Joe Biden’s campaign has been unwittingly funding Breitbart all this time

How Google Search Network is funneling advertiser dollars to Breitbart without the campaign’s knowledge.

Welcome back to BRANDED, the newsletter exploring how marketers broke society (and how we can fix it).

Here’s what’s new with us:

  • Nandini did a podcast interview with Bridget Todd, host of There Are No Girls On The Internet.

  • Claire was quoted in the Press Gazette’s The future of programmatic advertising: What brands and publishers need to know.

  • Nandini spoke about the importance of developing acceptable use policies and a transparent review process at Business of Software conference.


In previous newsletters, we’ve explored how bad faith publishers like Breitbart could still be collecting your ad dollars through sneaky backdoor methods. Today, we’re going to show you how Google itself has opened a tiny front door for Breitbart, allowing Breitbart to continue to earn ad revenues from advertisers who want nothing to do with them — including Joe Biden’s campaign.

This time, Zach Edwards, the data supply researcher who figured out the secret way Breitbart collects ad revenues, has uncovered how Google sends your ad money to shady media organizations without your knowledge, against your consent and without any form of accountability.

We know that brand safety should always be a priority for brands, but the stakes are next level for the Biden campaign. Because of Google, the Biden campaign may have already spent tens of thousands of dollars with Breitbart during this election cycle. There is no way for them to know.

Here’s how it works.

Search ads go further than you think

For over a decade, Google has provided a useful free product for publishers and website owners, called Google Custom Search Engine (CSE). This widget allows publishers to embed the power of a Google search into their websites and give their visitors an easy search experience. It’s all hosted by Google and embeds onto a website like this:

It’s a no-brainer for publishers. Not only is CSE free and hosted by Google — it’s also monetized. CSE integrates with AdSense, which gives publishers the ability to collect ad revenues from the paid ads at the top of the search results. This makes publishers — even disinformation outlets — an instant part of the Google Search Network.

It’s an easy yes for advertisers too. When you launch a paid search campaign, Google gives you the option to check the box that says “Include Google search partners.” Can you think of any reason not to check the box? We can’t.

There’s just one problem

If you blocked Breitbart from your ad buy, Google is still placing your search ads through Google Search Network. Google’s Search Network is different from its Display network. And, they didn’t think it needed the same advertiser controls. 

Google Search Network is incomplete. Adsense (the part that marketers see) is missing two crucial accountability features. If you checked the box that says “Include Google search partners,” then... 

  1. There is no way for you to check which websites your ads appeared on through Google CSE. Google does not give you a domain-by-domain breakdown of impressions or clicks, and you have no way to know how much of your ad budget went to say, Breitbart. 

  1. You cannot upload your block list to Google Search campaigns. Even if you know there are websites you don’t want to be on, there’s no way to block them. 

This would be bad enough for advertisers trying to optimize their Search budgets. But if you are struggling to avoid funding fake news, disinformation and hate speech, this blindfold is actually a nightmare. How are you supposed to do that if you don’t have a breakdown of spend across websites? How are you supposed to know which of the over million domains across Google CSE to block?

How bad is this?

You might be wondering, how big of a problem is this really? How many people actually click on those ads? The problem isn’t how many people. It’s what publishers like Breitbart can do when they have access to your wallet and you don’t have the data to know what’s happening.

What can they do, exactly? Well, one thing is they can copy and paste their Custom Search Engine widget code around the web and then run bots to click on the ads. Simple but genius, right? 

Zach actually found Breitbart’s Google search widget (code) on about four pages of search results. If you want to see them, you can search for that code here [NSFW].) This would be used as a way to monetize the search ads that run through their CSE. They wouldn’t need people to click if they can just have browsers refreshing and clicking the ads over and over again. Honestly, it’s impressive.

Want an example of a made-for-bots site that you can click on at work? The Breitbart ones are mostly NSFW, so here’s another one: Tiziran.com. This is what a fake site looks like with a CSE widget on top. This is obviously not a site built for humans. So why is there a CSE here? Because you can send bots there to search and click on ads.

So I’m still advertising with Breitbart?

Yeah, probably. If you’re running Search ads and you ticked the checkbox that says “Google search partners,” you’re still advertising on Breitbart. Even if you’ve blocked Breitbart from your display ads, Google is still directing your Search ads there. 

This means brands and organizations that have already publicly confirmed with Sleeping Giants they’re no longer advertising with Breitbart are in fact, still advertising with Breitbart: We found Etsy, Bob’s Red Mill, Cornell University, Amnesty International, Doctors Without Borders, AARP, and the ACLU among others. 

Who else is advertising there? Act Blue, Nancy Pelosi for Congress, the Democratic National Committee, and until Zach flagged it for them, the Joe Biden campaign.

So what can marketers do?

If you are advertising on Google Search Network and have ticked the “Google Search Partners” box, you have options. Here are three steps you can take:

  1. Ask your Adsense sales rep to send you a site list. Request a list of the domains where you bought search queries via Google CSE Adsense. Ask for the list to include the amount you spent per website (even if they don’t have it available for you, they should know to prioritize this list as a feature).

  2. Send your Adsense sales rep your blocklist. Google says the only way you can block your ads from websites like Breitbart is by requesting your Adsense rep to block it for you.

  3. Turn off Google Search Network. If you don’t have any visibility (let alone control) into your ad spend, it might be better to avoid it altogether. 

Thanks for reading,

Nandini and Claire


Did you like this issue? Then why not share! Please send tips, compliments and complaints to @nandoodles and @catthekin. And send all the research praise to @thezedwards.

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