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Don’t Be Evil: How Google Screwed a Startup (hatchlings.com)
710 points by mikeknoop on April 5, 2012 | hide | past | favorite | 246 comments

I lost my Adsense account two years ago, due to valid violations. This saddened me, and was the end of web development for me. The stats were my heroine.

Fast forward to Spring break of this year, I developed a few Android apps and one took off. I signed up for AdMob in early March.

I kept clean and got my fill of daily stats and was once again happy with my new home on the internet.

Fast forward a week and a half, I get an alert saying Admob accounts will be merged with Adsense, uh oh. I was generating decent income at this point, because let's face it, the Android market is just wide open.

I decided to make my second appeal to Adsense, 2 years later, asking for another chance and explaining my understanding of the previous violations. I noted my clean record on Admob and my apps as my reason for appealing.

6 hours later, my AdMob account is banned without any kind of notification. My wife looks over at me and wonders why I'm so sad at the laptop after 10 hours of class. It had become my daily habit to kiss my wife and check the AdMob stats. It's not actually about making money, it is something about watching the growth/lotto.

So, I have now given up on Android apps and just disabled all but the most popular one. I removed ads and cleaned up my last push.

I wish there was some type of leniency. My wife offered to make an account in her name and just take over my Android apps, but the initial thrill is gone. There is a looming realization of Google controlling the majority of online advertising and that one mistake will probably haunt me for many years/services to come.

I had a similar thing happen to me...to a point.

It was with adwords...it was back when I was just getting started and I did affiliate marketing. I promoted this weight loss clickbank book...it didn't pan out, so I paused the ads.

My mistake...TWO YEARS later, I get a notice that they've shut down the account with bots because apparently that type of advertising is no longer allowed. So my old approval got tossed...and my account got perma banned over something that happened 2 years prior.

I filed an appeal, and that got ignored.

So I just said screw it, and created a new account. If Google won't play by its own damn rules, and will apply rules retroactively, I don't see why anyone should follow the rule about no duplicate accounts.

So I just signed up for adwords with a po box and did everything via VPN to avoid getting banned for duplicate account(matched via ip address). And it worked just fine.

That's the thing, all this bullshit that Google does...only hurts legitimate publishers.

The black hatters(who these rules are actually supposed to be for) only get a slight slap on the wrist...since all they have to do is just pay $5 to get a legitimate approved Adsense/Adwords account. Then just continue doing whatever they were doing before.

Wow, so that's why my account got banned.

This EXACT same thing happened to me and I always wondered why. I hadn't used my account for years, everything was off. Then out of nowhere I get an e-mail from Google saying my accounts banned. I didn't care because I'm not doing any advertising anymore, but it's got to suck for anyone who may be making part of their living from from ad revenue.

The most annoying thing about what happened to me was that the campaigns were OFF and when I was using Google Adwords AFAIK you could not delete campaigns, just pause them, so what else could I have done to avoid this?

If you could delete them, it was not made clear how to at the time, I seem to remember starting new (slightly different) campaigns because I couldn't completely delete old ones.

Well, at least if I want to try to get my account opened again, I'll have some alternate options beside the appeal system. Thanks for sharing your work around. :)

I had this exact same thing happen. I wanted to try out some advertising so I put up in $20 and an ad for some shitty clickbank book. Of course it went nowhere so I deleted the whole campaign and left it at that. I went back to check out adwords a year later and my account was banned. I tried to appeal but they just told me that the anyone who ever had those urls as ads were banned and there was nothing they were going to do about it. Now that I'm going to get into Android development I'm think I'm going to try what you did, different address, VPN, etc. I'm moving in the summer so it won't be so hard.

So how do you tie in the account to a credit card or bank account?

Won't google detect the same name on the CC or bank account?

Names aren't exactly unique.

AdSense also requires a SSN so they can file a 1099 with the IRS.

Tax IDs and SSN numbers are.

AFAIK SSNs are not unique (1:1 in either respect) in the US.


Business tax ID solves that problem. Incorporate and you get one from the IRS.

business credit card...but I'd imagine, as long as the credit card # is different, the name itself shouldn't matter

When I was 12, I built apps to automate MMOs. I was making about $350/mo. from AdSense - not bad money for a kid my age - when my account was shut down on the last day of the billing cycle (ie., the day before they were going to send me a check).

After some initial disappointment I changed to a subscription model, which increased my profit by an order of magnitude and incentivized me to work a lot harder on creating a quality product. Because of this, I don't regard my AdSense shutdown as a bad thing. Knowing nothing about the sort of apps you make, I'd encourage you to try to explore more options to monetize them. Clearly a number of people were using your apps. A different approach to monetization may be just as thrilling and rewarding.

Major props for having that much business sense at such a young age! I was programming game tools at 13, but I gave them away.

entrepreneurship should be a mandatory high school course, along with media literacy and personal finance.

"There is a looming realization of Google controlling the majority of online advertising"

If you use another ppc provider on your page, you might get penalties affecting your ranks http://support.google.com/webmasters/bin/answer.py?hl=en&... Similar with affiliate links, http://support.google.com/webmasters/bin/answer.py?hl=en&... Even though that's worst case scenario and might be a bit tendentious; there's no clear way to interpret what you can or can't do, or how google might interpret it.

Other advertising solutions for Android apps often pay more in my experience anyway, like Millennial Media, for example. I don't know why offhand, maybe there are fewer apps on them, so advertisers end up paying more for fewer slots. There's also AdWhirl and Mobclix which can act as mediators farming out your slots to other networks as needed. They are all just about as easy as AdMob to integrate, which is pretty straight forward, since most ad libraries are basically just dropping an extra WebView into an app somewhere.

I appreciate the gesture of expediting the appeal process from one of our members. The fact remains that I cannot participate in the AdSense conversion in May. When it comes to Google and money, I might as well be a pirate trespassing in royal seas, unless it is Wallet!

It motivates me to push my custom app that avoids some permissions breaking on Galaxy Notes and S2s, Thanks!

Sorry man, it makes me sad to hear about your store. Hope everything works out for you. Edit: hear about your story

When things are this broken, it's an opportunity. Maybe it's time for someone to start an AdSense competitor whose focus is customer service. It seems to be deeply embedded in Google's DNA not so much to abuse AdSense users as to treat them like components in a machine. They treat AdSense users much as they do servers. Uncertain about a server? Toss it; the system is designed to be fault tolerant.

Maybe Google thinks they have to behave this way to scale. But my gut tells me they could get away with being a lot nicer and still scale. If so there is an opportunity for a competitor to move in here and surprise people with better customer service, as Zappos did in shoes.

It could help to have better fraud detection technology. The more accurately you can tell the innocent from the guilty, the less draconian you need to be with the innocent. And while it sounds unlike Google to have left room to do significantly better, the way they treat the innocent implies their technology may be insufficient.

But who are the "customers"? There are no less than FOUR parties at play here: Google, the ad buyer, the content provider, and the consumer. And none of their interests are very well aligned. Being "nice" to questionably fraudulent activity (because let's be clear: delaying a fraud ban means that on the margins, they will miss some valid bans and thus lose money for themselves and their advertisers) hurts Google and the consumer at the expense of the interests of smaller content vendors.

I think the audience here is skewed. People here (pg included) are too wiling to see through their web site admin glasses and not think things through from the other perspectives.

