Maine Munchies Ad

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Not Search Engine Spam

Stopping Spam O'Reilly BookIt's been a long time since I've engaged in serious spam fighting - about a decade. In 1998, the O'Reilly book Stopping Spam mentioned a spam filtering solution I had designed and helped implement for AOL's usenet system. Now, I find myself confronted with a very different form of spam, garbage traffic from Google's AdSense for Domains program. This new spam is costing my Google AdWords clients money and wasting my time. If you want the details, read my last post where I posed the question, "Is Google Partnered with Spammers?" Unfortunately, it looks like the answer is yes. After noticing unusual traffic from Google's Search network (not the Content network), I filled out the form to contact Google's Click Quality Team and expected to wait 3-5 business days for a rigorous review. Instead, within a few hours, I received this canned response:
Our team received your report regarding suspicious clicks on your AdWords ads. Thank you for your patience while we researched this issue.

After thoroughly reviewing your [snip] campaign from [start date] through [end date], we were unable to find any conclusive evidence of invalid clicks charged to your account. The clicks your ads received appear to fit a pattern of normal user behavior.

Our monitoring system is designed to protect advertisers' ads from unethical or automated activity. Multiple data points are automatically analyzed for each click, as our system aims to discard potentially invalid activity before it is charged to your account.

Richard, please know that clicks from users on the search network are not automatically considered invalid. We've found that AdWords ads showing on the search network often receive clicks from well-qualified leads within the advertisers' markets. As a result, the return on investment for these pages can be comparable to that of Google search. To determine the value of traffic you've received from the search network, we recommend you monitor your conversion rate.

If you aren't satisfied with the value of the traffic from, please reply to this email. We can then assist you in preventing your ad from appearing on these pages.

To learn more about measuring conversions on your site, please visit

We hope this addresses your concerns. Please let us know if you have additional questions that we may assist you with.
I don't think they understood what the problem was. I wasn't talking about the entire Search network - just invalid clicks from one of Google's AdSense for Domains partners. A whopping 72% of clicks for a single exact match keyword originated from the domain. Investigating this domain, it turns out to be owned by a company called that owns DomainSponsor, a parked domain operation. Now, I don't have a problem with domainers or parked domain sites. What I do object to, however, is a situation where my clients opt into the Google AdWords Search network, expecting to pay for search engine advertising. Instead, they find themselves paying for garbage traffic. Let me emphasize that this garbage traffic originated from the Search network and not the Content network. The Content network was not enabled for my client's campaign.

I'm quite annoyed with Google, because now I have to waste my time researching this problem and devising strategies to minimize the risk of further garbage traffic for all of my clients. In the meantime, Google seems to be ignoring the detailed facts I provide them and is happy to take my client's money and share it with this company. Is this a bunch of spammers? I don't use the word lightly, so I'm not going to claim they are. I'm more annoyed with Google than with them, because it's Google's system that is permitting them to take money from unsuspecting AdWords advertisers. This text from the DomainSponsor site is misleading:
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. DomainSponsor shares every dollar earned through traffic and searches from your domain equally with you. So each time a visitor clicks on an ad, we both get paid.
None of my clients have "agreed to pay DomainSponsor each time their ad is clicked." What's perplexing is that none of the clicks came from actual searches. You can tell by the format of the referring URL. Again, read my last post on Google and spammers if you want the details. Rather than being reactive, I'm going to be proactive and implement new strategies for my clients. Skip to the end of this post if you want those strategies. Now, I'm going to post research I've found that suggests this problem is well documented, has been ignored by Google, and is only going to get worse for Google's AdWords customers. Consider this timeline:

Sep 2004 - Karsten M. Self identifies as a homepage hijacking site

Dec 2005
- A blogger details AdWords clickfraud involving

Dec 2005
- Respected Search Engine Watch (and now Search Engine Land) editor Danny Sullivan declares Google AdSense For Domains Program Overdue For Reform

Dec 2005
- Microsoft Research includes and in a list of Typo-Squatting Domains that Serve Questionable Advertisements

