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Sacked by a Google algorithm (duckworksmagazine.com)
685 points by seanalltogether on Dec 29, 2010 | hide | past | web | favorite | 283 comments



...long story...

Oh yes, I was also running little blocks of adverts provided by Adsense and, yes, I told my subscribers that I got some money if they visited the websites of those advertisers – all of whom were interested in selling stuff to sailors.

...long story...

In the end it was click-fraud-ish.

There's a huge fear for those dependent on google adsense that they will get terminated out of the blue like this. The problem is, there's no great alternative. But instructing your visitors in some way to click on your ads does cross the line.


Also:

If a sailor buys a sailing book by entering Amazon via my website, I get a 5 per cent referral fee. If some-one spends $200 on a Kindle or a camera, [they] get their next three month s subscription for free.

That's definitely abuse of Amazon's affiliate program and crosses the line from click-fraud-ish to full blown criminal fraud. Aside from being against the terms of their scheme, his clear intention is to induce site visitors to make planned purchases through his affiliate links, something that is obviously completely contrary to the spirit of his agreement with Amazon.

The author abused his relationship with Google. He treated his most important customer as a cash cow. He ignores the fact that many of the advertisers footing the bill will be just like him - sole traders and small businesses barely scraping by. By cutting him off, Google is losing revenue to protect the integrity of their advertising marketplace. They're doing the decent thing by their advertisers in taking a cheat out of the system. I wholeheartedly support Google in their actions.


  The author abused his relationship with Google. He treated
  his most important customer as a cash cow. He ignores the
  fact that many of the advertisers footing the bill will be
  just like him - sole traders and small businesses barely
  scraping by. 
That's unnecessarily harsh. The author of the article had a win-win situation in mind: by endorsing the ads that were being displayed, he would get more money, but they would get more, serious, traffic. Suppose he had a private contract with an advertiser. Then that advertiser would applaud him saying 'please visit companyX: they sell stuff you may very well want to buy from them and they support this site'. There is no reason to suppose the intention was different in this case.

It seems you can display Google's ads, but should never comment on them in any way, not even to say 'Gosh, I really like how they so accurately list companyA, companyB and companyC as relevant for my site.' The first rule of using AdSense is, you don't talk about AdSense?


It might seem that way to you but it's not true. You can talk about AdSense all you want, as you and many others did commenting on this story.

What you cannot do, for obvious reasons, is to entice people to click on ads. It doesn't matter how subtle the encouragement is, how good are your intentions, how many kids you still have to support, how many kittens you saved from certain death. It is against the rules that are both obvious if you think about them and spelled clearly in AdSense agreement and violating that agreement gets you banned from AdSense.

I'm also making money from AdSense and the simple reality is that if Google doesn't take steps to limit the kind of click fraud that this guy openly, if very verbosely, admits to, it'll hurt everyone else who's not matching it and in the long term will hurt everyone, period, because there will be less money in the ecosystem if ad publishers feel ripped off.


  It is against the rules that are both obvious if you think
  about them and spelled clearly in AdSense agreement
Laws are also both obvious and spelled clearly. Nevertheless we need judges to interpret them according to each situation. Even with those judges in place, we still accept that some people will be punished for moral behavior, while others will walk free for immoral behavior, because a law cannot possibly cover every situation under which it will apply.

In this case, it seems to be the regrettable situation where someone is being punished for moral behavior. Regrettable, but perhaps unavoidable. However, that's as far as you should be willing to go. Trying to justify Google's actions by accusing the one that was punished of immoral behavior is not necessary and not warranted.


it seems to be the regrettable situation where someone is being punished for moral behavior

Someone is being held accountable for a contract they willingly entered. The morality of the behavior is not at issue - moral or not they legally agreed not to do it. The rest, IMO, is hand waving.


I agree with you, but I think your appeals to 'the obvious' and 'the simple reality' are weak.


  The author of the article had a win-win situation in mind
That may be what he has in mind, but experience shows that isn't what happens. Instead you get a situation where people with no interest whatsoever in purchasing anything click the link just to help out the website they are interested in. Just because the traffic comes from the targeted demographic doesn't mean it's actually serious.

I'm not saying that Google did an excellent job of handling this situation. It amazes me that they think it's appropriate to revoke thousands of dollars in earnings without (usually) providing someone to talk to. That said, asking people to click links on your site is bound to invite well-meaning individuals to click on ads they have no intent of following, which is practically the definition of click-fraud.


Important to note - Google revoked their _own_ earnings as well. They treated all the money as tainted and returned it to advertisers. After having (carefully) read the (entire) story, I would have done the same thing. This wasn't really a grey-line issue - the guy told his readers to click on ads. That's pretty much a Top-3 way to get kicked out of adsense.


Well, if the author is in contact with the advertiser directly and are selling impression instead of clicks, then why yes, of course the advertiser would be okay with it. Its like TV hosting the ad of the advertiser for a period of time. If the TV wants to tell people buy the advertiser product, then most of the advertiser wouldn't mind.

If however, say KFC is advertising on the TV, and instead of impression, they are taking a cut whenever someone who watched the TV goes to KFC, then the situation would be very different. Which is the case of Google, where each click has a cost.

My advice to him, instead of depending on Google, just get the advertisers directly and just charge by impression, or at least a fix charge for a period of time. Since there are value in the stuff he is doing, I would believe that there would be advertisers willing to pay anyway, just a matter how much.

The only downside going that way, now he has to do the marketing to potential advertisers as well, as opposed to Google doing it for him previously.


I don't see anything in Amazon's terms about what you call "full blown criminal fraud" and I would imagine it is actually encouraged by Amazon. Google is paying for clicks, whereas Amazon is only paying for actual sales.

Amazon would benefit from that message being on every site on the internet. It's advertising for them and letting people know they can help their favorite sites adds an extra incentive to sway people to order stuff.


Agreed, I see many sites even for big charities regularly saying "when you shop Amazon, do so from here." Amazon could stop that in a hurry. They don't.


The open-source video aggregator Miro actually has a Firefox extension that automatically appends Miro's affiliate code if there wasn't already one on the link you followed to Amazon. This is done pretty obviously so I assume that Amazon is aware of it and allows it.

I don't see anything even slightly fraudulent about saying, "Amazon pays us commission on sales made with our affiliate code attached, please buy expensive things there", and I don't see how that's bad for anyone.


Yep, paying a commission for making sure that an intended purchase is made at your site is better than risking losing it to the price comparison lottery; at worst they make a slightly lower profit per sale.

eCommerce vendors are even happy to partner with sites like Quidco that openly offer cashback rewards for people making purchases via their affiliate links.


While Google's customers ARE the advertisers and their first priority is to make sure they are protected, Google would sit up and do something if more website PUBLISHERS would complain. It's a business.

However, as a practical issue, I fail to see any practical reason to disable the guy's revenue from YouTube videos, based on clicks from an unrelated site. Just stop counting the clicks on the site, Google!


He has control over those youtube videos, he should take them down, create all new accounts with his wifes information and then put up the truck videos and pretty soon youtube will put him back into advertising mix. For his other site, if I were him I would run Adbrite.com ads instead of Adwords ads.


Correct, and it's quite possible that Google is undermining its own interests by presenting such incentives.


> However, as a practical issue, I fail to see any practical reason to disable the guy's revenue from YouTube videos . . .

Really? I have thought about it for about two minutes and came up with several.

1. Google might assume that someone who has committed click fraud in the past might do so again, and preemptively remove other facets of that person's ability to harm the system.

2. Google might want to discourage people from committing piecemeal fraud by ensuring them that there is no way to risk just part of your account with Google. By disabling all of this guy's ability to make money from Google, they are sending the signal, "Hey, don't think you can pull a fast one and still keep any part of your business with us, even if the site is unrelated."

3. Maybe there was some undisclosed badness going on with the Youtube account that we are not seeing in the account given in this article.


I don't know about "Criminal Fraud" (that seems rather harsh), but it is in violation of the Amazon Program Participation requirements:

"14. You will not offer any person or entity any consideration or incentive (including any money, rebate, discount, points, donation to charity or other organization, or other benefit) for using Special Links (e.g., by implementing any “rewards” or loyalty program that incentivizes persons or entities to visit the Amazon Site via your Special Links). "

This guy really managed to find a lot of ways to shoot himself in the foot.


Consider:

a) Amazon have not cut him off (and I hope someone will draw the risk you highlight to his attention before they do)

b) there's no incentive offered to use the links in the sense of just visiting Amazon. There's an incentive offered to people who make a purchase there, which is an entirely separate act. Now 'visiting' is only offered as an example and he probably is violating the agreement by giving subscription discounts on some purchases, but it's an easy misunderstanding to make, especially given that it's not the central plank of his business model or anything like it.

Ironically, his forthright explanation of how his business model supports a positive interpretation of his motives, because he doesn't even seem to understand the potential pitfalls of what he's doing. If he were the scammer than some are suggesting, it would not be in his interest to expose his methods.


I agree with you that he broke the spirit of Google AdSense CPC program. But Amazon's affiliate program is different. It's OK to incentivize affiliate purchases -- at the end your users are paying real $$$.


> his clear intention is to induce site visitors to make planned purchases through his affiliate links, something that is obviously completely contrary to the spirit of his agreement with Amazon.

Isn't that what affiliate links are for? Encouraging people to buy something through them.

Many review sites right glistening copy then add an affiliate link. is that against the spirit of the agreement too?


You are completely right- I think the general feeling is that Google needs to do a better job of communicating that to content creators. This guy clearly didn't realize the extent of the damage, and said he would return adsense revenue from the website. They could fairly disable adsense on the website, but knocking the YouTube revenue just seems unnecessary after giving a very stern warning. People find it troubling that a monolithic algorithmic arbiter makes these decision that change people's lives


I would suggest a "three strikes" approach. The program warns you (because it may not be your fault) then the program blocks you for, say, 30 days and then you are banned.

Disclaimer: I was banned from AdSense too and I still don't know what happened. Since my site had very low traffic, I suspect even one well meaning fan could clickfraud me into nonexistence.


How about exponentially increasing ban times, instead of a life-time ban after the third strike? (Perhaps with even a cooling off period, if you behave well for some time.)


That's a brilliant idea, really.

I wonder how we could generate an economic incentive for Google to adopt it.


The only way to do that would be for a competitor to implement it and begin gaining traction because of it. Right now, the cost of the wrongfully terminated is less than the cost of wrongfully terminating them and probably always will be unless Google starts loosing people afraid of being wrongfully terminated. That number becomes much larger.

Want to incentivize Google? Convince Bing to implement it and see if Adsense customers convert as a result. If I felt Bing was treating their customers/vendors (ads is a really weird relationship :) better, I would consider using it (since as a search product it has approached Google pretty close).


The problem is that Google's customer is not the site that carries the banners, but the advertiser who wants their banners shown. Unless those gravitate towards an ad network that coincidentally provides better service to site owners, those folks are doubly screwed.


But Google still needs their sales channel, which is why Bing may be a viable option for this.


I won't weigh in on this specific incident because I'm not familiar with the details, plus it's on the ads side, not the search quality side.

But I can weigh in on the "make the action exponential" idea. Regarding the steps that the webspam team takes, we take stronger and stronger action as we see repeated violations or violations with more willful or damaging intent.

Hidden text might result in a 30 day removal, for instance (and the site can always remove the hidden text and do a reconsideration request before the 30 days is up, of course). But if we see the site repeatedly violating our guidelines or doing worse stuff, then the action is stronger.


Do you inform people of that? I mean, do you inform people that they will be removed for 30 days and unless they put things right they will be banned for longer?