Then scrap free support. If Google was holding 40k revenue hostage, and blocking 20k a month, I'd be willing to pay 1k to negotiate with a real person for a day.

There's probably only a few false positives, most of the scammers they block are scammers. They can't afford to give everyone a fair hearing. But if you really believe you were unfairly blocked, they should give you some kind of channel to sort things out.

Usually you pay that $1k to someone called a "lawyer...."

Allowing folks to charge for general customer service seems like creating a perverse incentive to create expensive problems in order to make money fixing them....

It hurts Google, the consumer and the advertiser. Some individual site owners are the only ones who benefit from a more lenient stance on fraud.

Please don't miscategorize asking for honest business practices as "a more lenient stance on fraud". What's Google's alleged to have done here -- deprived payment for services rendered -- is morally equivalent to fraud.

Indeed. And what Hatchlings is alleged to have done is likewise fraud (or perhaps accessory to fraud). We have no evidence either way (though as I've mentioned, I'm on the whole not predisposed to believing spammy Facebook games companies), yet you've jumped in on one side. Why?

Look, this isn't "PayPal vs. regretsy" here. It's one company in a business area rife with (pseudo-)fraud trying to make a living and getting into a tussle with another company which is badly exposed to risks from the same fraud. Yawn.

I just want to jump in here and say that we (Hatchlings) are also not asking for more leniency on fraud. We've been on the opposite side of the advertiser/publisher fence too and fraud on the campaigns we run is not acceptable.

It's not even necessarily false-positives that we're against either. Mistakes happen.

The real issue is that we've been doing everything possible for the last year to get this issue resolved and have been willfully ignored. We, a small 5 person startup, take care to provide personal support for our 3.5 million users (yes, even to the non-paying ones) and we don't think it's too much to ask for Google to do the same especially with an issue as big as this.

PS - the "spammy Facebook games companies" is a whole different issue. We try not to be spammy either and the FB platform is a similar situation where there are bad actors who tend to ruin it for everyone else.

If it's really $40k, you haven't done everything possible. Call a lawyer, file a suit. This kind of money won't pay for a big firm, but you can absolutely get someone local. And in discovery you'll learn why you were banned. Or you get some of it back in a settlement.

"And what Hatchlings is alleged to have done is likewise fraud (or perhaps accessory to fraud)."

Wait where is anything alleged to have been done by Hatchlings? Did you just make that up?

"yet you've jumped in on one side. Why?"

Because the issue appears one sided? {ignoring for the moment the many other people saying this is exactly how google operates).

"Look, this isn't "PayPal vs. regretsy" here. "

Funny it bore a striking resemblance. Web companies grow up and their shitty to nonexistent customer service doesn't go over so well when they decide to shutter a business account with significant balances.

"It's one company in a business area rife with (pseudo-)fraud trying to make a living and getting into a tussle with another company which is badly exposed to risks from the same fraud. Yawn."

There's lots of fraud in financial transactions and credit card issuers (banks) are exposed to this but if your bank suddenly closed up your account and never communicated with you I'll bet you wouldn't be yawning, you'd be screaming bloody murder.

Because the issue appears one sided?

The issue appears one-sided only because you're hearing just one side.

There's lots of fraud in financial transactions and credit card issuers (banks) are exposed to this but if your bank suddenly closed up your account and never communicated with you I'll bet you wouldn't be yawning, you'd be screaming bloody murder.

I agree. You would be screaming bloody murder. And that's exactly what Hatchlings is doing. However, I don't think commercial banks are too much better in this regard either. I mean, if a bank shuts down your merchant account and cancels transactions that are "in-flight" due to some kind of automated fraud detection trigger, would you have any more pull with them than Hatchlings has with Google? I suspect not. I think the only difference would be that you'd be getting these notices via telephone or USPS rather than e-mail.

"The issue appears one-sided only because you're hearing just one side."

This is exactly true and I'm perfectly willing to revisit my opinions if I hear the other side.

However (and a big one), I don't expect to hear anything from Google that's going to overturn the mental verdict I've formed that this is a lousy, shitty way to do business and treat your customers.

Not to continue a pointless flame war, except to respond to your very last point: you realize that banks do terminate merchant accounts at the drop of a hat, right? The situation there is absolutely symmetrical with the one here. They also will freeze a customer's card at the barest hint of strangeness, forcing you to call in and verbally OK the transactions. This happens to me once a year at least.

When you call your bank they generally pick up the phone. In contrast it seems the only way to get help from Google is to know someone influential or have a high profile blog on which you can embarrass them publicly.

> forcing you to call in and verbally OK the transactions

This is the bit that people seem to get most frustrated about. Banks have telephone numbers. Even if that support is outsourced to Mumbai you still get a person to talk to.

"Not to continue a pointless flame war,"

I must be missing something, please quote one thing that I said that you felt was flaming you.

Consumers are not much hurt by false negatives in fraud detection. Consumers are significantly harmed by false positives because they lose access to ad-supported content. I would still be regularly updating my old blog and entertaining my readers if it were profitable like it was before Google accused me of being a scam artist and shut down my account.

That's true, I should have explained that better. The hypothesis I was working from is that, on the whole, Google probably enables more ad-supported content than it hurts with false positives. For every one unfortunate blogger like you, there are a thousand more who would be harmed if the whole ad network were delegitimized by fraud. Eventually, I think the ad networks would become even seedier than they already are and this (combined with the lack of legit ad revenue) would hurt consumers.

That is a reasonable point, but I do not think that Google's approach is the best means to forming a credible ad network that enables both marketing and the monetization of free content. A system with better communication, a reasonable appeals process, and some effort to recognize and address problems like third-party sabotage and friends who think they're doing you a favor, would better serve consumers, advertisers, and creators. The problem is that the benefits to Google of such a system don't outweigh the costs.

That doesn't follow. If ads don't make money there won't be ad supported content. Consumers are the beneficiaries of a very complicated three-way relationship (advertiser/broker/content). Of course they get harmed when that relationship stops working, it doesn't matter which direction it happens in or whose fault it is.

I did not say that consumers were not harmed by false negatives. I said they were harmed more by false positives.

Right, and I said that's wrong. Or it's only speciously right: content providers are smaller and have less buffering capacity, so in the event that the cash flow to them is interrupted they will drop faster than the broker or advertiser. But all three parties have to be making money for the consumer to derive benefit from the system.

Actually you said that it doesn't matter in which direction the system breaks, which is preposterously false.

You have a very narrow understanding of what internet is. It hurts Google, in an indirect, but very deep way: Google should be most interested in the proliferation and diversity of independent sites, since this is what they search. They should be especially interested in the long-tail. When they cut revenue sources for them, the eyeballs go to places that they cannot touch/financially hurt or more importantly they cannot search, i.e. to Facebook.

You'd do tremendously better than Google in these circumstances just by letting people you ban actually talk to a real customer service representative with the power to investigate the problem properly and give decent human feedback after you've banned them.

The biggest problem is not the initial ban, but the total stonewalling from Google afterwards.

I'm sorry, but it's insulting that you think those of us who find these stories disgraceful aren't aware of the issues. You think the audience here is skewed? I think you are apologizing for Google where no apology is due.

