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Monday, January 08, 2007

Is Google Partnered with Spammers?

I've given Google the benefit of the doubt when it comes to click fraud. Over the past year or so, whenever a sensational article concerning click fraud crops up, I've argued that it's largely up to the advertisers to manage their PPC accounts to minimize click fraud. Google's been claiming that only a small fraction of its traffic is invalid. Over the past few days, I'm seeing as much as 40% of the traffic for a client account coming from bogus sites. This account is structured to only display ads on Google and its Search network. The Content network is turned off. All of the fraudulent traffic is coming from a single domain: searchportal.information.com. Tracking the traffic via log files, I'm seeing some rather disturbing trends. Google talks about how good its click fraud prevention algorithms are and how diligent they are about not charging advertisers for clicks. I'm not seeing that. I'm seeing one of Google's "Adsense for Domains" partners cheating my client. I've been aware of Google's parked domain program for awhile, but until now, none of my clients have been adversely affected. Note that in answering the question "Will my ads show on parked domain sites?", Google says:
Depending on the design of the site, a parked domain site will be classified as either a search site or a content site. That means your ads may show on parked domain sites if your campaign is opted in to the search or content networks.
I have a problem with that. I can live with parked domains cropping up on the Content network. You can use the AdWords Site Exclusion Tool to block sites on the Content network. Despite suggestions that this tool now works for parked domains on the Search network, that is not the case. So, it's either turn off the Search network and lose valid traffic with invalid traffic or split a campaign into two and run ads on the Search network at lower bids. Yes, that'll minimize the risk but it still means the loss of valid traffic. I'd rather simply block the parked domain garbage sites and keep a campaign's distribution preferences set to Google + Search network.

Google's algorithms should've picked up the traffic as fraudulent. No way there are more searches from a parked domain traffic than on google.com itself. No way all these searches from different IP addresses just happened to all type the exact same keywords with the exact same case. Each search has the first letter capitalized. That's not normal search behavior. It is, however, what you'd see if someone went to a parked domain site powered by searchportal.information.com and then clicked on a link. Those pages have pretend navigation that looks something like this:

» Some Keywords
» Other Keywords
» More Keywords
» These Keywords
» Those Keywords

Those links go to a long, ugly URLs that look sort of like (for obvious reason I'm editing):

searchportal.information.com/?epl=[snip]&query=Some%20Keywords

Note the "query=" part of the URL. The keywords begin with capital letters. If anyone reading this blog entry is using the Search network, start digging through your traffic (either via web analytics or log file analyis) and see if you have been exposed to traffic from this site. Judging by Alexa, information.com has a traffic rank of 167 and 91% of that traffic is on the searchportal.information.com subdomain. Doesn't that sound fishy? I don't know if information.com owned by oversee.net who also happens to own domainsponsor.com are spammers or not. I'd be hesitant to label anyone a spammer without solid proof. I do wonder, though, where they get their traffic from. How can parked domains bring more traffic than a property like google.com? Gee, it just so happens that this is the case for some expensive keywords. Whether these guys or spammers or not, Google is guilty of cheating its clients, the AdWords advertisers. I think they're looking out for these domainers more so than their advertisers. Note this line on their parked domains page:
Powering millions of domain names, Google AdSense for domains is the industry's premier parked page service. Google is seeking new partnerships with large domain portfolios owners. As a leading innovator and one of the fastest growing ad providers on the web, we want to build strong relationships with partners who have a proven record of high-quality traffic and who share our vision of providing highly relevant advertising on parked page inventory. We align our goals squarely between Google and our partners, making the user experience positive while generating revenues for both parties.
Yikes! Millions of domain names? Where in here does it talk about the interests of the companies that pay Google's bills? Nope, not a word about the advertisers. I need to figure out how to get a clickfraud refund for my client and also how to manage all of my clients' accounts going forward to prevent this sort of fraud from happening. I need your help. If you use AdWords and are opted into the Search network, check your site traffic and see if you're paying for traffic from searchportal.information.com. Post a comment here if you are. With an Alexa rank in the top 200 of all web sites, I've got to believe many AdWords advertisers are exposed to traffic from these garbage sites. If you've complained to Google about searchportal.information.com traffic, let me know. I'd like to find out Google's response. Now, I've got some web server log file analysis to do. Sigh.