Or do you remove them and not tell them at all, leaving them in the dark completley?


Great question, Andrew. We typically do inform people they'll be removed for hidden text for 30 days. We also tell people how to file a reconsideration request to come back in sooner. I did the query ["hidden text" 30 days reconsideration request] and here's an example email from the #1 result: http://www.seroundtable.com/archives/020315.html

You can read the whole message that we send, but the relevant part would be "In order to preserve the quality of our search engine, pages from somewifi.com are scheduled to be removed temporarily from our search results for at least 30 days.

We would prefer to keep your pages in Google's index. If you wish to be reconsidered, please correct or remove all pages (may not be limited to the examples provided) that are outside our quality guidelines. One potential remedy is to contact your web host technical support for assistance. For more information about security for webmasters, see http://googlewebmastercentral.blogspot.com/2008/04/my-sites-.... When such changes have been made, please visit https://www.google.com/webmasters/tools/reconsideration?hl=e... to learn more and submit your site for reconsideration."

As infractions get more serious and we believe that the SEO/site owner is more willful, we give less information to the people who do spammier things.

Hope that helps to answer your question.


Ironically (given the recent hubbub), I think that's how 4chan does it.


I think the biggest issue is they don't want a feedback loop where people can "test" the system and find ways to beat it.


Wow maybe this could be a black hat strategy. Find a target and click fraud them until they get banned. Maybe he was a victim of this method. If I relied on Ad-sense, I would be concerned about this.


I can not agree. There is an enormous difference between click-farming and a courteous 'please support this site by considering the fine offerings of my advertisers.' Also, to cut off all his YouTube income because of a misreading of his pitch on a tiny subscription-driven site is BS - there's no sign that he abused YouTube in any way.

I appreciate that a more responsive feedback loop can be exploited by bad guys as easily as it can support good guys, but the approach Google has taken creates a greater incentive for the guy to pull his old material and create a new online identity than it does for him to correct the minor flaw in his marketing. It's easy to say 'don't ever encourage users to click on ads,' but half the appeal of niche sites like this to members is being able to have conversational contact with an individual whose work is especially admirable, or through which the member can live vicariously.

What's happening here is that a legitimate honest business model (subscriber sales for niche content, with a minor secondary revenue stream from ads) is being punished because of Google's inability to differentiate it from a dishonest business model. The huge fear you describe is a reflection of both the asymmetry between Google and the small advertiser, and of the difficulty in understanding exactly what behavior is in or out. Not everyone finds those contracts easy to read or understand, and Google is actually raising barriers to entry if it enforces them too rigidly and giving greater incentive to the black hats than the white hats. I strongly suspect that this is a limiting factor on Google's own revenue, which is stuck on a local maximum because Google itself is has a much lower tolerance for information asymmetry than it demands of its content providers.


His practice is a clear case of click fraud and his above-normal click-through rates demonstrate that he was successful in that fraudulent behavior.

Google correctly identified his business as dishonest and terminated his account per agreement that the guy signed when he started using AdSense.

You try to make a case for Google trying to determine shades of gray, but it's a non-scalable, slippery slope.

The current rule is crystal clear and simple: don't encourage users to click on ads they otherwise wouldn't. By definition every such click is fraudulent because the user wouldn't otherwise perform it.

Google (or anyone else, for that matter) cannot implement more subtle rules (that weight factors like how many times someone did it, how often does he do it, how subtle the encouragement is, how many kids he has to support) in a scalable way.

Google couldn't even apply more subtle rules in a consistent way, giving fraudsters even more weapon in what is a PR game (take all the ample, emotional justification from the above post AND allow that fraudster to point to other people who are doing similar things but Google hasn't taken action against them because some fallible person applied a different subtle standard for what fraud is than some other fallible person).

As this thread demonstrates, there's plenty of people willing to sympathise with the fraudster despite clear, self-admitted evidence of wrongdoing based purely on his self-professed (hence extremely biased) version of how good of a person he is and how good intentions were and how badly he was treated by big, cold Google. Emotion can trump facts.


"Emotion can trump facts". I think the guy's point is, emotion should sometimes trump facts. No Google human was involved. A big chunk of the internet economy is controlled by a heartless robot who can't tell the difference between a middle ages sailor guy going a little over the line, and dedicated click fraud. Shit, even the IRS lets you explain to a human and maybe get a second chance.


Given how long this went on, I'd be willing to bet that an advertiser noticed the abnormally high referrals + abnormally high bounce rate, and complained to Google. The whole "Google's impersonal algorithm did this to me" stance is entirely a guess, because they explicitly don't disclose what was detected nor how it was detected.

Heck, I'd bet an algorithm would've caught it (or at least flagged it, caused a review, and had it confirmed) a loooong time ago. Which would've cut off his income while it was smaller. A smooth-functioning, impersonal algorithm may have been preferable in this case.


You've wandered far off the reservation on this one. I reckon describing his actions as "fradulent" and "dishonest" is slanderous.


Why? How far from "willful intent" is "willful ignorance"? Especially in the face of precisely, unquestionably violating the very first agreement checkbox of a contract?[1] If you can even claim ignorance, that is; they were informed. That's kind of the point of contracts.

[1]: http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=2051078


It's a peculiarity of AdSense that turns what would normally be helpful behavior (please check out my advertisers -- they have really good stuff I personally recommend) into "fraudulent" behavior. The reason is, of course, that the site author has zero input or control over the contents of the AdSense boxes, and as such can't really recommend what's in there. You can _hope_ that what's in the box is a relevant ad for your readers, but you really don't have any way of knowing.

Google could provide a kind of back-and-forth here, to restore the ability of a site author to provide a testimonial for a particular advertiser. An author would have to provide a (short and limited) list of sites and testimonial copy for each one.

A sailing site could then, for a particular sailcloth manufacturer's ad, provide a short testimonial noting the high quality of the product, etc...and Google could serve up that custom testimonial along with the ad.

You'd either have happy advertisers, or not.


The missing part of his article is the exact text of his message to his subscribers re: 'I told my subscribers that I got some money if they visited the websites of those advertisers.'

There's a difference between "I support this product and you should check them out" and "click on these ads." Google's ads are targeted and beyond them being about sailing, he doesn't necessarily know what's being shown.

So it's pretty difficult for him to personally recommend particular ads or companies. I'd like to see the exact messaging he sent to his subscribers.


6% CTR implies otherwise. As others have noted, that's not just abnormally high, that's impossibly high for legitimate behavior.

A warning would have been better. But by this point he had already essentially scammed advertisers for tens of thousands of dollars (he mentions $3000 in the last 6 week period).

What would you suggest a middle-man do, if person-X has scammed your clients for tens of thousands of dollars? A polite warning, or cut them off ASAP? And remember that in this case the middle-man is the largest middle-man out there, and deals with billions of interactions.


> But instructing your visitors in some way to click on your ads does cross the line.

If you think that crosses the line, then you just gave anyone with access to a small botnet (or who knows how to cleverly use Tor) an easy, cheap way to cut off the income of people who rely on AdSense. And there are a LOT of those.

Outright, criminal fraud is one thing, but I would argue that it's unethical to hold up the funds he has already accrued. Sure, cut him off, but perhaps it's not the best idea to rely on the good intentions of people when you offer cash for clicks.


There's a difference between:

1) fraudulent clicks that could be generated by a botnet

2) instructions on the site itself that you have control over telling your visitors to click on ads to make you more money.

I don't want to come across as defending google on this. They could use a lot more hands on customer service. This sort of sudden termination is scary and sucks. I'm just pointing out, there is unjustified termination (which also happens) and termination based on willful fraud.


Mind you Google never told the guy what happened so he could properly defend himself or correct the problem


He knows what he did was wrong. He admits as much in his magnum opus. Just not wrong enough to be banned from AdSense.

I know he's wrong and I know exactly what he did wrong: he enticed visitors to his website to click on ads so that he makes more money at the expense of advertisers. You cannot do it for reasons that are both obvious and clearly speelled in AdSense agreement.

He is unwilling to correct the problem. He's even unwilling to admit there is a problem - his whole argument to favor theory of cruel and unusual treatment from Google is based on his fundamental belief that he really did nothing wrong. Plus irrelevant personal details designed to trigger sympathy for him, as a person, and detract attention away from the facts of what he did.


> If you think that crosses the line, then you just gave anyone with access to a small botnet (or who knows how to cleverly use Tor) an easy, cheap way to cut off the income of people who rely on AdSense. And there are a LOT of those.

No, he didn't. A "small botnet" or Tor is not particularly useful to force you to violate the Adsense ToS by telling your visitors to click on your ads.


I think his point is that, if invalid clicks is all it takes for an adsense publisher to get banned, then there is nothing to stop your competition from going onto your site and clicking a lot of your ads or get a botnet to do it and get you banned.

If it is a mere algorithm, then it is not unforeseeable, that, due to no fault of your own whatever, but malice of competitors, you can get banned, though, in these cases, I think there would be a good legal argument, not least because the google contract you sign up to is not entirely recognised by some courts, but replaced in many instances by what is or seems reasonable, as, when you sign up to the contract you have no choice but to sign up, thus, there is no equal bargaining power.


Except in that particular case that's not what happened. He admits he was enticing users to click ads which is clearly against AdSense rules.

I'm sure the fraud detection system is not perfect but in this case it actually worked as designed. Yay for Google, boo for people who try to take advantage of the system.


I wonder if the money is withheld because it'll be returned to the advertisers - or whether Google actually keeps it. I'd be surprised if Google charged the advertisers for traffic that it detected to be fraudulent.


I've had money refunded automatically due to Google detecting fraud later.


Google says it's returned to the advertisers.


Doesn't everyone on the internet already know that website operators receive revenue from visitors clicking on ads? I don't comprehend the underlying premise that ad-clickers are supposed to be ignorant of how internet advertising works.


I think this goes to the heart of the issue.

The sort of fraud ad brokers want to avoid is 'www.fraud-u-lent.com: Hey visitors! click on 10 of these ads and get FREE warez/porn/iPad/car for every 10 clix!!'

On the other hand, there's a legitimate conversation that goes along the lines of '[niche site] is great! how do you manage to provide us with so much great content for our [niche hobby]?' 'Oh thanks, I have been a [niche hobbyist] for 20 years, and accumulated a lot of [niche content/skill]. Also those ads at the side of the page help support the project so you can enjoy it for free.'

The second is technically violating any ad agreement that prohibits click invitations, but in a vastly different way from the first example. An overly mechanical or aggressive interpretation is throwing the baby out with the bath water, and if it becomes too common it will become (or perhaps already is) an opportunity for a competitor.


They want the website itself to NOT suggest in any way that people should click on AdSense ads. They want people to do it naturally, of their own accord - so their algorithms (googles) can handle ad placement and whatnot.

It's not the same as me buying an ad on your site and encouraing traffic.. it's not an affiliate sales program.. it's a very specific advertising setup that very clearly states you are not to encourage people to click on the ads.


Clearly not everyone on the internet acts on that knowledge which is why frequently asking people visiting your website to click on ads does increase the number of (unfortunately worthless to the advertiser) clicks.

Google doesn't prevent you from discussing how AdSense works in general.

What you cannot do is to specifically ask people to click on ads on your website.

The underlaying premise is not that people are ignorant but that they will do the things you ask them to do.


"Please visit our sponsors" and "please visit our advertisers" are phrases that I've seen very often on the Internet (Google Search has 18m and 750m results for these phrases, respectively.) I'm curious, do many of these sites use a different vendor than AdSense or are breaches of this term quite common?