It is not a given that Google's anti-customer service policy is the right one. There are other tremendously large multinational corporations who have friendly customer service relationships (e.g., Amazon and Apple) and aside from being the "right thing to do" it's working pretty darn well for them from a profit-and-loss perspective.

I don't care how you define "customer". If Google had confiscated 40K from any partner in circumstances resembling these, and refused contact with their partner despite having previously assigned them an account rep, I'd find this shady.

Like pg mentions, this is certainly an opening. Despite your protests, Google's partners don't like this. When partners don't like something, that's an opening for competitors. There are several other ad networks, some at least reputed not to employ such a destructive and passive aggressive customer service strategy.

The only problem is, Google has a near monopoly for search ads. Can you agree that near-monopoly power gives a company the power to adopt abusive policies? It's hard to tell whether Google really is forced to ignore partner emails or whether they are partly able to get away with it due to their market power.

It's not like companies purposely adopt terrible policies. Of course Google currently thinks this is the best trade-off. And this is now our bullhorn to say, no, we don't agree that this is the best trade-off. If we can't hold Google accountable to showing the faintest bit of decency to this partner in this circumstance--assuming the facts are correct as related--when can we complain about a company's policies?


People aren't out to get Google. Please, stop with the "I know it's (suddenly, and frankly inexplicably, IMHO) fashionable to Hate teh Google around here", which is a fallacy closely related to ad hominem.

Apple and Amazon are the subject of repeated flames like this one? Please cite a few HN posts where this has come up. Nobody is against Google freezing problematic accounts. People are against arbitrary-seeming policies and poor customer service. Flames alone don't matter. The facts of each case do matter. And in the cases that have come across the transom here, the facts have more often been against Google.

Do you agree that it's in theory possible for a company handling fraud detection in online transactions to behave unethically? Because it almost sound like you're saying "fraud detection is hard, let's go shopping!" Just because a business engages in fraud detection of online transactions doesn't mean their policies are suddenly above reproach.

We are all well aware of the difficulty of detecting fraud in online transactions. This isn't new information. What's at dispute is whether Google is actually forced to treat people poorly during the course of handling online transactions. Most people say no. Ultimately, the government and/or competition will decide.

There are other tremendously large multinational corporations who have friendly customer service relationships (e.g., Amazon and Apple) and aside from being the "right thing to do" it's working pretty darn well for them from a profit-and-loss perspective.

Really? You're citing Apple as a company that's friendlier and more approachable than Google? Is this the same Apple that routinely pulls apps from the app store without rhyme or reason? Is this the same Apple that approves an app quickly, but then takes much longer to approve updates to the same app? Or is this the same Apple that changes the terms of service to severely restrict certain forms of functionality (e.g. in-app purchases) just because that makes its own business model more attractive?

Don't get me wrong. I'm not a fan of Google's customer service either. It's extremely difficult to find an actual person to plead your case. It's even more difficult to get that person to overturn the decision the algorithm made. In some cases, it's not even clear that people have the power to overturn the algorithmic decision. But compared to Google's corporate attitude, Apple often seems out and out hostile towards developers using its services.

As a Mac developer, I have to disagree. I've had great experiences with Apple's customer service, both as a normal customer and as a developer. I always got helpful answers from a human being within a reasonable time. They sometimes make it a bit difficult to contact support (you have to fill out two or three web forms before you can write your message).

With Google, on the other hand, I only once tried contacting customer service because all the email disappeared from my Gmail inbox. I found out that there is no customer service. The only thing I found was a community moderated forum where someone marked my problem as a duplicate and referred me to a thread where dozens of other users were complaining about the same problem with no solution in sight.

> You're citing Apple as a company that's friendlier and more approachable than Google?

When I had App Store review issues, they very politely tried to tell me what I could do to make the ramming less unpleasant. The experience was terrible, don't get me wrong, and they have completely lost what little confidence I, as a developer, had in them, but they were nice and responsive.

When my AdSense account was blocked, Google put me in an auto-reply loop, very curtly saying I had no recourse and that they would never give me any additional information. They didn't actually growl the word "criminal" at me, but it was implied.

Apple is absolutely friendlier, more approachable, and more reasonable than Google, and yes, that is really saying something about Google.

He's probably talking about the Apple that gives customers brand new iphones or upgraded macbook pros when they experience simple hardware issues with their original purchase.

That's because the folks that buy Macbooks are customers.

The folks that buys iOS Dev Licenses are the sharecroppers. Don't like massa's rules? Get off massa's field. Or go buy and plant your own.

Having someone to hear your claims is a very big difference I think. You can get harsh, arbitrary or erroneous rejections or limitations from Apple, but you get to know why, you most of the time have a second chance, and they tell you what you can do about it, if there is anything to do. You're not alone in the desert taking to a wall.

This sounds like a classic case of the Stockholm syndrome.

Yes, it would be absolutely like it. That is, IF the guys in Stockholm had build an business environment out of thin air, with a huge paying user base, a nice system to limit piracy, and a complete development framework with good documentation and all, where the captives could freely chose to build and sell their apps in.

Instead of, you know, just taking them hostage against their will.

You are right, I went a bit too far, but it's scary that developers are more and more at mercy of platform gatekeepers, completely dependent on their arbitrary decisions.

True that.

That's why I'm in favor of government intervention in such cases -- to enforce them to obey some ground rules and not arbitrarily change the game every time.

Something like the antitrust laws.

Because the problem is that the platform owner had far more power than the individual developer or even any software company. Hmm, maybe a "union of mobile developers"?

In response to your edit:

Here's John Gruber himself taking Apple to task for an impersonal rejection: http://daringfireball.net/2009/08/ninjawords

Here's Apple pulling an app that shows movie times, with no apparent explanation or contact with the developer: http://www.tuaw.com/2008/08/04/apple-pulls-box-office-from-a...

Here's the lead developer of Facebook's iPhone app (one of the most popular apps for the iPhone) taking Apple to task over their vague rejections and arbitrary guidelines: http://techcrunch.com/2009/11/11/joe-hewitt-developer-of-fac...

Finally, here's Apple rejecting an app because it mentioned the existence of Android: http://www.pcworld.com/article/188696/apple_bans_the_word_an...

So I do think it's fair to say that Apple is at least as bad (and probably worse) than Google when it comes to its attitude towards partners. At the very least, Google doesn't ban you from its service for mentioning Bing.

Most of those posts are almost 4 years old, get over it. I've been publishing to AppStore since 2007 and it was rough at the start. Apple wasn't anticipating the volume of submissions. It's a much different story now.

Um... Amazon and Apple are also the subject of regular flames like this one. Amazon affiliates and app store vendors are routinely frozen. And yes, they lose money. There's no free lunch here: I know it's (suddenly, and frankly inexplicably, IMHO) fashionable to Hate teh Google around here (c.f. even PG above getting into it), but fraud detection is a pervasive unsolved problem in our society. Credit card banks haven't solved it. Online sales proxies haven't solved it. PayPal hasn't solved it. Ad vendors like Google haven't solved it.

Criminals are smart, and it sucks. But this is the world we have to live in. Picking on one vendor in particular (and over a IMHO very questionable case) is just unfair and unhelpful.

As a traveling independent developer, I've run afoul of both Google and Apple's fraud detection algorithms because I'm moving around all the time. The difference is that straightening things out with Apple involved talking directly to an intelligent, helpful human being whereas Google just stonewalled me with forms and faqs.

