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Are media giants & search engine PPE restrictions helping or hindering the fight against Covid-19

By Chris Dawson October 5, 2020 - 11:00 am

Selling PPE online in the midst of a pandemic sounds like the easiest job in the world but PPE restrictions aren’t making life easy. Today, Tim Banks from Tuffshop, a long time supplier of workwear, including PPE for a range of professions, explores the challenges they have faced over the past six months and call for an adjustment to media giants’ & search engines’ approach to PPE restrictions in the future:

The COVID-19 pandemic has created an enormous spike in demand for PPE with individuals, businesses, health care authorities and governments worldwide, all buying supplies in much larger quantities than ever before. However, back in March just before the UK lockdown, Google, Facebook, Amazon and eBay all placed restrictions on advertising face masks, hand sanitiser and other PPE items being sold on their respective platforms.

The rush to implement PPE restrictions

Google merchant center accounts with feeds that mentioned face masks were suspended, Facebook ads were disallowed and many eBay and Amazon listings were removed. The reasons were to prevent price gouging and protect stocks for health authorities. This makes some sense at the start of a pandemic when demand outstrips supply and lives are at risk but how the restrictions were put into place seem quite draconian. The algorithms that are used seem to be extremely basic to say the least.

There are many stories of Google accounts being suspended for contravening the Sensitive Events policy when in fact they were simply doing what they had been doing long before the pandemic. Using keywords such as mask, goggles, respirator, sanitizer etc seems to have been enough to have your account suspended in some cases. Online forums have many examples of accounts being restricted for selling t-shirts, jewellery, pet accessories & DVDs with the word mask in the title or image.

So what do you do if you’re a PPE supplier?

When your whole business is to supply Workwear & PPE (personal protective equipment) and the largest online companies suddenly restrict your products, suspend your accounts and block your ads, it has a massive impact. Genuine long-term businesses like Tuffshop.co.uk that had been selling PPE prior to the pandemic were treated just the same as individuals springing up overnight and selling specific items at crazy mark-ups.

Tuffshop has supplied PPE to businesses, councils and large organisations including government departments, public utility companies and the NHS for over ten years. We were part of a PPE supply chain long before Coronvirus. We supply PPE from the leading brands Our products are CE approved, meet all required standards and are certified for the particular job they are designed for. We are trusted, safe and good at what we do as we’ve been doing it for a long time.

However… we cannot advertise due to the media giants advertising policies. Their algorithms simply aren’t doing the job to protect legitimate PPE businesses. Tuffshop has new PPE designed to protect against Coronavirus that is available to businesses and the general public but can’t be advertised or sold on the main selling channels.

The case against draconian PPE restrictions

Facemasks are required by almost every adult in the UK to prevent the spread of the Coronavirus so why are adverts restricted so heavily? Only basic fabric face masks that make no additional claims can be advertised. There are many masks available that offer much more protection against coronavirus but can’t be advertised even though they meet all the legal requirements and are scientifically backed.

The 5log face mask is a perfect example. PPE is still required by many, many industries. Respirators are still required by spray painters and chemical engineers, facemasks, safety goggles, nitrile gloves, handwipes etc etc are still required by tradespeople that cannot, by law, do the job without them.

It makes little sense to restrict genuine businesses from selling these products now that supply can accommodate the demand. The restrictions probably cause higher prices and add to the illusion that PPE is not available when it is.

Google Merchant Center

Our Google Merchant Center suspension came from nowhere, the explanation given was ‘Account suspended due to misrepresentation of self or product’ we removed all masks, respirators, goggles, sanitizers, cleaning products, wipes and all other items we thought may be causing the issue but we can’t remove all references at Tuffshop as we are a Workwear & PPE business.

After a few weeks and a few appeals, we had our Google Merchant Center account reinstated… but then we were suspended again a few days later and had to go through the same appeals processes. We had to guess what to do as there weren’t and still aren’t clear guidelines as to what constitutes a breach of policy – if sellers were informed of which COVID-19 specific keywords would result in a suspension, they could and would avoid using them.

Marketplaces and Social Media

Amazon and eBay both heavily restrict sales and seller support are unable to help with the issue.

Social media is also heavily restricted with Facebook and Instagram rejecting and removing ads.

The restrictions started in March and six months later in October, we are still facing difficulties with ad disapprovals and living with the risk of policy breaches and account suspensions despite being a PPE provider for over 10 years. With lockdown #2 just beginning it is unbelievable that the algorithms and policies haven’t been improved.

How PPE restrictions should be policed

There is no playbook for managing a pandemic online, the marketplaces are in unchartered territory so some understanding is required but much better communication is required. When a big player changes one of their Policies it can, overnight, effect 1000’s of UK businesses in every possible way, both positive and negative.

The marketplaces have always had problems with monitoring dis-information. How they manage their content was a topic discussed during the recent anti-trust hearing in front of US congress. When it comes to a complete policy change as was the case with the Coronavirus, someone, somewhere decided what can and can’t be advertised. This is where a lot of issues lie.

There is a fair argument that anyone taking advantage of the pandemic by price gouging should be restricted. On the other hand, if the restrictions were removed then prices are more likely to be driven down due to the increase in supply. However it’s policed, it seems to be common sense to allow long term businesses to continue selling the products they were selling before any rule changes and any restrictions should be towards new sellers.

If these sites want to police the internet, they need to address the ‘guilty until proven innocent’ approach towards sellers and take the website selling history into account before laying out blanket bans and overall, ensure their algorithms are fit for purpose.

  • 10 months ago

    Good article, we experienced a similar situation with one of our suppliers – they were importing PPE BEFORE the current pandemic yet pretty much overnight they had to jump through hoops due to a change in the google and facebook ads. I think they started to advertise on linkedin posts and groups but not sure if that got stopped also.

    Big improvements need to be made for this going forward, it is one thing to try and stop people jumping on the bandwagon to try and make a few quid but for previous reputable established companies to be hindered is disgusting especially when it is the established firms which have the track record and know what they are doing and can actually deliver genuine product.

    I am pleased you have written about this as something has to be improved. The ‘guilty until proven innocent’ approach towards sellers is wrong and very frustrating.

  • 10 months ago

    It’s very frustrating – one of my clients had a gutter leaf guard listing removed (one of eBay’s top sellers for that product, listing two years old and thousands of sales) because it had the word “Protection” in it.
    As for face masks we now have the ludicrous situation where there are over a million results for that term, the majority in Fancy dress masks or Health and Beauty face mask categories.

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