Member Exclusive   //   December 15, 2023

How Google SafeSearch’s overzealous algorithm is impacting one bodywear brand

Nude Barre, a Black-founded brand specializing in nude bodywear that comes in a wide range of skin shades, is one brand currently grappling with its Google ads turning into blurred images in search results. 

The culprit is SafeSearch, a feature within Google Images and Google Search that allows people to filter out potentially offensive and inappropriate content from their results. SafeSearch has been around for years, but SafeSearch blurring officially became the default setting on Google Images this past August. That’s when Nude Barre founder Erin Carpenter began noticing a dip in both ad spend and traffic from the popular search engine.

SafeSearch has had reported glitches for decades; A study from 2003 by Harvard Law School found SafeSearch to accidentally block innocuous websites. When someone searches for something and an explicit content comes up, the person can choose to see it by clicking the “view” option on the image or video. But that’s after SafeSearch automatically blurs an image that it deems may be offensive. Alternatively, the Google search user can turn off the default SafeSearch filter manually by managing their account’s setting.

Beyond the ads themselves, SafeSearch also blurs similar images from some publishers featuring products like flesh color undergarments. If someone Googles “Nude Barre” and clicks on images, photos from outlets like Yahoo and ABC that have done stories on Nude Barre and Carpenter are blurred.

“I had heard about this issue, but it wasn’t until recently that people started telling us they’re seeing our product listings blurred on Google,” Carpenter said. Since SafeSearch became the default setting on Google Images, traffic to the Nude Barre website from Google has decreased.

Though she did not share exact figures, Carpenter suspects the drop in traffic is due to the blurring issue. “The main consistent theme that I see is that our reach and daily spend has dropped month-over-month since August, even though the allocated budget has stayed the same or increased,” Carpenter said.

This is especially hurting the company during all-important sales periods like Black Friday and spike searches for holiday party outfits. For Google, Nude Barre doubled allocated dollar spend in November over the previous month — but that resulted in approximately just $600 worth of ads running throughout the month despite the busy Black Friday sale. Carpenter said this is likely due to the audience shrinking over the past few months. “November was our highest DTC revenue month all year,” she said, but that was mainly from ramping up Meta ads to offset the drop in Google traffic.

A Google spokesperson confirmed that “SafeSearch blurring is designed to protect people from inadvertently encountering explicit or graphic content. Since blurring images is a new feature, our algorithms have been optimized for safety and in some cases that can mean that content which is less explicit may be blurred, which is what happened here,” the spokesperson said, who added that people can easily unblur them by clicking on the image in the viewer. “Whether you are an advertiser does not impact blurring in Search results. We appreciate the feedback and our teams are always working on improving our technology to ensure that our systems strike the right balance.”

It’s a particularly frustrating issue for a small business to deal with. “Our models are actually wearing the products but they look naked,” Carpenter said, “which is the point of the brand, but it does make it challenging from an advertising perspective.” Carpenter first launched Nude Barre locally in New York in 2009, inspired by her ballet career and difficulty finding darker ballet tights to match her deeper skin tone. In 2019, Serena Williams became an investor along with Bumble founder Whitney Wolfe Herd. Since then, Carpenter has increasingly upped digital marketing efforts to grow Nude Barre’s DTC business. And digital advertising on Google and Meta has been a big part of that playbook. 

Figuring out the Google algorithms

For online brands that specialize in specific products, SEO search is important for reaching new customers or retargeting existing ones. Rachel Hernandez, director of brand strategy at SEO consulting firm The Hoth, said, “consider that 89% of all buying experiences start with a search engine like Google.” Beyond that, users tend to stick with the first few search results, primarily the top five organic results. 

As such, getting hit with a SafeSearch blur can significantly impact whether a user will decide to click further on that result.

The challenge for brands, according to Hernandez, is that “Google is constantly updating and changing its algorithm” — both through official updates and beta tests. This can make it hard for brands to keep track of all these changes, she said. And, to figure out if a recent algorithmic change is impacting their ad reach and what kind of traffic they are getting to their website.

Then there’s the issue of Google’s algorithms being able to successfully distinguish between models wearing skin-colored underwear and actual nude images. Hernandez believes it will take the AI evolving to differentiate a product listing from actual inappropriate content. “That’s especially true if enough people notice these types of issues and bring them up to Google – who can then correct them with an algorithm update,” she said.