I read people saying things like "Google is always doing this". I'd love to see (and know that I never will) some numbers from Google about how many people get blocked for fraud vs how many people are using adsense and adwords.

I'm not saying Google is perfect. A few stories sound troubling. This one, for example, has a guy making a mistake, but listening to Google and doing what they say and being told that he's avoided trouble, and then having an account frozen. People do make mistakes. People sometimes do stupid things. We probably haven't heard on HN from anyone who outsourced their SEO to someone who was blackhat. (Are the blackhat SEO companies obvious? Would some naive website owner be able to make that kind of mistake?)

But yeah, fraud detection and prevention is unsolved, and would be worth a lot of money. (See also banks: You tell them that you're going abroad and give them a destination and a date. You go abroad. You use your card, and it's frozen. You make an international phone call to the same bank to have the card unfrozen.)

PG I'm not defending google but there's a tremendous amount of fraud in this business. Any solution has to account for the fraud factor.

From my experience neither Yahoo or Google has the correct algorithms to prevent fraud. I know this because we have parked domains and I can tell when various parked domains get spidered and all the sudden we get a check in the mail for the revenue that bots must have created.

The reason google/yahoo don't do a better job is that the fraud clicks earn them money. But when they are alerted (by the advertiser) they come down hard and fast (as show by the OP)

PG is absolutely right re: treating publishers as servers: this is NOT just about fraud, please take a look at this: http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=3803981

Your link goes to ycombinator.org not .com

Requires a separate login to that to vote or reply.

At first I thought you were potentially man in the middle.

While the whois says the domain is owned by "Paul Graham" at the appropriate address I don't separately even know if this information is correct as anyone can put anything in whois owner info.

For what it's worth, the two names resolve to the same IP address for me.

My recommendation for developers who might have this issue on their own site is to set up a redirection script at all the non-canonical names. The redirection script should redirect to the canonical name and include the full path and query string if they exist.

I also take that opportunity to log the traffic so I can report on which names are generating traffic. That can help when you are deciding wether to allow names to lapse.

They (news.ycombinator.com/org) resolve to the same IP. It's safe to assume it's not a MITM.

Is there any industry guideline how to crawl ads to avoid the click fraud. There must be some header that crawler can pass telling it is not a human.

This is probably a great opp for regional newspapers - they have the ability to have feet on the ground, they are 'local' (ad spends keep money in the region/state/etc) - they should know something about the local/regional players/economy, etc. But... it would require an investment in technology and a commitment to customer service that most newspaper orgs probably don't have and don't want to make. Bit of a shame, as many will go away without adapting, and there are still opportunities for them to adapt/pivot and carve out new niches. Instead, they're happier to outsource all their ad stuff to big players like google.

To the people down-voting. I'd love to hear your criticism against this idea.

"they have the ability to have feet on the ground"

This is very expensive compared to an automated online system like google has.

But more importantly the local papers don't have the traffic necessary in order to make this a success. And people aren't doing searches on their local newspaper website for "plumber topeka kansas" they are doing it on google.

No one is saying a news organization couldn't also have automated systems. It's not an either/or situation.

The local newspaper site doesn't have to be the only place where ads are shown, just like google.com isn't the only place where google ads are shown. Google has a large network, and newspapers could have a similar network. They had a great position 10 years ago, but I think it's still tenable now for some news organizations in many markets to be an information hub for that region, and some of that would/should involve becoming an information network, which includes an ad network.

Sites all over SE Michigan should have the option of running ads from an ad network managed by the Detroit Free Press, for example.

Excellent points.

And while I did state that "feet on the street" are very expensive one thing that small business people definitely need is hand holding with respect to placing advertising. And I agree with what you are saying about assembling the network of sites.

The idea then would be to assembling a group of sites where the ads could run (similar to what google has done) and have the local sales force which knows the market offering the ad inventory.

Hard to believe this isn't being done already.

The 'assembling of sites' - those are the businesses that the salespeople are visiting every day - at least one level. The 'link exchange' idea for newspapers and their advertisers could be implemented quickly in many regions.

But... it's not that hard to believe it's not being done. This requires foresight and effort and some hard work that's outside the core competency of most media outlets. It requires a shift/pivot that most didn't see coming. Everyone wants the easy way out - just let google handle ours ads, and we get a check every month! Then one day you realize google controls a significant portion of your revenue, controls the relationships with the companies advertising on your site, and doesn't feel it needs you around anymore. Rude awakenings to be sure.

Additionally, most tech savvy people migrated to SV or NYC, leaving much of the rest of the country with less forward-thinking/visionary/tech-hungry people to drive this sort of thing. And if other papers aren't doing it, why should we? We might make a mistake!

There is a business model here to be developed, but it's also not one which is going to be a multibillion $ homerun overnight.

At the same time this sort of idea is being ignored by major papers/newsoutlets, larger companies like AOL were/are buzzing about "hyperlocal" and trying to get volunteers to write about local soccer games. Why? To have the content to drive hyper-local ads. At least, that was my understanding. But who's going to sell those ads? It should be newspapers, but they should be controlling local new media networks, instead of rolling over and playing dead (quite convincingly, imo).

Thinking about this a bit more... I doubt this is being done, but... MS should be private-labelling their own ad network technology to mid-tier news organizations, giving them training on how to sell/manage this, and taking a cut.

That said, I don't really want it to be MS. I thought their ad/mgt tech was awful, but... with a bit of polish, removing references to MS, and some sales, they could make a dent in this market.

No, but plumbers in Topeka, Kansas with ads in the paper might want in on websites too. The whole "print adapting to the Internet" is a whole other problem domain, but I think it's a great idea. Now just convince the local papers :)

Having spent more than a year "convincing the local papers" how they could expand into local digital, and mostly having very smart people nod sagely then do nothing, Google has little to fear from them IMO.

I'm guessing most of them were probably already in Google's pocket - having their ad inventory controlled by Google and collecting a monthly check. Classic short term vs long term strategy. Short term, the company can stay in business, long term, you're around solely at Google's pleasure.

Some had been working with GOOG already. Some with YHOO. (this was '07-08) There was healthy skepticism all around - the deadliest aspect was where they (claimed to have) felt more comfortable handling the design and development themselves rather than working with any partner. "Healthy" as they rightly felt they could self-implement and wondered at motivations behind partners' help offers. "Deadliest" as there was a track record of "needing to do it in-house" and yet not doing it at all.

Our motivation to help was straightforward: we'd been partnering with hundreds of newspapers for decades. Their vitality - circulation, reach, revenue - directly effected same for our products. We had the resources and incentive to build and "give away" products and services to our partners as it was clearly in our interest.

Lessons learned included 1) even gratis is not sufficient positioning for adoption. "Gratis with guaranteed revenue generation" wasn't either: high-touch execution support and hand-holding through the process is what made it work where it did. 2) just because people are smart and capable of executing doesn't mean they will; if they were capable and still hadn't yet executed, they almost certainly would not without some fundamental shift.

Illogical, IMO, but those realizations have made other opportunities recognizable.

The sheer mass Google has and their control of search represents a huge barrier to entry in this field. Like it or not, they are a monopoly.