Is Google partnered with spammers? It looks that way to me. What do you think?

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6 Comments:

Anonymous Daily Domainer said...

domainsponsor.com is a popular parking program for domainers. If you own a domain name that you don't use, and if it receives traffic (type-in traffic or residual link traffic), you can park it at a domain parking service such as domainsponsor.com. The ads are supplied by Google or Yahoo and the parking service shares the revenue generated from clicks with the other of the domain.

These clicks come from legitimate traffic to the domains. Most parking services prefer domains that have type-in traffic (direct navigation), e.g. someone entering cameras.com into their browser rather than "cameras" into a search engine. This traffic is of the same quality as search engine traffic.

However, I agree these domains should not be included in the search network unless the user manually enters a term into the search bar at one of these sites. Merely clicking on a link which then, as you pointed out, generates a "search", should not qualify for inclusion in the search network as the quality of that traffic tends to be lower than that of genuine search traffic.

Mon Jan 08, 10:37:00 PM EST  
Blogger Richard said...

Good points, Daily Domainer. I agree that ads displayed from navigation through a site and don't involve active searching should NOT be included in Google's Search network.

From the advertisers' side of things, Google AdWords offers 3 choices for network distribution: Google, Search network, Content network. Whereas AdSense ads are displayed on the Content network, AdSense for Domains ads are displayed on both the Search and Content networks. That's where the problem is. I think Google should offer advertisers' 4 choices: Google, Search network, Content network, Domain network. I think Google knows, though, that most advertisers would opt out of the Domain network and they'd lose significant revenue.

I have no problem with parked domains. I do have a problem with Google not being honest about its practices. Also, looking at the domainsponsor.com FAQ, I see:

"In the DomainSponsor program, when a user types in your parked domain name, they are redirected to a custom DomainSponsor landing page populated with targeted keywords, ads and content relevant to what they are looking for. These ads are placed by advertisers who have agreed to pay DomainSponsor each time their ad is clicked."

That's simply not true. Most advertisers using AdWords believe they're buying search engine advertising or contextual advertising. Ads displayed on parked sites like those run by DomainSponsor are neither. No AdWords advertiser has "agreed to pay DomainSponsor each time their ad is clicked."

Who's at fault here? Google? DomainSponsor? Is somebody lying? Something seems wrong. Particularly for a company like Google that uses a motto of "Don't Be Evil" this doesn't sit well. I wonder if the founders even know this is happening. It's pretty lame.

Tue Jan 09, 12:46:00 AM EST  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I wonder if the founders even know this is happening."

The "parked domains" generating revenue for Google is not a new subject. Expect that the founders not only know it is happening, but are intimately involved with its creation and maintenance.

The "Don't be evil" slogan is a Google insiders joke. Google is about as corrupt as Enron.

Tue Jan 09, 07:38:00 AM EST  
Blogger GreggBorne said...

I think you might want to read the free white paper on click fraud avilable for download here: http://www.thinkpartnership.com/white-papers-request.aspx

Wed Jan 10, 02:26:00 AM EST  
Blogger Scott at Real Epicurean said...

Spammers just annoy the hell out of me, whether it's with comments (which in turn throws my stats out), emails, or whatever.

Incidentally - congratulations on joining 9rules in Round 5 recently, along with myself!

Wed Jan 10, 04:24:00 AM EST  
Blogger Richard said...

Gregg - That link doesn't tell me anything. Do you have an overview/preview of the click fraud white paper?

Scott - Congratulations to you, too, on 9rules inclusion. Spam/garbage traffic via AdWords PPC system is worse than email spam. Imagine if you were charged a few dollars for every junk email you received.

Wed Jan 10, 08:07:00 AM EST  

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