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Sunday, August 19, 2007

AdWords Team Sabotages Google Corporate Mission & Philosophy

I now understand why the AdWords team has chosen to ignore the Google mission statement. They're also ignoring Google's stated philosophy which includes the rejection of pop-up ads. There's a whole page on the Google corporate site devoted to this no pop-ups philosophy which begins:
Google does not allow pop-up ads of any kind on our site. We find them annoying. So why do they occasionally appear when you search on Google? Here are a few possible explanations:
  • You may have encountered a squatter with an address similar to Google's. Occasionally, individuals will register domain names that are one letter off from a well-known URL in hopes of attracting those who make mistakes in their typing.
Now, what I'm about to explain doesn't violate this philosophy, technically speaking, because pop-up ads are being displayed on the Google search network and not on Google's site itself. However, if they "find them annoying" yet allow them on partner sites on their own network, then they are clearly violating the stated philosophy. This example is particularly ironic given Google's choice of the word "squatter" in this context. Google is profiting from sites who engage in this kind of practice through their AdSense for Domains program. How do I know this? I've seen the traffic in clients' web server log files.

In the recent AdWords experiment I conducted, I chose not to exclude domainsponsor.com like I do now for clients' accounts. I was curious to see if I'd pay for any parked domain traffic and, if so, where that traffic would come from. What I found was that people intending to go to the Iowa GOP site (iowagop.net or iowagop.org) were instead typing iowagop.com which is a parked domain powered by searchportal.information.com which is owned by DomainSponsor which is partnered with Google. Now, going back to the above text on Google's corporate site where they talk about "a squatter with an address similar to Google's" - would iowagop.com be considered a "squatter" in this case? I don't know. I don't know what's considered typosquatting or cybersquatting versus legitimate domaining.

My point is that if Google is going to use the term "squatter" on their own site, then they shouldn't make money via their domain parking network from sites that could even be construed as squatting. I think this is the reason the AdWords team has sabotaged the Google corporate mission. They are choosing to not report to advertisers the actual domains where ads are displayed. They are, therefore, choosing to not "organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful." They are ignoring Google's mission. Judge for yourself:

searchportal.information.com

That screenshot is from a searchportal.information.com URL I traced in my firm's web server log files. Trying to figure out where that Google ad click ultimately originated from led me to the "fake" Iowa GOP site:

iowagop.com

Notice that Firefox blocked not 1 but 2 pop-ups from this site. That's what I mean by the AdWords team ignoring the Google no pop-ups corporate philosophy. If pop-ups are prohibited on Google, they should also be prohibited on the Google search network.

Now, what really irks me, though, as a buyer of pure search advertising via AdWords (content network off) is the fact that Google lumps this traffic in with their search network. This is distribution fraud, an important distinction from click fraud, which Google claims to have under control. Notice the "Iowa Straw Poll" link on the iowagop.com parked domain site. I had purchased the exact phrase [iowa straw poll] via AdWords with ad distribution set only for Google and the search network. IOW, the content network was off because I wasn't interested in contextual advertising for the experiment. My expectation, then, was to purchase the kind of traffic described on the Google help page answering the "Where will my ads appear?" question for the search network:
Your ads may appear alongside or above search results, as part of a results page as a user navigates through a site's directory, or on other relevant search pages.
Do they mention navigation through a parked domain? No! Also, I'm not talking about direct navigation from generic keyword domains. That kind of traffic from a parked domain could be considered search advertising. Here's the path for each click my firm paid for that came from this particular searchportal.information.com URL:
  1. Someone types iowagop.com when intending to visit iowagop.net
  2. They click on the Iowa Straw Poll link
That is akin to contextual advertising. No one actively typed "iowa straw poll" into a search box. No one typed a generic keyword domain like iowastrawpoll.com directly into the browser bar. Do you see how Google's got this all wrong? Is this search advertising? Not even close. Someone types "iowagop.com" and the advertiser pays for the "iowa straw poll" keyword after someone clicks on a link. Clicking on a link is not conducting a search. Hiding the details by routing all "searches" through a URL like searchportal.information.com that makes the click appear to be a search doesn't hide the fact that this is not, in fact, search advertising. It's fraud. Since Google doesn't recognize this as click fraud, I've adopted the term distribution fraud. It's arguably a bigger problem than click fraud. Other AdWords veterans are losing trust in Google due to this issue.

I can see, though, why Google doesn't want to report this kind of information to the advertisers who are paying for this traffic. That violates Google's mission. On top of that, these sites display multiple pop-ups, which is contrary to Google's no pop-ups philosophy. More important than either of those egregious facts, this is simply not search advertising. That's just plain wrong. Is it fraudulent?

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2 Comments:

Anonymous Bill McMullin said...

Richard,

I found this blog entry while searching for a disease I didn't know existed. The disease was 'distribution fraud'. We are an AdWords advertiser spending about $3K a month. While researching new domain names I directly entered a domain name which turned out to be a parked domain belonging to information.com. I then found (without searching) my AdWords ads on this site. I traced our log files and found a very large amount of traffic from information.com and many (many) other such sites. The key, as you point out, is that there were no keywords entered in a search bar. The other element of fraud here is that the referer data in the log makes it look like someone actually entered keywords, which is totally false.

This is fraud no matter how Google tries to explain it. We will be asking for a full refund on every click from the search network that they cannot prove originated from an actual search. I'm not holding my breath.

Bill McMullin
Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada

Sun Nov 25, 07:19:00 AM EST  
Blogger Richard said...

Hi Bill. Interesting that we both worked for America Online in the past. Yes, distribution fraud is click fraud. Google doesn't think so, however. On aggregate, distribution fraud isn't a significant problem. However, for individual AdWords accounts, it can account for > 10% of traffic. Google talks about containing click fraud to levels < 1%. Recognizing that distribution fraud is, indeed, a form of click fraud, this is simply false.

Your observation about the referring URL in the log files is the reason I suspect more advertisers haven't noticed the problem. These clicks are contextual in nature but are masked as search clicks via the log files. I've written a detailed description in a more recent post:

How Google Uses Fake Searches Click Fraud to Hide Typosquatting Revenue

What I can't figure out is if Google is an active participant in this fraud or if DomainSponsor is taking advantage of Google's AdSense for Domains system to get contextual clicks at search clicks prices. Either way, it's Google's responsibility to make sure advertisers are being billed for valid clicks.

Sun Nov 25, 04:58:00 PM EST  

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