Why councils shouldn't run Google AdSense ads

25 February 2010

Shortly after Nottingham City Council presented at the Google local government conference last year and announced their £15K windfall from AdSense, I took a close look at their site to see what kinds of ads were being served and how they were presented.

Variously, I found numerous ads that seemed to act against the direct interests of the council, preyed upon some of the most vulnerable local residents or were just downright sleazy or inappropriate.

Specifically:

It took me about 15 minutes to find all of these. The conclusion I drew was that Nottingham City Council either didn’t monitor which ads were served on their website or didn’t particularly care. Either way I found it hard to see how the council and the community got a net financial benefit from this advertising, quite aside from issues of appropriateness, likely offence and web clarity/usability.

Good reputations can take years to build and seconds to lose. Rightly or wrongly, many people are sceptical or outright cynical about the value and probity of their local councils. Councils should take enormous care to ensure that they are not seen to be endorsing or in the pay of businesses. People rightly expect government to be above the fray of commerce and private profit. That’s what supposedly makes government trusted and different – serving the whole community, not just the highest bidders or those with the ability to pay.

Assuming you even want to make the calculation, has anyone running ads on their websites actually balanced the net revenue from ads against the reputational risks?

Even if you value your corporate reputation at zero, you still need to consider the direct costs to the council of running certain kinds of ads, particularly those from Google AdSense. How many business rates avoiders, families impoverished through predatory lending, skilfully-represented benefit fraudsters and neighbourhoods plagued by anti-social behaviour due to businesses advertising on your website does it take to nullify any profit from running such ads? Not many, I’d suggest.

A bit of joined-up thinking is required here. Councils using Google AdSense are playing fast and loose with their reputations and taking big hits in revenue and costs in other departments for the sake of pennies coming back on their websites.

It’s just not worth it.