attackers are constantly shifting their techniques and their tactics and what areas they are targeting,” he said.
There’s little data about the total number of bad ads Google could have missed, but federal law enforcement have even noticed the uptick in malicious advertising. Late last year, the FBI told consumers to use an ad blocker while surfing the web due to all the ads impersonating brands on search engines. The FBI did not explicitly mention Google, though the agency noted these ads appear “at the very top of search results.”
The second highest number of ad takedowns was due to trademark infringement, likely ads that were using another brand’s likeness to sell something but that wasn’t necessarily malicious software. Trademark policy violations was the second-most bad ad in 2022, and was cited 425.1 million more times than in 2021. At the same time, the number of ads flagged for “adult content” actually went down marginally from 2021 to 2022.
Borgia said that Google has rules against ads that include “demonstrably false misinformation” that could undermine an election or the electoral process. Election advertisers have additional ad targeting restrictions as well. A recent Gizmodo report showed that a PAC supporting former President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign was actively spreading the lie that Republican opponent Nikki Haley is supporting Trump. Those ads were targeted at people in Iowa where Haley recently visited.
On Tuesday, the company released details on its Ad Transparency Center, a new aspect of the My Ads Center that details more about specific ads and when and where they ran. Google’s ad team wrote that this gives greater transparency for the company behind the ad. Users could quickly block and report an ad using the My Ads Center. Unfortunately, this new feature does not reveal any new information on why a user might have seen these targeted ads. Users can still click on the three dots next to an ad, then browse to “Why you’re seeing this ad” to get a glimpse of the metrics used to target that specific user.
Meta, of all the data sapping companies out there, has one-upped Google in this regard to some extent. The company recently updated its “Why am I seeing this ad?” feature to show more details about why they’re being hit with a targeted ad. Still, neither offer a true, full view into the giant targeted ad machine.
Update 3/29/23 at 10:40 a.m. ET: This post was updated to clarify how users can access data on targeted ads.