There's a difference between AdSense scheme and a sponsor or advertiser if they pay a fixed sponsorship fee or fixed fee for the ad.

In that scenario, every additional click, even if of decreasing marginal utility, is a win for the advertiser and the publisher is making them a favor by sending as much traffic as they can.

For Google AdSense and other programs based on pay-per-click scheme, advertiser pays for each click so worthless clicks do cost them money and benefit the publisher. That's why it's fraud. There is a strong incentive for one side (publisher) to take advantage of the other side (advertiser) and if allowed to exist on scale, would harm the whole marketplace.

The phrasing you used suggest fixed scheme. If it is used in the context of pay-per-click scheme, then yes, it does violate the agreement and I doubt there's any pay-per-click scheme that doesn't ban such behavior.


> The problem is, there's no great alternative.

Always remember, Google (by themselves) lives and dies based on original content. Google supplies very little OC (other than perhaps Google Maps). The millions and millions of sites that present themselves at the doorstep of AdSense are seeking a quick and painless way of funding themselves. These same site are providing the OC that supports AdSense (while others provide the advertising spends). Google is the switchboard between the OC and the advertisers. I see no particular impediment (other than Google's size) preventing another from entering the same type of market.


This is somewhat irrelevant. Google says in the TOS to not do that, but they don't ban on that alone. What you get banned for is based on data. Everytime they ban someone, they want enough evidence, so if it ever went to court, they don't look foolish. You can have no effect, or even some when asking people to click. You have to break thresholds to actually get banned. And even if there were some users egregiously 'supporting' the site, the people can overlook that and just deduct from the account. To get automatically banned means you broke some nasty thresholds.


He's generating revenue via a subscription, so that's an alternative to AdSense already (or supplement, as it were). Luckily there are other ad networks, and the ability to sell ads directly (which he is already doing) as a way to generate more income on the website.

As far as the videos on YouTube though, I agree there is not much alternative because of the sheer size and reach of YouTube.


So, as an AdWords advertiser, here is my experience when someone gets "creative" with ways to encourage their audience to click on my ads:

1) I see a sudden spike in my daily spend and think "Yay, I'm going to get more customers!"

2) I go to Analytics and see a wave of people who spent seconds on the website and did not convert to the trial.

3) Google bills my credit card for hundreds of dollars.

This has actually happened, although the specific incentive to click fraud was different. I was sixteen flavors of pissed.

Google keeping me unpissed is worth $10,000 a year. I'm a wee little customer. The whackamole sites are worth a few tens of dollars a year when behaving normally. What do you expect Google to do?


Don't be heartless. There are thousands of dollars being stolen from an honest cameraman and you don't think Google owes him one word from a real human? Honestly?


I'm the last guy in line to apologize for Google's attitude with regards to customer service, but to the extent my cynical blackened heart beats for anyone, it is the kayaking guy (et al) who paid those thousands of dollars and received no service in return for it. They have kids to put through school and Christmas presents to buy, too.

He got a real human to look into his account, incidentally, which I would have killed for a few times. They told him the breaks: you broke the rules, no, there is no second chance.


I'm having trouble understanding what rule he broke. He had some content with ads on it chosen by Google's algorithms. People clicked those ads, then didn't buy anything from the advertiser. How is that his fault?

I don't mean this as a rhetorical question. I honestly want to know how someone with an ad-supported site can avoid such a situation.

Edit: elsewhere in the comments, I see that he was telling his viewers that clicking the ads gets him money. I agree, that's not fair to the advertisers.


The rule is "Don't directly or indirectly tell people to click on your ads." The reason for this is that loyal audiences will, if you tell them to click on ads, click on ads to support you. This is exactly what happened. The CTR goes through the roof, the advertisers get billed lots of money, and no commerce takes place.


Did you read the Mea Culpa? Unless Mr. Winter is lying, Zak's question still stands. It seems like there is a potential for injustice when the reviews are held in secret like they were. All Google put forth was that there was a risk of generating invalid [click] activity.

As one who, like you, pays for that invalid activity I am glad to see Google do what they can to stem it.

But it gets very serious in my mind when they can also take the cash from the account. They should be required to show explicitly their justification. If that means that their business has to change because their algorithms are exposed, so be it. What they are doing does not seem to be a fair business practice to me, and I worry about the precedent they are being allowed to set.


It is obvious to you and me that a 6% CTR is supernaturally high, at least in my experience.

If Google's algorithms are so great as to detect AdSense "cheaters," why don't they just throttle down the CPC for "cheaters" down to 1 cent (or less)?

I think we're basically discovering that Google is defending their immature AdSense algorithms by banning users rather than adapting to different behaviors.


It's not that simple. Real cheaters will react, and devise counter strategies to whatever you are tying to do.

I can understand that Google is strict about this, that's their core business, CPC and conversion rate are what makes them the best advertising platform in the world. They have to protect that fiercely, even if some unfortunate users are thrown under the bus along the way.

Is it possible in the AdSense scheme to set up multiple accounts? It seems if he'd had an account for the YouTube site, and another one for his sailing stuff, he'd at least have kept his money maker.


They actually have been doing this for some time with Smart Pricing.

It wasn't working too well.


heh, "immature algorithms"

These are the algorithms that every man and his dog want the key to, the holy grail of net commerce.

I was going to write something more sarcastic but instead I'll ask: Who has better algorithms and how are they doing with them?


That's not necessarily true. Google sends out different emails depending on the method in which it banned you. The message that was sent out rules out a few automated systems, but doesn't tell the cause. Having high ctr doesn't mean its bad. There are accounts with 20% ctr which are fine.

-Ex Google Spam


Perhaps I did not read carefully enough, but I didn't read anything that made it seem like he directly or indirectly asked anything. He simply makes a point of being 100% transparent in how he runs his business; part of that was explaining that ad clicks improve his revenue. Did Google expect him to lie?


Effectively, yes, if you consider keeping secrets to be lying. Saying "clicking on these adds gets me money," could easily be considered indirectly encouraging people to click on ads. And that's against Google's rules... and for good reason.

I don't particularly like Google's lack of transparency, but all this stuff is in the terms you're required to agree to before you start using an AdSense account. Yes, it's a big scary legal document, but you can't say they didn't warn you.


> Saying "clicking on these adds gets me money," could easily be considered indirectly encouraging people to click on ads

How many people believe otherwise? If you cater to any audience with a 3-digit IQ, they know you get paid when they click.

On my current arrangement I have payments on conversion (it's working well enough) but it requires a bit more work than AdSense did.


"How many people believe otherwise?"

That's kind of the point, I think. Stating an obvious fact is often used to suggest some kind of action. And it sounds like that happened here.

I feel bad for the guy, surely. He made a small mistake and paid disproportionately. But once you get branded as a cheater, even if by accident, then advertisers will run away from you.

TV isn't a good analogy, because it's a different business model, so this kind of cheating is impossible.


They may think you only get paid if a) they click and b) they buy...


I wonder if that part of the ToS would hold up in court. This guy could have achieved the same effect by simply publishing some of his financial records, especially if he was going for transparency; anyone would be able to see his revenue report with an itemized entry that looked like "Ad Click Revenue - 152,380 clicks @ $X per click = $Y (50% of total revenue)". Can you actually sign away your right to publish such reports without redactions?


Maybe, but this happened on his site, and Google withheld the money from the Youtube ads, which constituted the bulk of his revenue. That's just not fair.

And they continue to run ads next to his Youtube videos; they simply stopped giving him his share. That is even less fair.

Maybe the lesson is: have multiple accounts with Adsense so that if one has a problem then the others are unaffected.


Isn't it against Google policy to have multiple AdSense accounts?


yes


Exactly. Also, why isn't he trying out with different keywords. Placing all the eggs in a single basket wont get you much. If he diversifies ad campaign across different categories, he will see better results. If he not happy with cost per click mode, he can switch to CPM advertising where ther are lesser chances of fraud.


He also knew something was wrong with encouraging AdSense clicks as noted from the article:

I did get the odd subscriber sending me an email saying that he had clicked loads of adverts. This is called demon clicking. I would reply that I would prefer them to only click on adverts they were interested in.

I allow my subscribers to leave comments on the films. If one of them mentioned clicking on adverts to show their appreciation - well it’s a nice gesture, but I would edit their posting to remove the mention.

It sounds to me like he enjoyed his visitors padding his AdSense revenue, but took a look-the-other-way attitude to their getting click-happy. I'm sorry, but it sounds like he sacked himself. When you work for someone else you have little control over getting sacked. When you work for yourself you shoulder more responsibility and control of your fate (as many on HN know), which includes knowing the terms of partner agreements you enter into. It's not like Google buries their zero tolerance policy for fraudulent click behavior under hard to read fine print.


The rule says you can't encourage your visitors to click.

It doesn't say that you have to actively discourage people from clicking to ensure only those most determined to buy the product actually click.

As to him "looking the other way", he explicitly said he replied by telling them to only click on adverts that they were interested in.

I'd say he went above and beyond.


The problem is he built up a kinship with his viewers which included his financial plight:

I film myself huddling around a tray of candles in the boat as the ice slides past the hull in the winter.

Then he tells them a way he makes money:

yes, I told my subscribers that I got some money if they visited the websites of those advertisers

You say that's not encouragement? Well, others thought it was enough to comment about extra ad clicking and even proudly email him about it. His response? That he "preferred" they only clicked ads they were interested in. That sounds almost like a wink-wink to me. Web visitors do not exhibit that type of behavior of their own accord if unsolicited. Ironically, they thought they were helping him out...


Web visitors do not exhibit that type of behavior of their own accord if unsolicited.

Yes, they do.

That sounds almost like a wink-wink to me.

I didn't read it as a wink-wink; I read it as a clear and honest explanation of his views: "If my users are going to click on ads because they want to help me instead of because they want to buy things, I hope they at least click on ads that interest them, so there's a CHANCE they'll buy."


Yes, they do.

You're telling me multiple site visitors, who feel no emotional connection to a site, will click "loads of ads" then comment and send emails about it of their own accord? I don't think so.

It's not up to him only to suggest how his visitors interact with the ads. There are two other parties with a financial interest in the AdSense actions, one actually paying the bills.


You're telling me multiple site visitors, who feel no emotional connection to a site...

Sorry, serious question--aren't we talking about OP's visitors, who have a very distinct emotional connection to his site?


When I say 'emotional' I mean feeling emotionally compelled to take some action. Everyone feels some emotion toward sites even if it's just loving Amazon.com for having low prices. However, unlike the crowd at HN average Internet users don't even know what a browser is (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o4MwTvtyrUQ) let alone how AdSense ads work. So, no, I don't think multiple average site visitors would have it pop into their brain to click loads of ads then comment and email about their actions if unsolicited.


We have two sides of this story - Dylan Winter's words, and Google's cold, hard data. Google dumped him because there were lots of clicks and they didn't generate revenue, which indicates either click fraud or violation of the rules.

Dylan Winter apparently was not aware that his very high CPC rate was a problem. From that I assume he also didn't do a very good job communicating to his users to not click on the links. Telling your users that you make money from clicks seems like a very bad idea.

And why would you edit out comments that encourage users to click more? What you should do is edit it, and replace it with a statement saying to please not do this.

It's a story of coulda woulda shoulda, and honestly I think Google should have consulted with the "wronged" advertisers first and see what they say - maybe give them a simple option to flag or not flag the site.

For Mr. Winter it seems he could now try to get all these sites to rent ad space on his site bypassing Google. Since the site is very specialized in its audience, such a deal might work out better for everyone involved. After all you are cutting out the middle man.


