Google, AdSense and fair play
This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on November 4, 2005
One of the ironies of American culture is that in some sense, we do tend to punish success. One-time start-ups that began corporate life as the darlings of the media have since seen their reputations tarnished and often simply for being good at what they do. Microsoft, Amazon.com and eBay have all come under heightened scrutiny after growing large enough to dominate their particular fields.
This isn't all bad, of course. In each case, there were some questionable practices and/or policies that, because of the dominance of these companies, left customers and competitors with little practical recourse.
It might be time to add Google to the list.
If you've been to popular sites like AllMusic.com or AllMovie.com, you've seen Google's AdSense program in place. They're simple, text-based ads almost like the classified ads in ComputorEdge or your local paper.
It's an innovative, clever idea, AdSense. First off, Google isn't limited to placing ads on its own Web pages. AdSense is an advertising-feeding program in which Web site operators sign up, put the AdSense code on their pages, and the ads display on those sites. This gives Google's AdSense program tremendous reach providing real value for advertisers. And because Google's content-parsing technology is used to feed ads related to the content of any page their appear on, AdSense provides micro-targeted advertising.
Better yet, it gives the publishers of even small sites the ability to make some money off their traffic.
For instance, I have AdSense on my CD reviews so Google ads display across the bottom of each review. Looking at one review now, I see ads for music downloads and piano recordings a pretty good match for the folks likely to read CD reviews online.
I've not gotten rich off AdSense, but about every 9 months, I get a check for $100. It helps me keep my 900+ CD reviews online and to publish Turbula.net, a literary and arts magazine that also has Google ads on many of its pages.
Because advertisers pay Google per each click-through on one of the ads (which Google then shares with AdSense publishers it's how I get a check every so often), Google has fairly strict rules for Web publishers who sign up for AdSense.
If Google is charing advertisers based on click-throughs, they have to be sure those are legitimate click-throughs, and not just webmasters clicking on them themselves.
I can't imagine anyone would argue with that.
But what's hurting Google's reputation right now is its policy of not only cancelling any account they suspect of having fraudulent clicks on it, but their refusal to give any real details of what fraud they suspect.
Here's an e-mail that was sent to Morgan Davis, who runs the the DTL.net web hosting business (where my sites, trageser.com and turbula.net, are hosted). Morgan was using AdSense on his HomePort San Diego page and San Diego Homeschooling site:
"It has come to our attention that invalid clicks have been generated on the Google ads on your site(s). We have therefore disabled your Google AdSense account. Please understand that this step was taken in an effort to protect the interest of the AdWords advertisers.
"A publisher's site may not have invalid clicks on any ad(s), including but not limited to clicks generated by a publisher on his own web pages, clicks generated through the use of robots, automated clicking tools, or any other deceptive software."
So the irony is that anyone could have generated false clicks.
I've known Morgan since the late 1980s; he first made his mark when he wrote the Pro-Line BBS software for the the Apple II line of computers while he was still in high school. He is one of the most honest people I know, and if Morgan says he didn't generate fake clicks, I believe him. He is tech savvy enough to know, and honest to a fault.
Morgan wrote to Google trying to find out what may have happened. Here is the e-mail he received in reply:
"We understand that you wish to receive specific information regarding the invalid clicks we observed on your account. However, due to the proprietary nature of our algorithm, we cannot disclose any details about how our monitoring technology works or what specifics we found on your account."
Nice, eh? We're accusing you of fraud, but won't explain why.
I wrote to Google, with Morgan's permission, and asked if they had an explanation for all this.
Michael Mayzel, with Google's media relations department, was very helpful and provided a very quick reply to my questions:
Is there an appeals process for AdSense participants whom Google believes to have engaged in fraudulent activity? If so, where is this process spelled out?
"Google does have an appeal process, which is outlined here https://www.google.com/support/adsense/bin/answer.py?answer=14229"
Are the account closures automated, or does a Google staff member confirm the invalid clickthroughs before an account is suspended?
"There are both manual and automated reviews. Automated reviews are based on past human review criteria. In addition to the automated system, we have a team dedicated to detecting invalid activity using several specialized tools and a wide variety of techniques These techniques are based on extensive experience tracking and monitoring click behavior and analyzing scenarios."
What steps, if any, does Google take to confirm that invalid clickthroughs are truly the fault of the site publisher?
"Google's proprietary technology analyzes clicks to try and determine whether they fit a pattern of activity intended to artificially drive up an advertiser's costs. Our system strives to distinguish between clicks generated through normal use by users and clicks generated by unethical users and automated robots. Human reviews supplement this process."
All of which is reasonable on its face, except for this: Nowhere in its correspondence with Morgan did Google's AdSense managers ever steer him to the appeals site.
I found similar confusion and frustration when I did a (Google) search for "adsense account disabled" On Webmaster-oriented sites like webmasterworld.com and theadminzone.com there were dozens of forum threads expressing the exasperation of losing a source of income and not knowing why.
Supposedly, one of the things that can get your account closed is disclosing correspondence with Google or any details of your AdSense account so it will be interesting to see if my AdSense account is closed after this column runs. I'll keep you informed moving forward.
As with those who are frustrated with eBay, there aren't a lot of realistic alternatives to Google's AdSense. Like eBay, Google's simply got the numbers to make it all work.
Yahoo has a beta version of a similar program its Yahoo Publisher Network. Because I'm still signed up with Google's AdSense, and the contract is exclusive in regards to text ads on your site, I've not been able to check out Yahoo. But Morgan has gone with Yahoo as he's now banned for life from AdSense. We'll check back in with Morgan in a few months and see how YPN compares to AdSense from one man's point of view.
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