But in the meantime, businesses like Nude Barre are feeling a financial impact. Carpenter said that Nude Barre is currently investing upwards of $200 a day in Google advertising, but the platform only “spends” $15 to $20 a day of that budget. Before, Carpenter said Google’s platform would usually hit the brand’s preset budget. She suspects that Google isn’t spending all of Nude Barre’s allocated ad dollars because of limitations due to censoring content.

Over the past few weeks, Carpenter said she has noticed some flags in the brand’s Google ads and has been appealing them; Many of these images were flagged for “prohibited content,” with many featuring models wearing the brand’s bras and underwear. “We are still seeing the spend being suppressed day to day,” she said. 

“They don’t really tell us why, and they never say SafeSearch,” Carpenter said. “But ultimately if it is turned on on your devices, the results won’t show our ads to you because it’s assumed you don’t want to see certain types of content.”

Even in previous years, Nude Barre had a difficult time submitting ads to Google and Meta — which typically got rejected due to the allusion of displayed nudity. Some of the tips from ad reps were to try tweaking images to show less cleavage, for example. “But we want to show real bodies and some of the models will have naturally some cleavage or cellulite,” Carpenter said.

A category problem

Approval of ads of “sensitive” products have been a common issue for brands in certain categories, whether it be lingerie or health supplements, said Katya Constantine, founder of agency Digishopgirl Media. 

Constantine said she hasn’t seen many specific instances of blurring, but some brands using what’s considered sensitive imagery are receiving more “limited” flagging likely due to SafeSearch. “When an ad is deemed limited it gets scaled down,” Constantine said. There is no official explanation as to why it’s happening, she said. “It’s unclear whether it’s due to decline in search, more competitors advertising, or costs increasing making them a higher point of entry,” Constantine explained. While the hiccups have not resulted in a decline in campaign output for her clients, some product categories aren’t necessarily seeing growth either. 

To get past the censoring, Nude Barre has been testing various campaign creatives, aiming to use less explicit keywords so as to not trigger the algorithm. “We’re using different words besides ‘nude,’ like ‘skin tone’ or ‘flesh tone,’ and making sure we’re using them on our website for SEO,” Carpenter said. “But we haven’t cracked it.” 

Beyond that, the company has mainly turned to organic marketing tactics to get around it, with much of this being focused on social media posts and influencer marketing. Typically, influencers will feature Nude Barre’s products by incorporating them into videos like “get ready with me” or other daily tutorials. The company is also leaning into being censored, creating paid ads that feature captions like: “so good Meta won’t let us show it to you.” Meta’s policy states that while brands are allowed to publish educational posts about their products, ads “must not focus on sexual pleasure.” As with Google, this policy sometimes results in Nude Barre’s Instagram posts and ads being flagged as explicit or inappropriate.

Startups in other categories like sexual wellness and period care have also run into obstacles advertising on digital platforms — including Google, Meta and TikTok. At times, these platforms can take down imagery and language referring to sexual wellness or periods, citing the content to be inappropriate — but without explaining to the brands exactly what is inappropriate about the ads. Companies often respond to the censorship with creativity and humor. Others are testing the platforms for bias. Sexual wellness brand Unbound, for instance, recently tested Meta’s adult product or services policy by creating a fake men’s brand to test their discrimination hypothesis. According to the company, it had an easier time getting Meta to approve ads from the fictional men’s brand. 

Blurring in particular doesn’t appear widespread among lingerie brands, but it’s part of a bigger set of challenges they face when it comes to Google advertising. 

Ranjan Roy, vp of strategy at lingerie brand Adore Me, said “we haven’t seen the blurred search problem, however, we have seen regular issues with images fed into Google for the shopping feed and ads.” Roy explained that any kind of Adore Me model image can receive an outright “not eligible” rejection, implying noncompliance with Google Ads policies. “And even product flatlays or models wearing shirts and skirts can receive the ‘limited eligibility’ campaign status,” Roy said. “So it definitely poses a problem we’ve been trying to work through.”  

Carpenter finds herself frustrated by the situation — especially when she sees bigger brands not having their images censored. For now, the way that her company deals with these issues is by experimenting with different content, images and language, until Nude Barre figures out exactly what a platform like Google’s algorithms will and won’t allow.

But, that only works until Nude Barre runs afoul of a new algorithmic change.

“We need to solve the issue beyond just trying different things, and that’s the conversation we’re having with our reps,” Carpenter said.