The problem is he built up a kinship with his viewers which included his financial plight: I film myself huddling around a tray of candles in the boat as the ice slides past the hull in the winter.

I think you're reading way too much into his remarks.

Most small sailing boats have only small auxiliary engines or batteries providing DC power. Safety requires power conservation. But video cameras require light to record an image, and most pro video lighting consumers a lot of juice but doesn't run on DC power. If it's not windy, candles efficiently provide both heat and light, and solve other video problems as well (color aesthetics).

My dad sails, I've worked most of the last decade in independent film. Anyone who's into sailing or pro video understands that both are fairly high-maintenance activities with a significant cost of both time and equipment (and that discussions of this overhead is a regular conversation topic). I find it quite easy to believe he makes an overall loss on the sailing vids at present, although over a few years it has the potential to provide greater revenue (eg a documentary of the entire journey, gradual accumulation of subscribers etc.).


I believe I'm reading his remarks pretty much at face value. According to him he bought his boat (aka the "Slug") for 2K pounds, and regularly patched pieces of it back together. He shared all of this with his audience as well as letting them know making the films was costly.

Regardless of the technical reasons for it, I believe the huddling around a tray of candles with ice sliding by is striking visual imagery. Heck, even I feel moved by that, and I'd feel ten times more connected to this guy if I were a regular sailor.


If you were a regular sailor you'd understand the wisdom of keeping a box of candles on board, and wouldn't find anything striking about the idea of using them.


How is asking them not to demon click, and editing out innocent comments about having done so, a 'look the other way' attitude? Although I'm unsure exactly what encouragement he was offering without seeing a screenshot of his members-only page, from his overall tone I'd guess it was very general, 'support your favorite site' in nature.

You are right that he was careless and didn't look after his own business interest by studying the contract carefully and thinking through the implications of such statements. If Google had mailed him saying 'look, [Content] at [page URL] is undermining our agreement' then I'd have no argument with it - and I don't think he would either. It's true that accommodating people this way eats into Google's overheads and can be abused by deliberate fraudsters, so there's an economic cost to doing so which seems to be less than the economic cost of strict mechanical enforcement (in terms of lost content and goodwill). Simply put, cash trumps content so Google is always more likely to side with the advertiser than the content creator who has deployed adsense incorrectly.

However, only lawyers have a keen interest in people's contractual interpretation abilities. Assume, for the sake of argument, that the guy made an honest mistake because he understands cameras a lot better than contracts, and like most people he just skimmed the contract and clicked OK. He's running a pretty minimal business here - it sounds like his total annual revenue from online video is about $45,000, so spending several hours studying contract terms (or paying someone else to do so) is not a very efficient use of his time. He generates quality content doing something he enjoys, and is able to make a minimal living doing so - as someone else said upthread, he was pursuing a win-win strategy for everyone, including his advertisers. So work with me for a moment in considering the possibility that he was not a fraudster.

He says he has about 700 subscribers now and has built up to adding ~120/month, 150 sailing videos in HD, and about 1 click per 200 video-minutes, for a median CTR of 6%. New members will of course spend a day or a whole weekend browsing his library (probably looking for footage of places they live/d or sail themselves), but we can figure that any spikes in ad traffic will come after posting of a new video. 6% of 700 subscribers clicking on an ad is...42 per ad. The 6% is certainly high, but given the extremely specialist nature of his sailing website you'd expect a somewhat greater yield. My personal ad responsiveness is heavily skewed towards sites offering specialist content that I'm interested rather than general-interest ones. Anyway, if there were 3 ads in the adsense box and they all got a 6% CTR, that's 126 clicks per video. As there is a time overhead to video production, that's happening at most a few times a week (for short videos), more typically a few times a month. He mentions getting about 30k hits/month from the sailing site, which is consistent with ~700 people watching 1 or 2 videos a day. At a median 6% CTR that's about 1800 clicks per month. Now we can't be sure how much this amounts to for him or for his advertisers; I'm sure it's yielding more than the YouTube content does (for obvious reasons), but his statement that the bulk of the adsense income comes from YouTube seems quite reasonable. I'm guessing that the most adsense revenue that could be coming from his sailing website is about 10% of the total, maybe $200/mo.

Some of that is legit traffic; maybe $100/month is the result of over-enthusiastic supporters who click on every ad as a matter of habit, out of a total adsense payout in the region of $2000/mo., the bulk of which comes from mass-appeal videos on YouTube over which the guy has zero influence. So in the worst case, Google sees a ~5% discrepancy in the revenue being earned by a content creator with two subject categories, each of which have 100+ video offerings. Suspecting a ~5% overpayment, they withhold all payments for the previous quarter - apparently extrapolating the margin of the overpayment to the lifetime traffic of the sailing site - and cut off the relationship completely. Although their contract allows them to do this without explaining why, and there are good reasons for them to have that option available, the result is a loss of about 40% of the guy's annual income. As described, that economic hit may well be greater than his overhead in operating the boat and producing the sailing videos, so even with steady growth in subscriptions and their ancillary revenue (amazon ads), it'll take a good 6 months - 1 year to rebuild that income stream.

That's a very big kick in the teeth to give someone because you think there's a 'risk' they're not using Adwords in the intended fashion, even though the benefit they may have derived (and conversely, the potential loss to your advertisers) is marginal at best. Unless he was putting a 'don't forget to click hint hint' statement on every new sailing video posting, his moral failure is surely limited to that fraction of his pages where he has made such an exhortation. And even if he made no such exhortation, some 'loyal fans' are going to click on every ad to support the site anyway, unbidden. I've done it - not on any significant scale, but in hopes that it brings in a little extra revenue for a site I like, maybe 10 clicks once a week. Users sometimes drive each other to do the same thing, eg by leaving comments visible to others, which may stay up for a day or even several days (quite likely in the case of a person living on a sailboat part-time).

The absurdity that would result if you took Google's contract terms to their logical conclusion would content creators pro-actively studying analytics to understand their user behavior and throttling their access or hiding ads if they seemed like they were supporting the site too consistently or encouraging other users to do so too explicitly (people on web forums sometimes respond to advertisers they dislike by encouraging others to click heavily and increase the advertiser's cost of doing business). Of course Google doesn't want people to do that, and hiding ads from some users might violate the adwords agreement in other ways. But over-rigid enforcement of the 'no encouragement' terms creates an incentive for such behavior.


You are right that he was careless and didn't look after his own business interest by studying the contract carefully and thinking through the implications of such statements.

I don't think anyone has to "study" Google's terms for an AdSense account to know they don't want fraudulent clicks. I'm pretty sure Google tries to make that very, very clear during the account set up process. As my earlier comment notes this guy seemed to know something was wrong with openly encouraging AdSense ad clicks.


Of course, but you're using an extremely expansive definition of 'fraudulent' here.


Expansive definition? Okay, to satisfy my curiosity I just checked. At the top of the first page to sign up for AdSense the first check box reads as follows:

[ ] I will not place ads on sites that include incentives to click on ads.

At the bottom of this same sign up page just above the "Submit Information" button to sign up there are three more check boxes, two of which read as follows:

[ ] I agree that I will not click on the Google ads I'm serving through AdSense.

[ ] I certify that I have read the AdSense Program Policies.

The "AdSense Program Policies" is an underlined link. Clicking that takes you to a clearly readable page, probably around 500 words total, titled "Google AdSense Program Policies" where the first sentence admonishes reading the program policies carefully. And the very first two bold labeled sections at the top of this page are entitled: "Invalid Clicks and Impressions" and "Encouraging Clicks".

Under Invalid Clicks it says: Publishers may not click their own ads or use any means to inflate impressions and/or clicks artificially, including manual methods. and has an underlined link to "learn more".

Under Encouraging Clicks it begins: Publishers may not ask others to click their ads or use deceptive implementation methods to obtain clicks and clicking the underlined link to "learn more" here brings a drop-down list of bullet points saying what publishers may NOT do. Here are the first two:

- Compensate users for viewing ads or performing searches, or promise compensation to a third party for such behavior.

- Encourage users to click the Google ads using phrases such as "click the ads", "support us", "visit these links" or other similar language.

I'm sorry, but I don't know how much clearer Google could be about unacceptable behavior.


Indeed, but I'm questioning your use of the term fraudulent, not unacceptable. The OP does not argue that he's right and Google is wrong, or that they tricked him: he admits carelessness. Now, I do think contracts become considerably more meaningful when you've got a powerful motivation to pay attention to the details than when you're just trying to find where to click OK so you can try out the product/service hidden behind the wall of text; equally I think Google does work hard to simplify the complexity and make it accessible. So I don't excuse him by shifting blame to Google - other than disputing the wisdom of perma-banning him for very minor violations.

When you say fraudulent, you're saying he deliberately tried to deceive Google, or at best, was totally indifferent to the risk that they would believe something (his acceptance of the adwords conditions) which was not actually true. Yet if you look at the sequence of events, he started putting up videos to showcase his work, later found himself making enough to subsidize his sailing project, and later again got the idea to monetize the HD video because he was receiving so many customer inquiries about the YouTube videos.

When he signed the adwords agreement, he didn't even have a sailing video sideline, much less an expectation of milking it for a little extra money. Where is the willful intent to deceive here?


Very minor violations: he mentions $3000 over a 6 week period. More than that is coming out of those advertisers' accounts. He's not a small-scale customer.

It's fraudulent because he's deliberately trying to deceive advertisers who run through Google. There's this little nugget:

>Oh yes, I was also running little blocks of adverts provided by Adsense and, yes, I told my subscribers that I got some money if they visited the websites of those advertisers – all of whom were interested in selling stuff to sailors.

Which is explicitly attempting to game the system. A second's thought of how it works will convince you: advertisers are charged by click, but they make money by purchases. Having extreme CTR with extreme bounce rates means the advertisers are being scammed. Actions caused by willful ignorance in this case look almost identical to willful intent...

And they very nearly are the same thing here. Say you noticed your bank rounded up for certain transactions. Would running thousands of those transactions with the intent to make money - the same as the article - count as willful intent to scam the bank? Would the bank be right in penalizing you for doing so?


Here's one way Google could be clearer: have the text the customer has to agree to on the screen instead of pointing to a link. I don't know about you, but with any physical contract I've signed, the relevant information is always included (the exception being laws that the contract refers to which I don't need to explicitly agree to).


I believe the interesting issue here is not whether Mr. Winter was violating the terms of the agreement - but the manner in which violations are handled, and the absence of a meaningful "feedback loop" where users of the system could be warned and have the opportunity to modify their behavior to follow the rules.

I assume the underlying cause for this is that the AdWords program is as automated and algorithmic as possible. The less Google has to pay for human beings for time and effort to administer it, the better it works. The very nature of AdWords and why it has been such a successful product depends on the scaling properties of algorithms and server farms.

The old-fashioned traditional world based on human beings making decisions has a lot of give and take to it, with humans negotiating with each other about exactly what the rules mean and how to apply them. We are moving to a world where automated systems are responsible for monitoring and enforcing rules, and that involves a lot of tradeoffs. I understand the benefits to be gained - but its hard for fallible human beings to understand and follow complex rulesets enforced by merciless machines.


Not getting into this case in particular, but

> the manner in which violations are handled, and the absence of a meaningful "feedback loop" where users of the system could be warned and have the opportunity to modify their behavior to follow the rules.

Would also allow the bad guys to modify their behavior as well.


Not only that, Google has so many adsense users that unless you are higher tier (big adsense account), it's not worth the trouble keeping you in the system. They ban all the time even when you don't do anything and someone spams your account. If you maliciously click another website for a few weeks straight, it will all get blocked/filtered, but it will also cause the system to flag the account and auto-ban. Unless you are higher tier, you get banned anyways.