Dec 2005
- AdWords for Domain Garbage Traffic thread on SEW forum illustrates search traffic pattern that suggest click fraud: "The proportion of the search traffic is way out of line (Google 20%, domainsponsor 29%, information 41%)"

Jan 2006
- Search Engines Making Millions Off Type-In Traffic From Domains

Apr 2006
- Click Fraud thread on SEO Chat says, "virtually all of google traffic is coming from"

Jun 2006
- Buys Domain Portfolio of 35,000 Names, CEO claims, "An estimated 10-20% of paid search traffic now comes through direct navigation. This provides a great opportunity for, which has a rich history in this space."

Jul 2006
- An outfit called Chesterton Holdings is exposed as a "domain tasting" rat

Sep 2006 - Chesterton Holdings shares the same corporate address as the company headquarters?

Sep 2006 - Completes Acquisition of Ten Domain Portfolios

Nov 2006
- posts a 640% growth rate through 2005

Dec 2006
- Jeffrey K. Rohrs drafts The Sausage Manifesto, An Open Letter to Paid Search Networks on Behalf of PPC Advertisers

Jan 2007
- I pose this question: Is Google Partnered with Spammers?

You decide.

What's next? Is there anyone at Google who can solve this problem? Perhaps Shuman Ghosemajumder? Until Google stops this practice of distributing search engine ads to places other than actual search engines, I recommend that AdWords advertisers implement one of the following strategies:
  1. Turn off the Search network entirely
  2. Lower bids to stay out of the top 5
  3. Split ads into 2 campaigns: Google only w/ normal bids + Search network w/ lower bids
  4. Request Google block * + *
I've uncovered a disturbing fact that might suggest that Google is, in fact, partnered with spammers. Again, I'm not calling anyone a spammer. I'm simply reporting facts I've found while trying to sort things out for my clients. I'll list two sources, so there's at least some sort of corroboration. It appears that is the creator and distributor of spyware, a malicious adware program called SearchAndBrowse (sources here and here). If that really is the case, then Google is, in effect, taking AdWords advertisers' money and funding a spyware company. That'd be awfully ironic considering that Google has published a proposal to help fight deceptive Internet software which specifically mentions spyware.

Could someone at Google please sort this out? For any AdWords advertiser who happens to stumble upon this post, check your server logs for and read my above recommendations for dealing with this garbage traffic on the Google AdWords Search network. Call 1-866-2-Google if you are experiencing click fraud on the Search network. Let them know Rich@Apogee sent you. ;-)

Apogee Tags (made with TagBuildr): , , , , , , , , , ,


Blogger Ian F. said...

Excellent post Rich, very informative and well researched. Some serious food for thought there.

Fri Jan 12, 04:24:00 AM EST  
Blogger Richard said...

Thanks, Ian. I was thoroughly disappointed with Google's response. The more I researched this garbage traffic that was chewing up my client's PPC budget, the more irritated I became. Figured it'd be helpful for others if I shared my findings. Caveat emptor, I suppose.

Fri Jan 12, 08:51:00 AM EST  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

how is this garbarge traffic if it converts? You've done a ton of research, but you don't get it. If the clicks were invalid or spam, you shouldn't pay for it, but direct type-in traffic is considered to be the highest converting traffic outside of direct search an advertiser can have access. Do your research, so you can properly educate your clients so they understand that this traffic is valuable converting traffic

Fri Jan 12, 03:16:00 PM EST  
Anonymous Jeremy Luebke said...

I can guarantee you 90% of traffic coming from was driven via arbitrage. They are not delivering all this traffic via type-ins. At most, 10%.

These guys are one of the biggest arbitragers on the net. The reason it doesn't convert is because they bid on long tail search words for cheap and then send the clicks to ads targeted at the high paying search terms. Terms which may be related, but are not actually what the user was searching for.

Fri Jan 12, 03:43:00 PM EST  
Blogger Richard said...

Anonymous (but from a Marchex IP address), I can see why you'd take that point of view. ;-)

Yeah, Jeremy, it was clear from the logs that none of the clicks were from search. All were from clicking on "navigation" links. Google should not permit this on their Search network. It's fraudulent.

