Uh oh, Google - you've messed with the wrong felines.
Self-identified "cougars" - and businesses trying to court them - are crying foul this week after the search engine stopped running some ads for dating websites that connect women to younger men.
The ads were classified as "non-family friendly" within the past week, says Thomas Koshy, VP of marketing at Avid Life Media, the parent company of Cougarlife.com, the largest dating site that caters to that audience.
Cougarlife noticed a drop in traffic after Google pulled the ads a few days ago, said spokeswoman Caitlyn Coverly, adding that 50 per cent of its revenue is pulled in by these ads.
The ads are part of the Google custom-content network and formerly appeared on websites, such as YouTube and MySpace, that carry third-party advertising. Cougarlife has also noted its ads' absence from sites like askmen.com, ezinearticles.com and imdb.com. Ads on such sites will often be related to content on that site. For example, a lifestyle article on dating in different generations might bring up an ad for a cross-generational dating site.
Mr. Koshy says Google doesn't appear to be applying the same standard to other cross-generational dating sites. On Wednesday, he found that Date a Millionaire, a website mainly geared toward younger women seeking rich older men, still had the same type of ads up and running - apparently untouched by the non-family friendly classification switch. While the ad shows a young woman being draped in jewellery by a seemingly older man, nowhere in its primary advertising does it use the terms "sugar daddy" or "sugar baby."
Cougarlife's ad shows a fresh-faced male above the tag line, "Think all the good guys are taken? You're looking in the wrong generation. Meet attractive young men." The company's name is emblazoned at the top.
Google says cougars were not a deliberate target and that many factors could have been at play to change the ad classification.
"I've gone through and found both sugar daddy sites and what's being deemed a cougar site on custom content networks," says Google Canada spokeswoman Wendy Rozeluk. "It just so happens that not all ads in that category are deemed family safe and that might be because of the content."
The network has a list of "trigger words," she says, adding that cougar could very well be one of them. Each time an ad is changed or an issue is raised, the trigger prompts someone to manually look at the ad and reapprove the ad. That often includes the judgment call - is it family safe or is it not?
"It's not about the company, it's about the content of the ad and the landing page," she says.
While Ms. Rozeluk says she can't comment on specific advertisers, she says that if they were already approved, something might have been changed to trigger a reapproval.
"It might've been someone suggesting it to us or someone might've escalated it, which also happens."
In an e-mail to Cougarlife.com, which wanted an explanation for why its Mother's Day banners were being denied, Google representatives said, "The Policy Team is sticking pretty strongly with their assertion that the concept of 'Cougar Dating' will be classified as Non-Family Safe for the time being. We're hoping to revisit this policy with them in the future."
The decision is discriminatory against women who are looking for love among younger men, says Linda Franklin, author of Don't Ever Call Me Ma'am: The Real Cougar Woman Handbook.
"Why would a sugar daddy site be okay to be on family-friendly Google sites but not a cougar dating site?" she asked from her office in New York. "Why is one okay and one considered X-rated, if you want to put it that way?"
She wrote about the move on Wednesday on her website TheRealCougarWoman.com, which promotes the lifestyle as empowering, and was flooded with angry e-mails from women in her community.
Jeremy Mape, chief executive officer of cougar lifestyle website Urban Cougar, said the removal of the ads is going to hurt awareness of cougar dating online.
"There's a dating service for everything under the sun," he said. "Why they've singled out cougar dating, I don't get that."
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