3) Google bills my credit card for hundreds of dollars.

Did you complain? Were you issued a refund? I'm trying to understand how Google justifies withholding past earnings from the site owner and continuing to profit from the YouTube content. If they incur real costs from refunding advertisers, it makes some sense. But if they keep everyone's money, they have an incentive to abuse the system.


>and continuing to profit from the YouTube content.

I believe ads are only shown on youtube content with the permission of the copyright owner. There don't appear to be any ads on his videos at the moment.

Here's an example video of his: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Ma_hZ00Nqk&feature=playe...


No ads doesn't mean Youtube may not generate goodwill or promote other videos from what is legally his content. i.e. someone may click on "Recommended videos" or "Similar videos" and those would have advertising.


As a video author, you have the option to remove the video. Youtube is primarily a video sharing site, not a money machine.


The poster of that video is Duckworks, who published Dylan Winters's story. Mr. Winter's videos are at http://www.youtube.com/user/dylanwinter1 No sailing there at all: purely trucking and a bit of New Zealand sheep.


The money withheld from the content owner is returned to the advertisers. Google doesn't keep it.


First, you are not necessarily having the same experience as this guy's advertisers (who are catering to outdoors hobbyists rather than software consumers).

Second, this guy is being 'creative' by creating actual content which people want to watch. It's not like he's started with the idea of generating traffic spikes and then determined that the path to success is mini-documentaries about big trucks or coastal sailing. This guy is working just as hard as you, and just because he works with a camera instead of a computer you are taking a dump on him. Why are you talking about 'whackamole sites...worth a few tens of dollars a year,' when he was outlining a situation in which his Youtube content was worth at least $18,000 a year - I assume it is at least as profitable for Google as it was for him.

Third, have you ever bought billboard, magazine, or TV advertising, where people check out your business as a result but don't necessarily become customers? Have you ever had a brick and mortar business, where people walk in and look around but leave without buying anything? There's a reason for the phrase 'half the money you spend on advertising is wasted, but the problem is that nobody knows which half.' The problem with adwords and so forth is that because you [as a generic advertiser, not you personally) book, see traffic and get billed quickly, it's easy to see exactly whether a campaign is working or not, and then to assume that if it doesn't work it's always the result of fraud.

Some kinds of advertising campaign deliver large sales up front and a long tail, like movies and other consumer media. But those advertising campaigns cost a FORTUNE. If you hear that a film cost $100m to make and did $150m in business' what they usually mean is that it cost $10m to make, $40m was spent on some well-known movie stars whose 'brand' the audience trusts, and $50m was spent on the ad campaign. Spending 50% of the budget on marketing is the norm in the film business, and I imagine it's pretty similar in the music and book publishing fields. Other sorts of advertising are needed for brand building and reinforcement. You (generic you, again) don't have millions to spend so you have to accumulate like an oyster with a pearl. Inevitably, some of your ad buys get exploited by click fraudsters and you are understandably angry when this occurs, since it costs real money. Or it may be something wrong with the targeting or presentation of your message. To assume it must always be click fraud is ridiculous.

The #1 thing that makes me leave a website within seconds of landing (as a consumer) is where I'm on an attractive, well-designed site, see an interesting ad, but clicking on it brings me to an ugly, poorly-designed site. I associate visual ugliness with incompetence and/or fakery, so I'm more likely to think the target page is a work of fraud than the page where the advert appeared. I am no more likely to spend money there than I would in a dirty restaurant or a store without proper fixtures. Because it's easier to create an effective ad than an effective site, an ugly landing page is a red flag for the safety of my credit card. that is no more the fault of the ad host than actual click fraud is the fault of an advertiser.


??

How does the target audience (outdoor hobbyists vs software consumers) matter?

Next, Patrick did not say anything about the guy not being hard working. Nor did I find that he was taking a dump on him. (really, what kind of language is this?). He only wrote about his experience as an Adwords/AdSense advertiser.

And why are you comparing billboard and TV advertising with AdWords? As you mentioned, it is extremely hard to target and measure traditional advertising and that's one of the main reason why AdWords and AdSense have become popular and more and more business are spending money on them.

Also, I am pretty sure that no one advertisiting on AdWords/AdSense is expecting that each and every click through will convert to a customer. Let's say I advertise on Hacker News. After a month, I find that the click through rate is 7%, out of which I am able to convert 1% of those clicks. Let's say PG wants to buy Mercedes and tells HN visitors to click the ads. Suddenly click through rate jumps through the roof at 14%. As those clicks are not because someone is interested in my product, my conversion rate drop s to 0.50%. So my advertising spend doubles and I actually make less money. How is it fair to me? If I was a direct advertiser for this guy's website, I would definitely call him and ask him about this unusual behavior. I will try to figure out what's happening and if the publisher doesn't co-operate, I will stop advertising on his site. The only difference in this situation is that Google is the middle man. I think it's in interest of Google to monitor unusual spike in CTR and take some action.

All that aside, I completely disapprove of Google's current approach where there is no transparency and they are allowed to take money from the publisher without publisher having any recourse.


I mentioned the target audience because customers with different needs will have quite different buying patterns. When I want a software product or service, I tend to look at the offerings and make a purchase/signup decision soon after I find what I want unless price is a major factor (ie high). For someone into sailing, one might be interested in consuming content and considering advertisers' offerings year-round, but only make purchases a few times a year, at the beginning of the sailing season or in advance of a trip. Just looking at website analytics without considering market-specific purchase behavior or seasonality can be misleading.

You are right that Patrick didn't say anything about him not being hard working, but using the word 'creative' to imply click-farming seemed inappropriate, considering the OP is someone working in the arts. As someone in the same field, I suppose I took it a bit personally - but how would you feel if this story involved a webapp and I said "here's how I feel about web 'programming' that just moves money from my bank account into someone else's..."? It kind of denigrates the primary skill of the business person.

You are right too that new advertising systems like adwords have and deserve their popularity because they provide much better feedback and value than traditional forms of advertising. But I bring up the contrast because those traditional forms remain highly necessary for larger businesses, and part of a business's success rides on being able to accept the changing risk/reward payoff as the business grows. The farther away that a publisher or retailer is from the median, the less reliable the quality of the CTR analytics, and the more hesitant Google ought to be in applying them rigidly. When you get down to a extremely specialist market and where the spikes are measured in a few hundreds, as in this case, statistics can be more misleading than usual.


He should say to his readers/viewers:

'Buy from these ads.'

End of story.

(except that Adsense makes a huge percentage that he could be getting if he could contact the advertisers himself).


>'Buy from these ads.'

That is enticement to click-through the ads and in contravention of the Google policy. If this guy were to provide a great service and in response have a massive level of sales from ads because of such an enticement then he could be banned. Quite silly I'd say.

It seems that the advertisers should have the control - "use sites flagged as having an unnaturally high CTR? [ ]" "use sites having enticed users to click-through? [ ]" - then let the advertisers choose what gives them the best return.


'Buy from here' and 'just click here' have the opposite effect.

If Google can't differentiate between the two cases, that's their loss in the long term as somebody with better algorithms could step in.


For as many articles that there are about how great, smart, [fill in another positive adjective] Google is, I'm surprised that no news source has pointed out the ridiculous behavior of Google.

Who else would you work with (i.e., display advertising for) without having the ability to speak to someone by telephone when a difficult situation has occurred? None of our customers would tolerate this -- why do we continue to allow Google to get away with it?

I'm not saying this author is right or deserving of the revenue (I don't have all the details or facts), but what is clear is that he has: 1. Earned Google a good bit of revenue 2. Appears earnest 3. Deserves to interact with a real human in a real way (not by automated emails without the ability to reply)

Why aren't more people appalled by Google's actions and the way they treat their partners?!


For reasons of economics.

As an analogy, if you're a one-person developer, your problem is usually that you don't have enough users. You can participate in forum discussions with users of your software, fix bugs within days, send a personalized thank you e-mail for every purchase, all to provide exceptional level of service to grow word of mouth and get more customers. When you get to the size of Microsoft, that won't work anymore. Your expensive devs have to separated from users by layer of product management, your support calls cost you serious money and one troublesome buyer can cost you much more than he paid for in software etc.

Google finds itself in the same boat with AdSense. I don't know the exact scale of AdSense but it must be in millions of publishers and thousands of advertisers. Even a small number of people insisting you give them special consideration or explain in detail what exactly did they do wrong will burn incredible amount of support time and money.

It's clear why he was banned from AdSense and yet he wrote an epic post detailing his experience and inventing multiple reasons for why it wasn't so bad. Do you think that if someone at Google sent him a personal note explaining why he was banned, he would just say "oh, I get it now, you were so totally justified in terminating my account". No, he would keep badgering Google until they finally gave up responding and he would end up writing the same epic post, this time quoting extensively his correspondence with heartless Google employee who was not swayed by his obviously correct arguments.

Someone arguing with Google to not suspend their account has all the incentive to keep badgering Google until Google says "this is a final decision".

Google can't win this battle and they do the best anyone can do at that scale.


> Google can't win this battle and they do the best anyone can do at that scale.

I agree right up to this point.

The economics of online advertising are extremely harsh when you add up the attention span of online users, the ease of fraud, and the feedback available to advertisers. It's a sea change that people need to come to terms with one way or another.

However the level to which Google dehumanizes publishers is quite likely to bite them in the ass. Enough of these articles and their publisher base will eventually shrink and open the door the competition. Now obviously the competition will not be able to change the economics, but PR is not Google's forté, and it's possible to do a much better job handling these incidents without any change in the economics.


AdWords versus Click Farmers has a striking resemblance to the prisoner's dilemma, where the only winning strategy is punishment followed by forgiveness.


Good point. With thousands of dollars at stake one ought to be able to speak to a human and have a reconciliation process.


Except, Google would then be in the customer service business. I’m not saying they couldn’t throw resources against that endeavor, but think of the time waste of being on the phone vs. having automated responses based on the keywords in someone’s complaint. Cuts down on time/cost from their POV. Not justifying what Google did, just sayin.

It's maddening though in a time when people -- one would hope -- would have access to better customer service, yet, it feels things are as bad as ever. It’s hard enough to reach someone on an e-commerce site, forget social networks (1-800-FACEBOOK ain’t happening anytime soon). Little different scenario in this case, but you get the gist.

The only time they seem to make it easy to reach out to a real person is when you need/want to buy something.


vimeo


That solves the YouTube part of the problem, but not the AdSense part.

Google has for all purposes a monopoly on mass-market web advertising


In that case, blip.tv (per view, content producers can make more money through us than through YouTube).

Full disclosure: I am employed by blip.tv.


It's for video content. Bloggers and other site owners have nothing to replace AdSense.

They have, but it's always much more work, often more than a hobby would warrant


PayPal behaves like this too.


Seems like part of the problem is that YouTube revenue is tied together to revenue from AdSense for websites, even though the two services are affected by click fraud differently. Now Google is still making money from the author's popular YouTube videos, and he won't see a penny.

The "correct" response would be to pull all his videos from YouTube, move them to a competing service, and write Google to let them know why. Of course, this would unfortunately mean traffic would drop close to zero... (what's the closest competitor to YouTube right now?)


Now that his accounts have been suspended, can he even pull the videos from YouTube? He may have to send a dmca takedown notice just to stop YouTube from profiting off of his misery.

As an aside, now that he has been 'sacked' by google, google's making 100% of the advertising revenue from his videos instead of some lower amount. That's very convenient for google.