Fri Jan 12, 03:53:00 PM EST  
Anonymous abhilash said...

Richard, one HELL of a post. Seriously. The timeline was the most impressive, esp. the part about Oversee & Chesterton addresses. Coming in 2nd was the spyware chestnut. I love researched blog posts.

And I totally, wholeheartedly, emphatically disagree with the person hiding behind an "anonymous" post. I've got clients who are victims of this B/S, and although I've done my best to stop paying for traffic from these *EXACT* sources, Google has made it impossible. The position totally sucks: either deal with it or stop paying for the search traffic altogether. What kind of choice is that? How can a company force clients to pay for products they don't want?!? (and doesn't this count as friggin' evil already?).

Richard, I'd like to help you with this. I've got some valuable data that adds up to one advertiser spending over $100K on this Garbage (yes, absolutely Garbagio) traffic over the past year.

Drop me a line if you'd like some help! Keep the faith. :)

Sat Jan 13, 03:27:00 AM EST  
Blogger Richard said...

Thanks, Abhilash. Connecting the dots, I'm seeing a picture that's painting Google in a very, very ugly light. If it's true that

1) Creates and distributes spyware
2) Steals domains from other domainers

What does that say about Google? If you read the text about the AdSense for Domains program, it's clear that Google is "seeking new partnerships with large domain portfolios owners." So, the question still stands: Is Google partnered with spammers?

There's nothing wrong with Google's domain park program. That traffic should not be on the Search network, though. It should be on the Content network (where advertisers can use site exclusion) or in a new, separate network distribution option.

Can anyone get through to Google? Is there anyone at Google who cares about this situation?

Sat Jan 13, 01:16:00 PM EST  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is not ok to use the 'content network' on 'parked' domains according to Google TOS... more accurately, you cannot use 'normal' Google ads (the kind that display the content network) on parked pages.

I'm not at all saying this is right, but it's their TOS that won't allow 'normal' ads on parked pages. I must use the domain version of adsense. Those ads are entirely under Google's control.

unless Google is indexing parked pages all of a sudden, none of the traffic is from Search.

Sun Jan 14, 09:25:00 PM EST  
Blogger searchquant said...

I had the pleasure of meeting Jay Weintraub of last year and came away impressed with he and his colleague's level of knowledge in SEM (which was much better than my own, and I consider myself no slouch).

[Incidentally, Jay wrote a great article on the relative conversion value of Y! Search, Y! Content, Google Search and Google Content, which is at

I can't blame them for perfectly exploiting Google's desire for growth, advertisers' desire for growth and advertisers'/agencies' lack of robust tracking. I can, however, point a figure straight into the heart of Google and say

"This ain't Feed The World muthaf@#ka!"

Really, this distribution fraud is going to come back and haunt Google.

IN THE MEANTIME, bear in mind that is selling traffic directly, and I've heard first-hand that AOL is getting ready to sell traffic directly to 2000 top advertisers it has identified as targets. If you can buy directly from Ask and AOL to get their relatively good traffic volume and quality - and if you can manage it - then at that point you should simply be able to opt out of everything but, right?


Wed Jan 24, 02:06:00 AM EST  
Blogger Richard said...

Searchquant, I think you're spot on with your label of "distribution fraud" vs "click fraud" for this particular problem. I read both of your posts on the matter: F#@K Click Fraud! It's Distribution Fraud That Matters and More On Distribution Fraud in Search.

Interesting that you met someone at Oversee. I wonder if they know what's going on. I wonder, too, how much money both Google and Oversee would lose if Google dropped parked domains from the Search network and put an end to this distribution fraud.

Wed Jan 24, 05:52:00 PM EST  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Complain all you want, domain traffic converts better than your search engine traffic.

Direct Navigation (type in traffic) 4.23%
Search Engines 2.30%
Internet Links 0.96%

Thu Mar 22, 10:48:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Richard said...