The majority of advertisers are familiar with Google's advertising platform as search users. Given a choice between an unknown startup and Google to advertise their own business they'll choose Google, hands-down.

You and other investors would have to throw tens of millions of dollars (ore more) at a startup in order to mount a serious challenge to Google's supremacy.

If you can beat them at search you can probably mount an attack on their advertising business. Without that it'll probably be very difficult to convince publishers and advertisers to switch sides.

This is far from obvious to me. For brokering a deal between publisher and advertiser, Google has nothing that presents a technological, or even much business, advantage. Maybe some prior experience in fraud detection. The existence of this thread shows it can't be that good.

Yes, an advertiser might want or have a business relation with Google for search advertisements. But for others? What does Google have there that makes them special?

Their brand might be worth something, but thinking this is unovercomable seems strange to me.

Inventory size and larger returns generally than anyone else is able to offer due to more data for better targetting.

Excellent point - and different from the original poster - and I feel silly for forgetting about it. Google knows your interests and who you are...and what you'd buy.

Would be nice if Facebook would offer Adsense.

Yeah, Facebook is probably in the best position to break Google's dominance in the area. Seems like a pretty natural extension to from having things like likes and comments on 3rd party sites.

You need a plumber right now. What company name comes to mind? If you live in the US it is likely to be Roto-Rooter.

Brands occupy a space in people's minds for various categories. Think of it as key-value coding for real-live categories.

Google occupies, no, owns, search and probably owns advertising in the eyes of a huge percentage of Internet users and business people. Everyone sees Google's ads on sites they visit. Naturally, when it comes time to think about advertising their own businesses they are likely to associate Google with this rather than the startup of the day. That's nearly impossible to buy.

There are hundreds of alternatives...none of them seem to get any major traction.

Most of it is due to the fact that only a tiny portion of people are actually affected...and because these alternatives offer much lower quality of advertisers...and much lower earnings.

That sounds like a great idea, (the "opportunity" you mention) but how does one avoid becoming "just another ad network"? There are so many fringe players out there who provide low value and poor customer service that many website owners (myself included) prefer to avoid them.

I'd love to see ideas in this space. I'd even collaborate with other hackers to build something along these lines if there was a clear vision of what success looks like.

Agreeing with people who criticize google, I have to say it is really beautiful to see PG response where he is seeing opportunity in everything. Me too :).

Google has always been awful at customer relations; maybe it has a lot to do with why they don't "get" social media.

This is actually an incredibly common practice of Google's, although in most cases they only make off with a few hundred dollars of ad revenue. I personally had it happen to me with a blog. They accused me a of "click fraud", disabled my account, and disappeared with the money they owed me. I did some research and found the same story repeated dozens of times. This has been going on for years.

Basically, Google's policies mean that if you don't like a website which uses AdSense for revenue, you can screw over the owner by sitting at their site and repeatedly clicking their ads. Google will see the "fraud", assume it was the site owner doing it, and shut down their account with little to no opportunity for appeal.

The second paragraph seems like something one could test. Have you?

Fraud detection is just hard. And my expectation is that for every legitimate friendly fire instance there are six or ten "marginal fraudsters" trying to spin their troubles with Google via blog posts like the one in the link.

I clicked on this thinking it would be a clear case of Google doing something "evil", and had to read through very carefully before I figured out that it was just another account freeze. Meh. If it's seriously $40k, then sue them and figure out what really happened in discovery. That would be a blog post I'd want to read.

>a clear case of Google doing something "evil" //

Using $40k of a service (ad space in this instance) and then refusing to return the service providers calls and emails for over 12 months may not be "evil" per se but it's certainly on the malevolent side.

If it ruined someone’s livelihood then I'd say it's getting to be in the locus of what could well be described as "evil".

For a company to do this without apology demonstrates a pretty serious ethical deficit (assuming we have the full story before us).

You're taking the linked post on an awful lot of (IMHO, unverifiable and undeserved) faith. Yes, if everything they say is true, Google are jerks at best. But a blog post does not a reputation for honesty make, sorry. Even PayPal doesn't hit verifiably honest saints more than one a year or so.

Look, I don't know anything about "hatchlings", I'm just saying I'm not going to believe a post like this prima facie. They look like a garden variety spammy facebook game to me. That's a market pretty well known for playing SEO games and gaming ad systems.

Are these guys guilty or not? No idea. Fight it out, get some evidence, and then come to the public for support.

I agree that you shouldn't just take us at our word (and that's why we included as much documentation as we could to support our case).

But it would make it a heck of a lot easier to defend ourselves if Google had actually accused us of doing something wrong. To this day we're not even sure what we're alleged to have done to get our account banned.

There's no reason to think the story isn't true either. This is exactly the same scenario thousands have experienced over the years. Google sends the first automated e-mail, the user appeals, then gets a second canned response from Google. I don't think the wording of either email has even changed for years. Just look at how many others who have just posted here have had similar experiences. Look around the internet a bit and you will see that the number of people suddenly banned from adsense for life then stonewalled by Google is HUGE.

>The second paragraph seems like something one could test.

I do not think it would be ethical to test it directly. But you don't have to search far to find people who have had their accounts crashed by angry exes.

Also, something incredible is that there are measures to take to disable this ability for saboteurs.

Scripting that will only display the adsense advertisement once per IP visiting your site... yet guess what, Google disallows this practice!

This may not be a great solution to combat click fraud, but could google just limit the payout to 1 click per IP per website per day?

You would think, but I think they have always felt that a "tough on crime" mentality was necessary to inspire confidence in advertisers. This is a direct result of the imbalance of clout implicit to the long-tail/short-tail dichotomy of AdSense; Google packages a (relative) many dime-a-dozen content creators into a product (commodified ad space) which they sell to a (relative) few customers (advertisers). In addition, they can bet on content creators seeing the risk as low stakes (even though getting banned from a monopolistic ad network is anything but low stakes), while they can bank on advertisers seeing the risk as high stakes (which it is).

A better solution is not to use cost-per-click in the first place, instead relying on metrics that are harder to game, like unique visitors and page views. These are arguably a better reflection of an advertising space's value even without taking click fraud into account. That's what Project Wonderful did, and it has worked out well for some of its users, but its model is also more long-tail/long-tail, which I think hurts its profitability.

>instead relying on metrics that are harder to game, like unique visitors and page views. //

Surely page views are as easy to imitate as clicks (possibly easier). Unique visitors would be reasonably easy to game as well I'd imagine.

The reason that page views and unique views are harder to game is that they worth far less individually, while not being correspondingly easier to produce.

Say I'm a fraudster with a thousand IPs and a well-anonymized browser. If I'm paid per click, I can easily turn that into a thousand apparently legitimate clicks, which, depending on how I play my cards, could net me a few hundred dollars.

By contrast, if I'm paid per unique visitor, I can turn that into a thousand apparently legitimate unique visitors, which will very optimistically pull in maybe $5 (judging by Project Wonderful).

Now, neither of those schemes are optimal, but just about any improvement you suggest for the unique visitor model will reap ten times the rewards applied to the per-click model.

Proxies ruin this idea. There are entire ISPs whose web traffic originates from a handful of IPs.

also, they are sure they are on the winning side. my understanding is that in most court proceedings, the winning side has the right to be fully reimbursed for legal costs occurred up to a reasonable point.