Pretty sure his AdSense accounts are suspended, not his YouTube posting ability. He should be able to remove his own content.


Agreed. I don't know the AdSense agreement at all, but I'd think this is a smart argument for creating separate LLCs (or other business entity) for each of your online endeavors.



He should put 30 second clips on YouTube and then have links to the full video on vimeo.


Is it possible to remove your content from YouTube once it's uploaded?

Were I the author, I would certainly not want Google continuing to profit from my labors if they ceased paying me.


Except Vimeo doesn't allow commercial use.


Relying on Google, or any other single source, for your income is the same as having an employer. This is just as true whether you run a Youtube channel or have a multimillion dollar B2B business with only one client (aka "boss").

Being in the content game is the easy part of the equation; ad sales is the hard part. You can take the easy road and join a network, making pennies on the dollar and potentially getting "sacked" by an algorithm, or you can pound the pavement and sell some ads to people. They're more profitable, you diversify your income, but it's not easy.


Anyone got advice on how to go out and do this? How to calculate fair prices?


Put AdSense on your site (if you haven't already been banned) and look at what ads are being displayed. Then, go and approach those advertisers directly.

For pricing, decide how you want to get paid. You have 3 basic choices: CPM (per 1000 ad/page views), CPC (per click) and CPA (per action, i.e. someone clicks your ad and then buys something from that site). The easiest for you will be CPM. So, set your prices low, like at $2 per 1000 ad views. Raise prices based on demand. My best piece of advice is that you will not get rich from one site. You need to have several websites making a few bucks a day to make a living.

Also, those advertisers are most likely advertising on other ad platforms as well. AdSense is king of CPC, but other sites specialize in CPM and CPA. Check out Commision Junction to get some ideas. There are many ad networks out there. And, if you want to run your own ad network, there is open source software to help you setup and manage that too.


Re: how to do this - watch this video of Gary Vaynerchuk picking up the phone and selling an ad: http://garyvaynerchuk.com/post/78967452/want-to-get-advertis... (it isn't rocket surgery!)

Re: fair prices - Totally depends on your content, your market, and how targeted you are to the advertiser's audience. There are plenty of sub-$1 CPM display ads, and I've been a part of buying $170 CPM ads. But you should only worry about this only after you have sold out your ad inventory. Anything is better than nothing.


$170 CPM?! Care to disclose what service that was for?


Ok this is obviously only one side of the story and the guy who is writing it is obviously a good writer? He knows how to manipulate the emotions of the reader with stuff like losing money right before christmas, which he keeps talking about over and over again even though that is entirely irrelevant to the facts of the case.

What we have here is,

Google says he is click frauding.

He says he is not click frauding.

The real problem is, maybe Google is right and this guy is a click frauder. We don't really know because Google shows no proof, holds no trial, allows no mediated appeal. As a company, not a government, they can get away with that. But as companies get larger and larger what is the difference between a company and a government?


Is that a serious question?

Government has many special powers. Government can issue new laws. Government can put you in jail. Government can legally spy on you as long as they have a warrant.

The accountability should be proportional to acts.

If you want to execute someone, you better hold a fair trial and provide ample proof of wrongdoing.

If you create a straightforward agreement where only use of your non-essential service is at stake, you don't need accountability at all. It says right there that the agreement can be voided at any time by any party for any reason.

The size of Google has nothing to do with it. They are using the same legal framework as everyone else, big or small. If you were running a 2-person startup offering a service over internet you would be a fool to not include similar clause in your agreement with the exact same amount of accountability.

If you don't like that such agreements allow Google to act that way, that's fine, but accept that if you eliminate this possibility for Google, you eliminate it for every other business, small or big, internet-based or not and that would not be a good.

We don't want laws that treat big or small companies differently in cases like this (regardless of which one would be favored).


I think you ought to look into modern antitrust policy (as influenced by the U of Chicago). Google has something close to a monopsony for online video; between this and their perma-ban approach, many would argue their contract terms create an unfair restraint of trade.


The guy didn't write the article to say he was innocent. He wrote the article to say Google provides no human to discuss the issue with.


Damn.. that's a disheartening story. Hope this article gets enough publicity to get Google's hound dogs on the trail, maybe get him some of his earnings back.. AT LEAST re-instate his youtube adsenes account.

Bad PR for google.. too bad you hear stories like this all the time.


The Google giveth and The Google taketh away... Moral of the story: diversify your income stream as much as you can. I don't know much about advertising world, but it seems that AdSense is a bit of monopoly, and that sucks.

Random idea for a biz opportunity here: A service that insures content providers against AdSense account termination by routing all of the clicks through a filter to prevent "overeager" clicking by your fans, in exchange for a small fee. If your AdSense account is terminated, you'll be paid for it (just like if your car is totaled, your insurance company pays for it)


Who will insure the insurer against Google blocking this business model?

Also, given that clickfraud is a danger to Google's core business, Google likely spent enormous amount of money and engineering to have best detection possible. Beating Google at their own game will be difficult (i.e. insurer will lose money whenever fraudsters are better than insurer's detection, but Google catches them).


Why would Google block a business model of helping site owners to avoid click fraud? That's doing Google a favor and not even charging them for it.


This sucks, but telling your visitors to click on ads indirectly is a clear violation of the ToS.

I too got fired by Google's algorithm and didn't do anything whatsoever wrong. They are heartless.

Worse of all, this article does not mention the monopoly they have. They own the online ad market. No one else exists that is anywhere as good.

It's straight-up monopoly, and if you get on their black list, you're out.


Does anyone actually get paid by Google Adsense? Almost everyone I know has been kicked from it, not early on but usually when a big payment is coming.

And this bit about returning the funds to advertisers? Any advertisers ever gotten money returned due to click fraud?

I love Google and pay for lots of their products (docs/storage, appengine, etc) but the adsense stuff seems very shady on Google's side as well. Maybe it is my misunderstanding but I know noone making good money on Google Adsense.

Granted this dude was violating the ToS but I know plenty of people kicked just before payment and with no reason for it. It seems like smaller sites or medium content sites they are glad to use for free ad space until it comes time to pay dues. I imagine there is lots of free advertising space and metrics gained from these situations.



Look at the dates on those checks: 2005 and 2006!

Now, go to pof.com and try to find yourself an AdSense ad today. They have their own ad network now: https://ads.pof.com

Shoemoney still has AdSense ads, but has diversified his income stream quite a bit. I'd be willing to bet that he doesn't see anything near what he had been making from AdSense in 2005.


Look at the dates on those checks: 2005 and 2006!

Note that Google started offering Direct Deposit in 2005. :)


Did this also influence the page ranking of your site? (I would have sent this in email, but your email address is not on your profile).


I don't recall him telling users to click on ads.


Selling Android apps in the Market? It's linked to AdSense too. So, if Google kills your website for AdSense abuse, you also won't get paid for your apps which are selling for $0.99.

If you get banned from web AdSense, you also get banned from Youtube and from selling apps in the Android Market.

That's an ugly monopoly.

(edit) source: http://www.google.com/support/forum/p/AdSense/thread?tid=590...


Can you setup separate accounts? This might be the way to go.


Nope. If you setup a separate account with any of the same personal information, Google will disable your account just before you are supposed to be paid out for your app sales. They detect that your new account is related to your banned account. That's the exact case for the individual referenced in the parent post's help forum link.


I hate to incriminate myself, actually not really, but anyway create account in mom's name at mom's address. Create account in dog's name at PO Box. You get the idea.

Fuck tha G-ride I want the machines that are makin em


There's a simple solution: don't engage in fraud click.


I'm realt glad this story is getting told. Bumping up against Google's machine-enforced, unfair rules is easier to do honestly than you may think — and it's a terribly cold, hopeless, impersonal, recourseless, unfair experience. Imagine 1950s automatons running a bureaucracy. It's like that. «I'm-sorry-sir-my-programming-indicates-you-are-a-fraudulent-user.»

From TFA:

I also spent a lot of time on line finding out why people get thrown out of the Adsense scheme and discovered that Google has three sets of rules you can break:

1. The ones in the very long contract that I confess I did not read very carefully

2. The rules that they try to explain in their many pages of Questions and Answers and FAQs

3. The rules they do not tell you about because they are secret and deal with their algorithms


You claim that rules are "unfair" but don't provide a standard of fairness you're using or any evidence to support your claim.

You claim it's easy to violate the rules honestly. You do not provide any evidence for that claim.

In this particular case the guy admits to violating the rules by encouraging his visitors to click on ads. I think he was treated very fairly: his account was suspended, just like accounts of other people who do click fraud.


I could share anecdotes but don't want to get into it, and you're busy blaming the victim anyway.


I for one would be interested in hearing more, if you want to share.


OK, here's an anecdote. http://www.choiceofgames.com/blog/2010/08/were-banned-from-g...

We're a game website -- auto-banned, appeal denied. We've done nothing wrong that we know of. Never encouraged clicking, never clicked ourselves. Since we have no access to the data, we'll never know what might have happened.

One strike -- you're banned for life.

I'll be at Google IO this year; my top priority is to find someone to talk to about this.

I know people say it's impossible to get unbanned, but I can't believe that's true. I'm going to keep trying, for years if I have to.


As far as I can tell, you're ranking fine in Google's search results. You show up for your company's name and other queries, and I don't see any manual spam actions regarding choiceofgames.com.

From the blog post you mention, it sounds like your issue is with AdSense. I'm not on that side of the company, so I'm not sure how much assistance I can help with. I can drop an email to some folks in AdSense, but that doesn't guarantee anything of course, and I suspect they're on vacation this weekend. I'll still try to send an email though.


his account was suspended

OP's last communication from Google (emphasis added):

However, after thoroughly re-reviewing your account data and taking your feedback into consideration, our specialists have confirmed that we're unable to reinstate your AdSense account.

You have made a lot of emphatic assertions on this thread, and I think many of them are wrong. Here you complain about a lack of evidence but then immediately misstate the facts. Please reconsider your approach.


He should start stopping at all of the little ports, marinas & marine supply stores on his way and tell them about his website.

He should then offer them direct advertisements on his website. Sounds like the ads were actually effective.

An ad buyer would of course want to do pay per sale instead of pay per click given the site's history :)


The disease of PayPalism is spreading.


Hi! I'm sorry to be dense, but could you explain what encompasses PayPalism? I'm guessing you're referring to:

-Excessively complex user agreements

-Ability to arbitrarily suspend accounts

-Ability to void credited funds

Are there any other aspects that you (or anyone else) feel should be included?


I'd define PayPalism as businesses with a significantly risk of fraud as a result of conducting financial activities and transactions with "online" customers.

Such businesses take huge risks since they are dealing with money and their bad phenomenons (tax evasion, credit-card/identity abuse, money laundry) without having real face-to-face contact and customer identification. Therefore, in order to stay competitive and manage their risk, they have in their agreements termination clauses which enable them to disable suspicious accounts unilaterally without providing explanations.

For both AdSense and PayPal, sustainable competition at feature-parity failed to appear. There aren't any agencies that allow a guy with only a few thousand impressions per month to earn a buck with a pay-per-click model, or any banks that allow you to open an account with them just by providing an email address. Which leads me to believe that the account closures are just part of the business model assumption which allows PayPalism corporations to manage their risk and survive.

But maybe I'm wrong and something better will emerge. The trick is to improve interactions with legitimate accounts while keeping abuse detection algorithms secret. Which might be a very, very difficult problem to solve...


The inability to reach and speak to a person, as well.


FYI, you actually can reach Paypal support, and it is not a Markov machine.