Ah, but "domain traffic" is not the same as "direct navigation" which includes navigating directly via bookmark. How do you think most people who bookmark a site, found that site in the first place? I'd like to see that 4.23% figure broken out by the different types of "direct navigation" traffic.

Do you have a link to the underlying source of that 4.23% vs 2.30% data? I'd like to see the actual research.

Fri Mar 23, 08:43:00 AM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great article, I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

Keep up the research!

Wed Apr 04, 04:35:00 AM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi, were you ever able to block domainsponsor traffic using the site exclusion? I read your posts here and on the search engine forum where the Google rep replied how to do it. Can you just post your answer so we all know if it works! Thans!!

Sat May 12, 07:58:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Richard said...

Yes, the method explained to me by Google does appear to be working. I'll write a full post with an update. In the meantime, to block traffic, simply block this domain via site exclusion:

For more details read the post entitled AdWords Tip: Blocking Parked Domains on the Search Network

Mon May 14, 07:51:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Richard said...

Regarding the anonymous comment that posted about the pdf that uses a 4.23% conversion rate statistic, I found where that underlying number came from. It's meaningless. Read Domain Parking Traffic Conversion Myth and you'll understand.

Mon May 14, 07:56:00 PM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said... machines are also trying to perform zone transfers which means they are digging into the private nature of BIND and DNS servers. AKA they are hacking to get a buck.

This points out the backdoor & bad business activities of and I wouldn't be surprised if they are trying to maliciously stuff a DNS record to vulnerable DNS servers.

Personally this seems more like a scumbag operation than any legitimate one, reinforced from their logged activities seen by our servers.

Tue Aug 07, 07:00:00 PM EDT  
Anonymous Joe said...

Great Post!

There is a hard limit of 25 active campaigns at any given time, so for managers that like to already separate the Search and Content network, this is potentially too burdensome to add an additional layer of separation for Google Search vs the Search Network.

So while this may seem to be the best option, it will not always be possible.

Tue Nov 27, 05:00:00 PM EST  
Blogger Adrian said...

I'm new to the game of SEM, and we've finally run into this distribution fraud issue. Thing is, I had to pile through pages of posts, etc., trying to find out what the hell is going on. One thing that would have been useful is this: putting together a list of these hacks that are costing our clients money... a sort of boycott in our AdWords accounts to keep traffic away from these people: (i.e. (from what I understand that's spyware... can we block it?)
Here's the point: there's more to ad. What do you say? We can post this list on your blog or mine (

*Moreover*, as far as the conversion thing goes, it's a joke. For instance, my clients aren't selling two-dollar widgets... more like much more expensive stuff, so it doesn't help to have garbage traffic costing the clients money when they *are not* going to buy something.

Mon Dec 03, 05:09:00 PM EST  
Blogger Richard said...

FYI, Adrian, hacks are no longer necessary. Google now allows you to block parked domain traffic entirely. Details here.

I would recommend blocking parked domain traffic in a pure search advertising campaign. For a content campaign, I'd keep the traffic. HTH.

Wed Mar 12, 01:43:00 PM EDT  
Anonymous Paul said...

I'm fairly new to Google. I've done the reading, separated the search and content campaigns.

Just came across your post - I'm quite annoyed to have found out that have paid for these spam clicks.

Thanks for the info though - now turned off.

Tue Apr 01, 07:12:00 AM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Excellent post!! We got the same response from Google and are having the same problem with

Wed Jun 18, 12:01:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Buck said...

Thanks for this interesting (and frankly a little scary) post. We just started using Adwords to try to generate some traffic to our small 3 item e-store. Now I'm concerned that some of what we're paying is being wasted. We have a very limited budget. Looking thru our adwords account, I don't see anyplace that lists where the traffic is coming from (such as We have a "starter" account. Do we need to upgrade to a "standard" account to see this information and if so, once we upgrade, where should we be looking?

I didn't follow most of what has been discussed here re: domain traffic, search traffic, content traffic and what defines these various things. Could someone give a quick explanation?


Mon Jul 07, 06:43:00 PM EDT  

Post a Comment

<< Home