In the United States that's not normally the case; the "American rule" is that each side pays their own court costs, regardless of outcome (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_rule_(attorney%27s_fee...). There are specific statutory exceptions for certain kinds of lawsuits, such as Title VII claims and copyright cases.

Not in the U.S. The winner is entitled to legal fees from the user only extraordinary circumstances (i.e., where punitive damages or sanctions are also appropriate) or in family law cases (i.e., divorces).

Take them to a small claims court for damages (money, plus wasted hours dealing with it at your hourly rate). They will probably send some clueless legal intern without any proof.

Businesses can only sue for up to $5,000 in (CA) small claims court. $40,000 would have to go to real court, lawyers and all.

They actually have a page to report click fraud on your own account:


>Please keep in mind that it's your responsibility to prevent invalid activity from occurring in your account, and this form does not absolve you of that responsibility.

Perfect. So it's your responsibility to prevent invalid clicks, even though pretty much any way you can think of to prevent them is explicitly forbidden by the TOS, but if someone does click your ads a bunch of times, let us know so we can steal all the money you've earned in the last month and shut you down.

I hate to suggest this. I repeat, I really hate to suggest this:

It is time for those affected to unite behind a push to initiate Congressional action against Google (and possibly others) for these practice. They are highly destructive and unfair. These companies ARE huge monopolies. They just can't be allowed to behave this way.

I am the first one to raise my voice against more government incursions into our daily lives. However, there are cases where very few options remain on the table.

Unless Google, eBay, Paypal and others who are committing these kinds of acts on a daily basis change their tune in a hurry I think that a collision with government action is unavoidable.

A united front with government backing is probably the only viable option.

As I said in my response to you 23 days ago[0], we have to be very careful that whatever we ask Congress to do doesn't get warped into something that protects eBay, Google, and PayPal against smaller competitors, e.g. by imposing a mandatory per-customer cost that is untenable for startups.

In the case of AdSense, if such a measure proves absolutely necessary, perhaps the remedy should be as simple as requiring those disabled accounts who prove they are a real life human to be able to communicate with a real life human at Google to discuss the evidence against their account.

[0] https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=3697448

Absolutely agreed. In my opinion, Government is the least desirable option in all cases. It's a hatchet when you need a scalpel.

Yet, here we are, 23 days later (interesting that you remembered) having the same discussion. This is happening with far greater frequency than publicly exposed. I've seen it first hand. You have to wonder what Google's trail of destruction might look like.

In the end these are families and businesses that are being affected in very signifiant ways. If one were to want to play the populist card, you could also say that jobs might be lost (or not created) when Google takes actions that damage or destroy company revenue streams.

Also agree that it is not a simple problem to solve. That said, if the problem is too big for Google to deal with it then maybe they should stick with search and bow out of the ad serving business.

A company as large as Google can't be compelled to make changes by one or a few individuals voicing their concerns. This is the fundamental problem. If they were good netizens they'd jump at the opportunity to fix the problem, no matter how difficult it might be. Hire another 100 engineers and figure it out.

The threat of a force greater than theirs might just be the only reason to compel a company as powerful as Google to make changes. That, perhaps, is my greater point.

I really don't want to see government regulate any of it. But I am not opposed to using government to force change or capitulation when few other options appear to be viable.

If Google is so bad at this, wouldn't a better approach be to start or support an alternative ad network that does what you want? You sound extremely confident that Google is doing a horrible job in this space, so a competitor should just be able to do better and eat their lunch. As far as I know, Google hasn't been accused of any anticompetitive behavior, so they're not stopping you. That would be much less radical than lobbying Congress for some vaguely defined "action".

I suspect you will find that once you get to a scale similar to Google's, you'll find yourself making similar tradeoffs. You could probably be a little better, but I don't think it's possible to be both forgiving and resilient against fraudsters.

EDIT: On rereading, this sounded a little bit passive-aggressive, so I've rephrased it a bit. Hopefully it comes across more as an observation and less like an attack now.

You could run the exact same fraud systems and policies, but also offer customer support. It's not the fraud systems that are preventing competitors, it's achieving the critical mass of advertisers to offer competitive ad fill and revenue rates. It doesn't matter if you're the friendliest company in the world if you can't provide enough ads to pay as much, or anywhere near, what Google will pay the same site.

alternatively, Google can be slapped with a class action lawsuit

I know their emails always say "we've refunded your money to the advertiser"...but has anyone seen proof of this? Any of you that advertise with Adwords Content...ever see a refund for any clicks?

> ever see a refund for any clicks?

Yes, all the time. Here's what it looks like in the billing summary:


The alt text for the question mark graphic: "Your account has been credited for invalid clicks that escaped automatic detection."

> Any of you that advertise with Adwords Content...ever see a refund for any clicks?


I imagine if the advertisers weren't receiving refunds they would be the ones contemplating a class action.

Let me also be constructive and suggest ways in which Google could make this process fair.

First of all, don't make the process an digital on/off decision. Create a system of staged penalties leading up to account suspension and then, if abused, closure.

New accounts should have an "on-boarding" process in place.

It would be OK to tell the site that, for the first 30 days ads will be presented and NO revenue will be paid to the site. This is a monitoring period where Google can just watch and see how the site behaves.

During the following 90 days revenue is slowly notched up from 0% to 100%. Again, close monitoring and feedback during this period is critical.

If and when a problem occurs, Google is to provide clearly understandable data on the relevant violations and suggestions on fixing them.

One argument against this is that, if they made their violation detection data public, spammers will use the data to get even better. Well, so be it. Use this to develop even better detection technology. Last I heard Google is staffed with pretty smart folk. Solve the problem!

After clearly flagging the relevant problems give the account owner a reasonable length of time to fix it. Say, three days from receipt of the notice.

If the problem is not fixed in the alloted time then ad revenues start to be discounted based on some well-explained formula. Maybe 10% per day. This should provide enough incentive for a lazy site owner to take action.

This could also come with staged penalization of the site-standing in search. This could be controversial. Maybe not.

This could also have an element of a reduction of the CPM revenue on ads served into the site.

Once the revenue reaches zero ad placement stops. Perhaps there's the option for Google to serve non-ads with text noting that this site is in violation of AdSense rules. I can thing of few things that'll wake someone up more than having all of your ad locations populated with such a notice.

Despite all of the above, the account is never killed off except for the most egregious cases.

Having all ad revenue shut down the site is given a full report --with clear reasons-- of the violations and the timeline to ad-serving shutdown. AND, how to fix it.

The site could be suspended from AdSense for thirty days, during which they have to show that they fixed the problems.

Once the problems are fixed a staged restart of ad-serving would begin.

At first the site would start being served with a few ads and they'd only earn, say, 50% of normal revenue.

Over a period of three months of "good behavior" the sites ads would increase and improve. And, of course, the percentage of revenue earned per ad would notch back up to 100%.

Oh, yes, if the account holder owns multiple sites on one AdSense account the sites ought to be treated separately. If one site is having problems but there's another that is in perfect standing account actions should only affect the site that needs to fix problems and not the entire account.

I'm sure the above has holes. It is probably a reasonable start for a framework that could fix the problem.

I've had the experience of having legitimate and above-honest clients get banned from AdSense for, well, we'll never know. The problem with the way Google runs this is that there's no way to make an honest mistake. This is very easy to do when you are just getting started. It's not fair.

