The unenviable job of site whitelisters

Stella Jiang, a digital ad operations specialist for boutique ad agency Cyverasia, started whitelisting sites for brands at the beginning of this year. Her critical, if unglamorous role in digital advertising: make sure ads are not running alongside pornography or terrorist videos. She typically does so during the first week of a campaign, manually selecting around 400 to 500 trustworthy sites per day through Google Adwords for each client. This process usually takes her a little over three hours.

“Whitelisting is really time-consuming because you need to manually click on the websites to make sure they are good ones,” said Jiang, who is currently whitelisting sites for three companies and was previously an intern. “It’s definitely not the most interesting work. At the end of the day, I feel like I’m going blind. But I think it’s critical to make sure that our campaigns are driving efficient traffic.”

Jiang updates whitelists for each campaign that usually lasts for a month. Whitelists are decided by her and her manager, rather than brands. Deciding whether a site is trustworthy and relevant can be subjective. It’s like compiling a blacklist, where whether a site should be characterized as “hate speech” depends on the blacklister’s political stance. Most agencies tend to lean left. As for Jiang, she describes herself as apolitical.

While most agencies and vendors interviewed for this article don’t have a dedicated role called a whitelister, they have contractors, entry-level analysts, campaign managers or ad operations specialists like Jiang to do the work. JP Morgan Chase, for instance, reportedly hired an intern to manually whitelist around 5,000 sites for the bank.

Most agencies today have a global blacklist for brand safety. But the problem with blacklists is that it is easier than ever to create a new domain today, with ads up and running in a very short period of time leaving agencies unable to keep up with the speed. So more and more, brands are asking for a whitelist strategy amid fake news and Google’s ad scandal, where they only serve ads on hundreds or thousands of sites that are reliable, according to people interviewed for this story.

“Whitelisting can be an easy task, but it can be as hard as tracking historical ad performance with a demand-side platform and hiring third-party verification platforms to create a list for you,” said an agency executive who prefers anonymity. “At my agency, we have a centralized team to manage blacklists, but every account team manages whitelists on its own to decide the approach.”

While whitelisting is better than blacklisting, it is not a perfect solution for brand safety concerns either, because until ad exchanges commit to only serving ad tags directly on publishers’ sites rather than working with third parties’ ad networks or other exchanges, it is easy for an inventory to be spoofed or obfuscated by hard-coding the URL right into the exchange ad tag. Right now, exchanges have no incentive to make this change, explained the anonymous agency executive.

For instance, if an ad exchange passes an ad tag to a publisher who further passes that tag to an ad network, then the ad network can say that the publisher is even though it is not.

“For brand safety, private marketplaces via deal IDs are the most effective. The next best thing is to run a whitelist. And if that is not possible, a blacklist should be implemented at a bare minimum,” he said.

While using whitelists is less risky than blacklists, large brand campaigns don’t scale on a whitelist. And it also depends on the agency size as “big agencies are sometimes too lazy and prefer to use one big whitelist,” according to George Levin, CEO for ad tech firm GetIntent.

No matter whether a brand is using whitelists or blacklists, marketers seem to remain hands-off when it comes to brand safety. In Jiang’s case, clients rarely take a look at their whitelists. “Clients usually only care about whether campaigns are [hitting the objectives,] so they seldom check with us about the whitelists,” she said.

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