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Ad quality year in review 2020

2020 was a challenging and disruptive year, which pushed all of us to do things differently. There was an increased need to transact digitally, and we saw a significant rise in the online presence of businesses of all kinds. We also saw many consumers trying out digital interactions for the first time. As always, our goal is to ensure the Microsoft Advertising platform delivers accurate and relevant information to our customers while protecting them from low-quality or harmful experiences. In 2020, that commitment continued with investments in innovative approaches to offer the highest quality results.

Looking back

In 2020, we suspended nearly 300,000 accounts from the Microsoft Advertising platform, up 30% from 2019. We also removed 1.6 billion bad ads while 270,000 sites were also removed from our system. Our continued investments in artificial intelligence (AI) enable real-time evaluation systems that use behavioral signals and intelligent fraud analysis tools to help us identify low-quality content. We pair that with highly trained manual reviewers and nimble takedown processes. This combination of AI tools and human review allows us to continue to deliver high-quality content for our customers during even the most uncertain of times.

Key focus areas

Coping with the pandemic: At the onset of COVID-19, we saw lots of questions and uncertainty across the industry. Our goal was to ensure we continued to deliver accurate, high-quality results across our platform, at a time when low quality content was increasing. During this time, we put strict measures in place to restrict advertising for products such as covid medicines, covid testing kits etc. We rejected nearly 21 million ads in accordance with our sensitive advertising policy. To support local businesses, we partnered with GoFundMe to display information for raising funds. We also helped government agencies and non-profit organizations reach out to users by promoting official information related ads.

Political advertising: 2020 was a big year for US elections, and therefore we focused on closely monitoring this space to ensure our users saw high-quality information. Microsoft Advertising does not allow political advertising and in accordance with our policies we took down more than 20 million ads and 10,000 sites.

Third-party government services: Last year we decided to disallow ads for government products or services offered by a third party. This policy update helped us significantly lower the number of malicious or misleading ads targeted towards government services and products such as passports, visas, change of address, driver’s licenses etc. We blocked ~7,000 domains and rejected ~8.5 million ads as part of this initiative.

Tech support scams and phishing attacks: We observed continued malicious advertising behaviors in 2020. Phishing and other scams remain among the oldest and most effective techniques to con users in today’s digital ecosystem. Our advanced machine learning models can establish relationships between advertiser accounts and quickly suspend bad actors trying to enter our system repeatedly to conduct malicious activities. Across Microsoft we have relentlessly continued our fight against these scams, and we brought down more than 28,500 Microsoft Advertising accounts (an increase of more than 100% YoY) that were perpetrating or attempting to perpetrate these scams.

Advertiser safety: Account takeover attempts in 2020 increased by nearly five times in comparison to 2019. Given the increased attempts, we introduced multi-factor authentication (MFA) in the interest of safety of all Microsoft Advertising users. MFA is a security measure that requires users to verify identity in two different ways, for example: entering a password along with a code sent to the phone.

Our approach

Advertising fraud is fast-moving, and we continue to see new patterns surface globally. We take an all-hands-on-deck approach to ensure we continue to deliver the highest quality content possible. We constantly update and refine our policies to ensure we meet evolving needs. Our fraud detection technology makes use of a wide variety of signals and uses the latest machine-learning algorithms to find fraud patterns which can otherwise be difficult to detect. We also have a geographically distributed team of experts working round the clock to help us conduct detailed investigations on any new patterns we’re seeing, by making use of smart and scalable tools. Detecting fraud before it has a chance to reach customers is one piece of our approach.

We also address escalations and complaints from customers to quickly remove low-quality ads. In 2020, we received a total of ~50,000 complaints related to ads not being compliant per our advertising policies. We investigated each complaint and found ~65% of the reported ads to be in violation of Microsoft Advertising policies. Most of the complaints were related to trademark infringements. As we continue to roll out new products and make it easier for brands to engage with audiences, we made additional investments to protect and respond to advertisers’ concerns around trademark use and were able to reduce the trademark related complaints by ~25% year over year. We also received a few complaints related to unlicensed gambling sites, phishing, unauthorized government service provider websites, and other user safety concerns. We have a highly responsive operations team working 24/7 to promptly address concerns relating to our ads. In response to complaints, our operations team took down nearly 400,000 violating ads from our network.

Going forward

As always, the start of a new year presents opportunities for taking our quality efforts even further. We'll continue to leverage the interdisciplinary efforts of experts in machine learning and system design to scale our technology, alongside the domain expertise of policy and review experts to deter bad actors. Despite all our efforts, scammers might still evade our checks. If you see a bad or suspicious ad, please report it through our Microsoft Advertising ad quality escalation form.

We value your feedback and partnership and we'll continue to strive to keep the Microsoft Advertising ecosystem safe.