My AdWords account was suspended for what turned out to be a simple and easy to make mistake.

One of my landing pages was mistakenly flagged as a bridge page. I suspended the campaign, tweaked the advertising in a way that (based on Google's own bridge page definition) should have been enough, and assumed the problem was resolved.

I decided to try something else, left the campaign stopped, and created a new one. The site for the new campaign was just my blog, so I didn't think it could create a problem. Suspended within an hour.

I learned from others who experienced the same problem that starting a campaign after one of your other campaigns is suspended without contacting Google will get your account suspended. It took an escalating campaign of contact across several Google and non-Google venues to get a response.

Some time later my account was reinstated. It took contacting them again, insisting on a response, to get an explanation and apology. Your proposed solution would have kept it from ever reaching the point of suspension.

It shouldn't take that much effort just to find out something you did was a problem. I couldn't stomach putting in the effort to create another campaign on AdWords after being unsuspended. Who knows what other trap I would fall into?

So when they are lenient with policing ads they get sued for click-fraud and when they are strict then the government should intervene?! surly there must be a third option.

Unfortunately, this is a reality of using AdSense.

I have never encountered anyone at Google that is malicious and/or gleeful about this happening. The lack of response comes down to the fact that Google would rather make sure they get all bad actors and throw out some good than be more lenient and let some bad actors stay.

There are tens of thousands of AdSense spammers that try to take advantage of the system. 30-40% of impressions on Google Content Network ads (which run on AdSense) are complete junk. These impressions are via sites that take advantage of how easy it is to get in to make a quick buck before Google catches them.

The ecosystem perpetuates itself because Google's priority is to maximize overall reach in the market: the more people using AdSense, the more impressions they get and the more people cookie'd for behavioral data. There is little concern with banning people unjustifiably as they have a different priority.

Hatchlings did the right thing by diversifying and if you rely on AdSense, then you should to. Make sure you work with several networks (many pay better anyway) and look for other sources of revenue. This is what separates the sad stories from successes.

> The lack of response comes down to the fact that Google would rather make sure they get all bad actors and throw out some good than be more lenient and let some bad actors stay.

If that's indeed their attitude, then they deserve to burn long and hot over this shit. And nothing excuses a shutdown in communication, period.

The lesson (to me) is "don't rely on AdSense for any make/break percentage of your revenue."

Agreed. I've had several bad experiences with Google's AdSense and it was a real pain in the ass to deal with them. They suspected one of my accounts of click fraud and it took almost 2 years of back and forth to finally get my money back. Even after all of that, they never reinstated my account.

My general attitude is the same, "Don't rely on Google for anything in which some kind of monetary relationship is involved." It's just not worth it - ever.

The problem is, that Google's behavior creates a culture of cheating. When things become so obviously unfair, people are increasingly forced to solve the problems in "other" ways. While their actions may make sense in the short run (i.e. its just a few annoying web"masters"), the long term effects of being perceived as an unfair institution that is okay to trick seems to be more severe.

makes absolutely no sense, play by the rules. And theres no needs to solve problems in other ways.

If playing by "the rules" gets you banned then people will stop playing by them.

until you hear both sides of the story, you can't assume they are playing by the rules. You can only assume there was something they were doing that google felt violated their terms. Really you think google would screw someone over 40k. Its chump change.

I didn't make any statement as to the legitimacy of the OP. For all I know they were breaking the rules flagrantly and obscenely.

Being perceived as an unfair institution hurts you weather it's true or not.

(And NO, I'm not saying that I think Google is an unfair institution. Ugh.)

Is it my imagination or have I seen many "Google Screwed Us" posts and never one "Google Made It All Right" posts? It seems to me to be the opposite of Amazon, where I've seen many glowing posts about CS and very few posts about things going incredibly bad.

Edit: Amazon is also relevant due to their Android app store and soon in-app purchasing. I expect them to start an ad network for apps too.

Amazon has an easy to find customer service that replies to your questions quickly and makes things right. Google makes it very hard to find or contact anyone. Unless they're selling your their site optimization services.

I'm sure Amazon spends way more money in keeping their customers happy. They seem to realize this is good for repeat business.

>Google makes it very hard to find or contact anyone. //

They make it pretty hard to initiate what should be a completely hands-off (for them) error report too.

For example on Google Shopping they virtually always lie about the purchase price for goods that you find, then the top listed suppliers also lie about the price too. There's no [simple, visible or accessible] way to report either situation.

From Google's POV this should be an automated system. Once complaints breach n then check that the listed lowest price equals the "best" price of those listed by suppliers. If not then correct the lowest price returned for that query.

If complaints for a retailers price for a good breach m then scrape the on-page price (preferably using an anonymous IP) and compare with the retailers reported price on G Shopping. If there is a difference correct the difference, admonish the retailer and decrease the retailers reputation score. When reputation score is below x remove the retailer and send them a "naughty-naughty" letter.

Why the advertising standards/trading standards people aren't issuing massive fines to Google and their associates for false advertising in this way I'm not sure.

I have liked Google for a long time but it seems that they really struggle when it comes to customer service. Hopefully, someone will realize that this is important, especially when money is at issue, and do something about it.

They don't struggle. It just doesn't exist.

Unfortunately not much money is at issue for them, so it's easy to write off.

To struggle would imply that they even try. They don't.

Hmmm? Both Google and Amazon are known for being good to their customers and screwing over their suppliers. Its just that most of us are a customer of Amazon and a supplier for Google.

That's a fair point for Amazon (see sellers complaing in this thread).

Then again, have you had more success interacting with Google when running ad campaigns?

It's just human nature to put more energy into it if you are being screwed over. I think product ratings have the same problem (unhappy customers more likely to comment than happy customers).

"I realize that this probably wasn’t done maliciously and that we were probably caught up in some algorithm gone awry"

I realize the diplomatic and empathic intent here but to me the whole episode is really damning if this is how they handle customers. Depriving people of payment for services rendered goes several steps beyond plain old shitty customer service.

The issue with google ads is that it only takes one bad vistor to get your ad sense account disabled.

Go ahead find a site with google ads start clicking the google ad over and over again until your IP is flagged (ads won't be displayed based on your IP). With in 30 days the sites ad-sense account will be disabled.

My assumption is that in 99% of the cases the revenue Google misses out on by terminating the accounts of site owners who experience the type of victimization is less than what they would spend in man-hours on investigating the matter to differentiate legitimate victimization from actual click-fraud.

Surely it cannot be that basic?

If it is, then it would be relatively simple to automate this behaviour from a range of IPs and disable the accounts of hundreds, if not thousands of ad-sense customers.

Actually, what you have proposed is exactly the approach that some black-hat practitioners have used to hide click-fraud.

Some guys will setup a script to go to 5 sites (for example) and click ads on all of them. Their site will be one of the 5. All of the site owners make money, as do they, and because it's distributed across multiple sites, Google does not flag the activity as blatant click-fraud.

If you spend any time a BHW you will see these schemes over and over again, along with people claiming to make hundreds of dollars per day "on autopilot"....

That is similar, but I was meaning it less in terms of hiding click-fraud and more in terms of click-fraud-fraud, which would have a far more devastating effect on googles customers and if it was widespread enough would be horrendously bad for google as well.

