PPC Brand Safety 2020: Search Channels

This is the first of a two-part series about brand safety features in 2020.

We’ve all been there: surfing the web when a terribly misplaced ad pops up on the web page. It could be an inappropriate placement next to an ironic news article or a truncated headline with an alternative meaning.

As the U.S. election nears, advertisers may be looking for additional ways to keep their ads away from videos, articles and websites that do not jive with their brand goals and company beliefs.

Today, we’re going to take a look at the ways that you can utilize channel features to keep your clients and client brands safe. I wrote about this same topic back in 2017, but a lot has changed since then and this is certainly worth updating.

What is “Brand Safety”, Anyways?

“Brand safety” is a term that has become more and more popular in recent years. Interactive Advertising Bureau defines brand safety in the following way:

“Brand safety refers to the strategy put into place to ensure that online advertisements or associations do not appear on websites or in videos and articles that may conflict with a brand’s image, mission, or goals (including online environments where media wastage – often related to viewability and fraudulent activity – is rife).”

The “dirty dozen” categories of digital advertising that are typically avoided by many advertisers are: military conflict, obscenity, drugs, tobacco, adult, arms, crime, death/injury, online piracy, hate speech, terrorism, and spam/harmful sites. A recent 13th category was added: fake news.

Brand safety means something different to every company and doesn’t have just one meaning. For some of my clients, this means avoiding any and every category I outlined above. For others, this means simply avoiding placements on controversial websites.

Let’s hop into how to implement block lists and exclusions in Google and Microsoft.

Google Ads

There are several different types of exclusions available in Google.

Account-Level Settings

While there are more specific options available for different campaign types, the account-level options are a great place to start.

In the left navigation bar, head to Settings > Account Settings. You’ll see Inventory Type, Excluded content, and Excluded types and labels.

Implementing these settings at the account level means that you won’t have to make adjustments to individual campaigns.

Inventory Type

You can choose from expanded, standard, and limited options, depending on the amount of sensitive content your brand deems acceptable.

To get a better idea of what types of content fall into these categories, click “Compare Inventory Types”. This will outline what types of and the extent of potentially controversial video content like profanity, romance, nudity, violence, drugs, etc., are included in each inventory option.

Excluded Content

These sensitive content exclusions apply to all campaign types except Discovery and video campaigns.

Types & Labels

Google’s final option is to exclude digital content labels and content types.

Digital Content Labels:

According to the information provided by Google in the interface, digital content label options “let you prevent your ads from showing on categories of content based on maturity level. They are similar to movie ratings such as PG, PG-13, and R. Websites, pages, videos, and apps on the Display Network and YouTube are analyzed by Google classification technology and given a digital content label based on their suitability for various audiences”.

Content Types:

Content types to exclude are embedded YouTube videos (YouTube videos that appear outside of YouTube.com), live streaming videos, below-the-fold (display only) and parked domains (search only). There was a previous option for games that are no longer supported.

Note that these adjustments can also be made at the campaign-level, but the settings may look slightly different.

Additional Brand Safety Suggestions for Google Ads

In addition to the options outlined above, there are other ways to keep your brand(s) safe in Google:

  • Regular Search Query Analysis: Regular review of search query terms (or as much as Google will allow these days) will help to ensure that your brand isn’t showing up for any colorful searches. An on-going account-level negative list is a great place to start to apply multiple unrelated negative keywords across multiple campaigns.
  • Regular Placement Report Review for Display & Video Campaigns

Microsoft Ads

If you keep up with regular news in the PPC world, you may have seen in late September that Microsoft Ads recently added some platform-wide safeguards for advertisers who utilize the Audience Network.

Microsoft announced that a new partnership with Integral Ad Services (IAS) will block pages on the Audience Network with moderate or high brand risk. According to the announcement, this is how it will work:

“For all Microsoft Audience Ads campaigns, IAS will automatically scan all pages of all sites that Microsoft Audience Network ads can appear on. They will rate the page based on risk associated across their standard content categories (Adult, Alcohol, Gambling, Hate Speech, Illegal Downloads, Illegal Drugs, Offensive Language and Controversial Content, Violence) and send a signal to our system preventing us from showing any ads on any pages that they deem as moderate or high risk.”

This feature will be rolled out in the United States first, with other markets to follow.

Additional Brand Safety Options

In the newly designed Microsoft Ads platform, there is an option for website exclusion lists. You can find this in the Tools dropdown in the navigation bar.

A few things to know about these lists:

  • You can have up to 3 shared exclusions lists with up to 10,000 exclusion URLs per manager account.
  • You cannot add more than 5,000 exclusions at one time.
  • Account-level website exclusions are applied in addition to any exclusions set at the campaign or ad group-level.
  • You have to associate it with an account in order for it to take effect.

URLs can be added in the following forms:

  • www.contoso.com
  • autos.contoso.com
  • contoso.com/widgets
  • http://www.contoso.com
  • https://www.contoso.com

If you want to block all traffic from a specific domain, leave off the “www” prefix. For example, use “contoso.com” if you want to block traffic from www.contoso.com and www2.contoso.com.

Campaign & Ad Group Exclusions

Campaign- and ad group-level exclusions are also possible. To do this, go to the campaign or ad group level view within the account. Select the campaigns (or ad groups). Click Edit.

Click “other changes” in the Edit dropdown.

Add your exclusions and click Apply.


Tomorrow we’ll take a look at Facebook & LinkedIn’s brand safety options.

What brand safety tips do you have for Google Ads and Microsoft Ads? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!