True, although in my experience, Paypal support is worthless at actually resolving issues.


No, but English is not a strong point in support people, to put it mildly.


I'd simply say that you're doing business with a computer program, not a human being, because that's, basically, the root of it.

And people are learning to adapt on both sides: e.g. people who sweep out their PayPal account constantly. Or those who have learned that you can hose a competitor if you make the programs think they're a fraudulent business.


You have coined a phrase and should grab paypalism.com before it is too late.


Before everyone jumps all over Google remember there are two sides to every story, and this is told completely from the perspective of the account holder, which should show him in the best light, but still appears he both encouraged ad clicks and had knowledge people were following through on this.


The algorithm was asked for its side of the story, but was unavailable for comment.


He does mention this though - "I did get the odd subscriber sending me an email saying that he had clicked loads of adverts. This is called demon clicking. I would reply that I would prefer them to only click on adverts they were interested in."

And then there is reference in the article to another commenter mentioning the same in the comments which he then edited to remove.

Sounds like there was at least a reason to suspect - sad if the users did that on their own and he had to suffer due to their actions but I find it hard to believe strangers will do this for making another stranger money.


I find it hard to believe strangers will do this for making another stranger money.

To an extent, HN readers click on "rate my startup" links out of the goodness of their hearts. In any small, tight-knit community (like sailing, apparently), members of that community will try to help each other out, even if they don't actually know one another.


Difference is the effort - one click on rate my startup once is different from watching the videos again and again and clicking several links. It requires more motivation than just helping each other out without too much pain to yourself.


Moral of the story: Don't make too much ad revenue with AdSense or you will be accused of click fraud, and have no recourse.


It's not too much ad revenue. It's suspicious ad revenue. He had 6% CTR, which is high, and also seemed to encourage his visitors click, at least to some extent.

It's not clear to what extent he encouraged clicks, but asking visitors to click your ads is like asking for your account to be terminated.


My visitors were usually smart and probably figured out on their own (since many of them had blogs - and AdSense accounts - themselves) that clicking on banners meant supporting the site.

Too bad Google shoots first and never asks any question.

It's really comfortable to live in a space without meaningful competition.


If I were an advertiser, why would I want to advertise on your site, if I know that visitors are supporting you by clicking but have no intention of converting? I care about the effectiveness of my ads. They are far less effective if visitors do this.

Ultimately the advertisers are paying for your AdSense income. It may not be your fault, but if you're providing less value to the advertiser, then it seems only fair that you don't participate, since your participation harms the whole market.

This is undeniably a problem with the current AdSense business model, but we all know this, choose to participate and accept the risk.


It would be wonderful if advertisers could pipe conversion rates back into Google so that ads would gravitate towards sites that generated greater conversion rates. This way, sites that have fans that decrease conversion rates will naturally sink to the bottom of the pile without much effort and would bubble up as soon as the behavior changes and conversion rates improve.

It seems a natural solution to the problem. Would you be able to pipe back conversion rates based on where the banner was shown?


That's pretty easy to do if they're using Google Analytics. It integrates with AdWords very well, and can track conversion rates (not just clicks) on their site for each ad.


Heck. If this data would be piped back to me, I would be able to target content towards whatever brought higher conversions and thus higher value for advertisers.


Other ad networks already do this and are pros at it. AdSense is the king of CPC, but not CPA.


Is there a comprehensive evaluation of competing ad networks for small sites?


What I got out of it was to open up independent Adsense accounts for different websites. If Google decides to shut one down, at least the others won't be affected.


This. My first thought was "why didn't he use separate accounts?" Of course the mailing address for the checks would be the same. So then get multiple P.O. Boxes. Then I think they require a phone number too? I'm sure Google has some employee who has thought of this.

Also wouldn't surprise me if one person having multiple AdSense accounts is a violation of their terms.


I'm sure there are restrictions for this, but at that kind of income it doesn't make sense not to spend a few hundred dollars and open up an LLC or something for at least the YouTube account.

I probably wouldn't have bothered with it until reading this, but I always hear every investment should be done with a separate entity and this seems to be no different.


I heard that this actually works. I've seen this advice over the internet: If your account is suspended just open another one. You have much higher probability of using it that getting the original working again.


The AdSense agreement specifically prohibits you from doing this. Of course, you might not get caught, but from a legal standpoint it's a Prohibited Use.


Actually the moral is "don't have too high of a click through rate". In the article he admits he told the viewers to click on the ads to get money to him from advertisers (violating the ToS). The viewers liked him and likely committed the click fraud for him. The money was returned to the advertisers.


Based on personal experiences, it appears that any two parties doing business under an "American" contract are at any time probably in violation of several clauses of said contract. When the waters get a little rough, you can expect the party with the most leverage to bail.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but other countries don't interpret contracts so strictly. I remember someone telling me that German business contracts are often written with intentions and principles, rather than rules.

That way, people are encouraged to do "good business" and not resort to the algorithm. Legalese is just a way to cover your ass in a bad scenario; it's not designed to build better businesses.

Full disclosure: I work for blip.tv. I am biased.


You have a good point- the point of a contract, and all that legalese, isn't suposed to create a playground where both parties can fight it out, it's supposed to spell out the intentions of both parties as verbosely as possible so everyone is on the same page. The contract is there to be a written account of what both parties agreed to - all terms should be clear and understood before it's signed.


Plenty of Americans view a contract as a starting point for future negotiations. The trouble with AdSense is that Google has corporate autism. They appear to be single-mindedly obsessed with cutting customer service expenditures to zero, which is not even remotely the same thing as maximizing net revenue. Hell, even AT&T will send somebody out to plug in your new telephone as long as you can cough up the per-incident fees.


I'm a big fan of the "let's find an algorithmic solution" approach to everything (because it scales), but if the so called specialists (still assuming they are human specialists) are already involved, would it have hurt to send a little more information about the issue that just a link to the FAQ? You know, the human factor...


> would it have hurt to send a little more information about the issue [..]

Call me a cynic but I think they don't send any information on purpose.

They're not required to send information and Legal probably doesn't want anything sent out in these cases that involves writing from a non-lawyer.


Google arguments that giving details on what happened would hinder their ability to enforce their rules and police their partners.


Oh the human factor! Somehow that seems to be completely missing when dealing with anything Adsense. I run a 2 year old startup in the domain of self-publishing. Tried signing up for an Adsense account. Even after multiple rounds of back and forth, I couldn't get any concrete answer about exactly which rules our site was violating. They just kept sending link to the same FAQ. Very frustrating. Fortunately, our business model is not advertising, so it didn't matter much.

I wonder how the customer service is going to be now that they are entering e-commerce space.


They are entering e-commerce space?


Yes, they have been hiring people (http://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/02/16/google-hires-ebay-v...) and launching products in the space (http://www.boutiques.com/). Also Google ebook Store has also been launched now. I expect we are going to see more from them.


I don't get why everyone is so upset at Google here? The guy admits to committing click fraud and then gets shut down. As someone who spends a bit of money on adwords I am pretty happy to see Google is active in enforcing these policies.


But the vast majority of the seized funds are from a source that is demonstrably not click fraud (his Youtube videos). The author shows the injustice of Google's heavy-handed, binary method of labeling people fraudsters and taking thousands without a fair hearing.


If a user of my site asks me how the ads work and I say that I get paid if users click them ... Is that click fraud?


No, but its getting very close to the gray area/fine line. If you are encouraging the user to click your link for some reason other than him being interested in the product - then it is click fraud.

Example of click fraud: I get paid when users click my ads. The more money this website makes the less time I have to spend working hourly at Starbucks. Less time at Starbucks means more time working on my website, writing content, and making videos.

Btw, he says he was doing this in his blog post.


That is exactly the opposite definition of fraud.

  From Merriam-Webster:
  a : deceit, trickery; specifically : intentional perversion of truth in order to induce another to part with something of value or to surrender a legal right

  b : an act of deceiving or misrepresenting : trick
Where was he deceiving or misrepresenting the situation? The fact is that there is no tractable way for Google to separate people who are interested in supporting an ad-driven business from those who really are creating false ad traffic for financial gain.


> Where was he deceiving or misrepresenting the situation?

He is deceiving the advertisers. They are paying for people interested in the ad, thats not what they are getting.

> The fact is that there is no tractable way for Google to separate people who are interested in supporting an ad-driven business from those who really are creating false ad traffic for financial gain.

Correct, but we can look at the average CTRs of other sites/blogs that focus on the same subject. That should give us a good understand of foul play (yes, of course there will be some false positives).


He is running a site about boats, the ads are about boats, and the users are into boats. This is a fuzzy line at best. He did not tell anyone to click on ads. The problem is that google exercises arbitrary power without explaining it, warning you before they do it, etc etc.

Should google have seized the revenue from his YouTube videos? Was he able to talk to someone and explain that they were separate things and get it worked our? No, again, arbitrary power.


The full context of the question is: "if asked how an ad-driven business makes money, how would you, as the business owner, explain it?"

The truth of the situation is: you click, I get paid. There is no moral value attached to such an action in and of itself. If anything, it is Google's own fault for putting itself in a position for charging advertisers to place ads in a medium it does not and cannot control. It is the very definition of a moral hazard.

http://banking.about.com/od/loans/a/MoralHazard.htm

What makes it particularly troubling is that Google not only owns the ad network but also controls the content distribution in the form of Youtube.

Google prides itself as a data-driven company, and this "false positive" is likely due to a "statistical likelihood" of click-fraud, but that's small comfort to a small business owner who does not have the resources to contest or appeal such a heavy-handed measure.


I doubt that would pass in court as fraud.

The problem here is that when something is questionable google exercises arbitrary power with no explanation or human interaction.

I got kicked out of ad sense because google said that ads were showing up on porn (my site is pure user generated content). I couldn't find it for the longest time, when I finally found it i was unsure how to handle it. It was text content that was in a foreign language which I didn't speak.

There was no way for me to talk to someone at google and resolve it.


Where exactly does he admit to click fraud?


> As part of the deal, and as a way of involving the sailors, I tell them about the revenue for the project which all comes from the website. The more the website earns the more sailing I can do, the more films they see.

> Oh yes, I was also running little blocks of adverts provided by Adsense and, yes, I told my subscribers that I got some money if they visited the websites of those advertisers – all of whom were interested in selling stuff to sailors.

So basically, I am paying for his boat project. People are clicking the ads in order to see his project continue, not because they are interested in the product. Sure, the correlation between users clicking the ads and users interested in the product is going to be a lot closer to 1 than -1. However, that does not justify what is going on... at the end of the day users are clicking the ads so he gets more money, not because they are _absolutely_ interested in the product.

I really don't know what else to say about this. Google makes it pretty clear that you cannot do this. Just because he didn't read the T&Cs and just because he is doing videos isn't going to give him a free pass.

I think google handled the situation poorly. They should pay him some amount, like the expected CTR for the ads that were displayed on his site. As far as Google never doing business with him, I think thats fine and correct... think of the big picture here.


It's not _entirely_ clear that asking users to click on ads is prohibited. That phrase is in section 11 a) ii, in the _Payment_ area, not in section 5, which lists Prohibited Uses. Perhaps it should be.

Of interest is section 11's withholding clause, which states that the withholding is "pending Google's reasonable investigation". I don't know why it's there, if Google can terminate at its sole discretion at any time (which is can, according to Section 6). I think it's there to throw some legal chaff in the air and make it _seem_ like there's some protection, so the agreement isn't entirely one-sided. Section 11 (which provides a vague promise of investigation) does NOT survive termination of the agreement, according to section 6. So termination means the investigation is over, and means it never actually has to take place.

A fair agreement might require Google to return, to advertisers, confiscated funds. A fair agreement might also create a "suspended" state for an account, preventing termination until the results of a "reasonable investigation" are available.

Of course, IANAL. I am just reading what is there, which is what most of us have to do. Looks to me that Google can confiscate any funds it wishes, then terminate.


> In order to ensure a good experience for users and advertisers, publishers participating in the AdSense program may not:

> Encourage users to click the Google ads using phrases such as "click the ads", "support us", "visit these links" or other similar language.

from: https://www.google.com/adsense/support/bin/answer.py?hl=en&#...

I agree with you though, not everything is entirely clear. There is no way Google can make a statement for every case that can possibly happen. They come up with these general rules followed by a 'we can do whatever we want' catch all.

I feel like I am defending Google way too much. I think the could have handled it a lot better, that said - I do think the end result was correct and I am not ready to scream google is evil like most people here seem to be doing.


I don't think Google is evil. I do think they exhibit (or have exhibited in the past) a pretty callous disregard for the devastating effects their careless customer service can have on small businesses. If "don't be evil" means anything, it means they have a <i>duty</i> to exhibit proper diligence when applying their policies. It all boils down to automation and cost savings. Google has to operate at an incredible scale. To drive the big bus they've decided they just need to run over people (businesses) some of the time. Back then I would have paid $10 or $20 just to be able to talk for 5 minutes to a human being. They could at least provide that option (and maybe they do, now).


not click fraud, but a violation of the TOS of adsense.


So basically, Google has written the rules so they can call you on it at any time and if they deem they're paying you too much money, they kill your account? Seems to weigh the playing field pretty heavily in their favor - they're getting the benefits of your direction of traffic to their advertisers, while reserving the right to arbitrarily kill your revenue. Given their more-or-less monopoly status on search (80% or more - too lazy to check the stats), this should probably be investigated by the FTC or DOJ.


This is ridiculous. Google makes more money when they pay you more money. The income is tied together. They get a cut. So, it's not that they feel like they are paying you too much. Many sites/individuals make a lot more money than this guy did on Adsense. In this case, they felt the guy was sending fraudulent clicks through the program.


While this is true of Adsense for domains, it's not true for YouTube apparently. Ads still run beside this guy's videos whether or not Google/YouTube decides to give him a cut of the revenue.


It makes some sense: the videos are hosted on Google servers and served through Google bandwidth.


yes, but they are not google's videos.


Still, Google is not billing him for serving his videos.


Well of course they aren't. They are his videos. He is the one who should be billing google for serving his videos.


Why exactly would Google have to pay him? For the privilege of paying for the storage and bandwidth the videos he uploaded consume?


The situation to me seems comparable to a book writer and a publisher. The writer is the one who is writing the book, he has the copyrights, and earns from selling it. The publisher spends on marketing, printing, etc, and gets a cut, but, the publisher is reliant on the writer. If the publisher want to sell the book without giving any revenue to the writer, then they would have to pay for a license. Otherwise, they are in breach of copyrights law.

So, if google wants to host other people's videos, they need to pay for them, unless people give the videos to google for free, as the video's are the creator's and thus copyrighted.


By that logic, if I were to create a video, it is in my interest to spread that video to as many video hosting providers as possible, and charge each of them.

Sir, I believe you are on to something absolutely brilliant, and will undoubtedly become wealthy beyond your wildest dreams.


Do you think the one-strike and you're out policy, with little chance of direct human-contact in resolving disputes is reasonable? For Google, they get to have their cake and eat it too - to them it probably doesn't matter if they lose a small revenue stream like this (yet they're still putting ads on his YouTube videos and search results), but the little guy gets hammered.


No, it sucks. I was just objecting to your incorrect assessment that it went down like this: "if they deem they're paying you too much money, they kill your account".


Tough luck. Yes, that might come across as crass, but did they bother reading Google's terms of service? So they will bitch and moan about it, try the appeal process and not a dent will be made in their case.

What it boils down to is: if you rely on those earnings to sustain your business, guard against anything that tosses you into a suspicious category. And that is a moving target as well.

I do empathize with him, as I had to toil through AdSense appeal process, but that means diddly-squat.


Doesn't seem like you have a ton of control over the situation, seeing as the rules as written are almost impossible to break in some manner, the rules are only partially declared, and you cannot police your users who may think they're doing you a favor (note: he did actually discourage his users from clicking).


There is a big difference between discouraging users from clicking, and telling users to click and then discouraging them from clicking.


Heh, that is partially true. Once a person is in his situation, I agree, there isn't much to be done. On the other hand, there are ways to guard against getting into hot water and lack of effort counts against him.

There are unmentioned albeit publicly verified limits or thresholds that a publisher should abide by. It's in the publishers best interest to learn these, consult on what to do before ad-sense is enabled and what to do afterwards.


It's too bad what happened to him and it doesn't seem fair in this context, but shouldn't there be a reasonable expectation that people who are relying on advertising revenue from google at least read the terms of service? I know it's something that I would make sure I was aware of.


I understand your point, but have you ever actually tried to read the terms is service of any multi-thousand line legal document written in legalese. You are obviously in a way right, but for Google (and other companies) to purposely obfuscate the process does more harm.


Not for every piece of software I install on my computer, but if I'm doing it for work or if its important like an OS or a cellphone plan I do try to read the entire document. Its really not that bad if you're willing to take a few minutes and they aren't written purposefully to be hard to understand - just to be legally precise.


I don't see how that would have helped him. After having his lawyer review the terms of service (which is probably superior to reading it for himself), apparently he's concluded that there's nothing he could have done to prevent this from happening. He was using Youtube, and that limits his ability to shop around for better terms of service for ads.


If Google told him what was the problem, he could correct it.


Cut the middle man. I mean cut Google Adsense. What he was doing was paying a big cost of opportunity there.

If he has that vertical market of subscribers he should deal with the boat insurance providers or other suitable advertisers himself.

Let the 1c become 500c or a lot more.


If you own several different media properties like this guy, is it a good strategy to incorporate each one separately, to keep an unintentional Adsense TOS violation from affecting all the others?


I've had my run-in with Google AdSense in the past. My prediction: If they don't change their ways this is headed to a huge class-action lawsuit and nothing but bad press.

My experience was interesting and revealing. I had a bunch of domains (about 200) parked with GoDaddy in something called "cash parking". Not a money maker, but, what the heck. Once I realized that this was actually a service provided by Google I decided to look into cutting-out the middle man.

I looked into AdSense and found AdSense for Domains. Exactly the same service being offered by GoDaddy. I took all 200-some domains off GoDaddy, created an AdSense account and parked all of them with Google. They approved every single domain name and put ads on them. Great.

Two days later I get this email about fraudulent activity and the termination of my AdSense account. I appealed. No love. So, the termination was, effectively, forever.

Here's the irony of this story. The same 200 domains had been parked with GoDaddy for months without any issues. Serviced by Google. They even made a few bucks for all involved. The domains were not advertised in any way anywhere. I just parked them and went on with my business. This means that Google was responsible for sending traffic to these sites, every bit of it. About 50 of the domains were political in nature. Being that this was around election time my guess is that they got more traffic than usual, and, I guess, hits. I'll never know because the account was killed within two days of being formed with no data provided whatsoever.

So: Google sends traffic to the sites. The sites get clicks. They close my AdSense account. No appeal, no recourse, no human being to speak to. Bullshit!

Google needs to get sued in a major way to "reset" some of their behaviors. Why? Because they are a de-facto monopoly. Search is dominated by them. Video (YouTube) is dominated by them. Advertising (AdWords and AdSense) is dominated by them.

They do not provide for any intelligent way to deal with problems. They will tell you that you've done something wrong but will NOT provide proof, details nor an opportunity to rectify the problem. A likely scenario is that of someone just getting started who makes a few mistakes and needs to learn. Google does not provide for any of the above. They are judge, jury and executioner and a pretty mean one at that.

This fellow with the boat site probably deserved a slap on the hand for his site. He did no deserve to loose ALL OF HIS INCOME. They could have easily said something like:

"Your site-based per-click revenue is now 10% of normal during a probation period. These are the things you did wrong: link. Here's where you can see the activity and what happened: link. Here are the rules you need to pay attention to: link. The account will be monitored and your earnings percentage slowly increased as we see that these violations are rectified. We look forward to a continued relationship with <company name>".

...A far better approach.

If you are going to shut down someones entire revenue stream you need to have a humane and reasonable process to review the situation and seek resolution rather than hitting someone over the head with a sledge-hammer.

I don't know what will trigger this lawsuit. I do think that it is almost inevitable. They might even need to be broken into different verticals in order to make it all fair. I think they are playing a dangerous game. I think they are playing with fire.

The Google "do no evil" thing may have been a nice idea. However, as it pertains to AdWords/AdSense they are headed straight for evil-land if they keep on this path.

There's another topic: Google censorship. I think that, because they are a monopoly, they don't have the right to censor. They can't be in charge of what is and isn't appropriate on the web. Different issue.


Interactions with Google go something like this:

GOOG: Dear $Client: our automated algorithm says you are engaged in click fraud. We are reversing payments made to you and confiscating what is in "your" account. Thanks.

$Client: Whaaa? (Furious form filling).

GOOG: Dear $Client: Based on the same information, our automated algorithm $still says you are engaged in click fraud. We are $still reversing payments made to you and confiscating what is in "your" account. All your comments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Thanks.

I haven't experienced anything with ad sense (never used it), but I have experienced the sorry excuse for customer service their automated systems produce.

A few years ago I did the web site for a small retail store, and set up the Google advertising for it. The average bill, per month, was around $500. After about a year, the credit card on the account expired, and a new one was needed. Something went wrong during the update process and the account stayed locked out, even though new credit card information had been entered. This was a situation that needed a human to look at it, for about 60 seconds, to fix the problem. Eventually that happened.

It took over six weeks, and dozens of pointless, automated message exchanges. That $500 a month we had been paying to Google wasn't worth even a _minute_ of a human being's time. For a small retail business that absolutely relies on Google advertising to bring in business (it's a highly researched, rare purchase), being cut off Google is a kiss of death. The phone will go from ringing 20 times a day, to ringing once a day.

For certain types of businesses, there's simply no alternative to Google. You're either there or you're dead. In terms of revenue/ad$, it was by far the best. The day the ads reactivated, the phones started ringing again. Looking back, I can't believe that I thought that the messages I was receiving from customer service actually meant they were looking at the problem. Knowing what I know now, I'd have a completely separate backup account ready to go at all times, with the same sets of keywords and bids, on the off chance that the main account was deactivated.

If this is how they treat people who are trying to _give_ them money, I can't begin to imagine how frustrating it must be to get money _out_ of them!

If I were participating in the AdSense program, Google could terminate me for writing this message, according to 5.(xi) of the US terms and conditions, which classifies as prohibited use "any action or practice that reflects poorly on Google or otherwise disparages or devalues Google’s reputation or goodwill".


> I were participating in the AdSense program, Google could terminate me for writing this message, ...

Based on what you have written, you'd only be in AdSense by means of a shell corporation that didn't have your name on any public documents.


I think the best point you made was this: "..they are a de-facto monopoly."

Once you have a monopoly on the market, the rules change as to what is acceptable behavior. Microsoft learned that lesson the hard way.


So if users clicking on ads without the intention of buying is click fraud - what about when a user accidentally opens one of those lame ads on a youtube video when they were actually trying to close the ad? I certainly had no intention of giving the advertiser any money and yet it probably registers on their end as a click.


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