I'm not advocating anything illegal, but this might be just what it would take for Google to fix their policies. Scrape a few million sites with Adsense, rent a Russian botnet, and spam-click ads until Google takes notice.

semi-OT, but I've occasionally wondered if these botnets for hire actually come with any sort of term of use/AOP. Certain behaviours are more likely to get the individual zombies identified and potentially notified and cleaned up, so you'd think the botnet herders would try to minimise (or charge a much higher rate for) those sorts of activities.

I'm also curious how actually deploying to a rented/borrowed botnet is done - what's stopping the client from using a payload which nukes and replaces the controller with one of their own, stealing it from the owner?

I don't know for sure, but perhaps the botnet provides higher level abstractions (DDoS, spam mailer, click bots, etc), or a sandboxed environment. "Heroku for botnets".

But what should they do? I don't really see an easy solution to this problem.

Not a clue, but Google's got enough of a braintrust to figure it out. They deal with SERP spammers fairly well; they can deal with clickfraud as well without punishing innocent people and not giving them a chance to fix it.

In about 6 months, that is going to be Yahoo's new business plan, once they realise that suing facebook doesn't count as an industry in and of itself.

It's frightening that this would happen to a company that actually has a relationship with google in as much as having an account rep. Those of us nobodys who are just running generic ads with no personal contact would have no recourse at all.

I will say though, in every one of these cases there is always a little something odd. You never read about this happening without some small thing that was wonky about the setup. In this case there's a mention of the personal site without any details of what that is. I'd be curious to know what that was.

Even still, it sounds like a gross over-reaction.

I'm the guy behind Hatchlings.

The site referenced was a small content site I made to drive Amazon referrals for Guitar Hero 4 pre-orders. It was SEO'd and at the top of the search results for "Guitar Hero 4" at the time so it generated quite a bit in affiliate revenue but almost nothing in terms of Adsense.

They never told me what was wrong with it but if I had to make a guess it might have been flagged as a "Made for Adsense" site since it was pretty light on content. And as mentioned I removed the ads from it without as much as a rebuttal.

It was a no-brainer since it was so small-time compared to Hatchlings.

Did you ever get the sense that they did this because they are planning to release a competing product?

No but Google Plus was released only a couple of months after this ordeal started. We would have loved to have been a part of the launch of their platform.

Even if the "personal site" is kinkybattledungeonsandfoodfights.com, any account holder has the right to know what they did wrong.

That policy is not compatible with keeping the seedier side of the internet in the dark about the algorithms used, which is why Google doesn't do that. (You can disagree with this, obviously, but Google does have its reasons.)

Sorry, can you explain a little more about this? How would e-mailing the account holder and telling them what they did wrong reveal the structure of the algorithm?

If you're trying to scam Google (e.g. via click fraud), being told exactly how you were detected is rather useful if you want to be more successful next time.

But the user here is not asking for their detection methods. Just a notice that something was detected at all would suffice I think.

Then the user can at least say "Ops, busted!" or "Damn somebody is sabotaging my Adsense" and either do something to fix it or deactivate his/her account.

It's especially curious that no such notice was given considering that he was in pretty regular contact with an account representative.

The cynical side of me suspects that it's easier to reject appeals if you don't ever tell the person what you actually suspect them of.

The problem is that they don't have any rights. Google makes the rules for Adsense and you need to follow them. You could try to sue them in court, but do you really want to spend thousands of dollars and waste all kinds of time?

Something similar happened to me with Amazon. They kicked me off, never gave me a real reason, had automated responses, and now just ignore me. They also held $5000 for 3 months. I guess with 100% feedback and no complaints, they need to worry about me scamming them.

You never think that if you are following all the rules that something like this will happen to you, but it will. I now will not base any income off of third-parties.

It might be nice for some secondary income, but the risk is too high that they will destroy your revenue stream.

It's sick that so many people make these companies thousands and thousands of dollars/month and they can't even give them the common courtesy of a real person to talk to when problems like this arise.

The only reason they can get away with it is because they are a de facto monopoly.

Perhaps having a "right" is too strong of word. But I think anyone that has been told their account is banned because of some generic "risk" would want to know exactly what rule they violated... particularly if $40k is at stake. And while Google may be well within their right to just ban the account and never speak to the account holder again, then EVERYBODY needs to know that this can happen without warning and without recourse. I would imagine that the more people this happens to and the more people that know it, the fewer people would even start down that path.

The real shame is that it is more likely to scare off more legit accounts than fraudsters. People with fraud (or gaming the system) in mind are just going to keep creating accounts and collecting as fast as they can before it gets shut down... and then move on and do it again.

The blog links to a screenshot of the email - http://i.imgur.com/wWyNd.png - which says the personal site was guitarhero-5.com. But even if that is related to this somehow, they said "your AdSense account remains in good standing and any actions taken on this domain do not affect the performance of your other AdSense ads."

This is a textbook example of why it's never smart to hinge one's profitability upon the whims of another company.

I've been down these paths with Adsense, EPN, and others and I learned the hard way that affiliate programs and ad revenue can be booming one day and gone the next.

Now I only build PaaS and SaaS sites (not counting freelancing work on the side) and I'm a lot happier with a much more stable income from my web apps that is not dependent on the whims of anybody.

Your service is most definitely dependent on the whims of other people. Even Amazon relies on UPS, FedEx, and USPS.

SaaS is "software as a service" but what is PaaS? Can you give an example?

Platform As A Service. Heroku & Amazon Web Services are both examples. In fact, they're nested examples!

Actually, AWS is generally categorized as Infrastructure-as-a-Service--although it's added a number of higher-level services that are more PaaS-like. (EC2 and S3 are definitely IaaS level. Elastic Beanstalk is pretty much a PaaS. Other services are in-between.)

PaaS is shorthand for Platform as a Service. Microsoft Azure and Amazon E2C are both examples of PaaS.

A third service layer would be IaaS; Infrastructure as a Service.

PaaS is "Platform-as-a-Service." Heroku is a good example.

This may help - http://lmgtfy.com/

(Sorry, couldn't help that :-D)

Most of the people making a living using affiliates don't have the skills to make their own app or SaaS.

Neither did I 6 years ago when I was making affiliate sites. When I realized that I didn't want to play that game I buckled down and learned to code...

That's the smart thing to do. You can still use all of the same marketing tactics as you would an affiliate program and the profits will be much larger.

What else could Hatchlings have done to prevent this? I know people are saying, "don't rely on someone else for your profitibility", but if you are going to work with Google what other steps can you take?

He seems to have done all the right things:

1) Found an account manager. 2) Formed relationships with public google folks. 3) Opened discussions to further integration through continued sales.

Assuming that his accounting of the facts is accurate, he did do all of the right things. That's why the "Dont rely..." comments are relevant. The affiliate-program market (and that's all Adsense is - a unique form of affiliate program) is almost universally open to this type of abuse.

Would you want to work for a company where you never got to meet or talk to your employer, you never knew for sure how much your paycheck would be, or exactly when it would be mailed/deposited? That's what we all do when we signup for Adsense.

My name is Tom Siegel and I work on publisher and ad traffic quality at Google. Our objective us to keep fraud out of the network while ensuring a fair process with as much transparency as we can justify. We'll take a look at the cases mentioned on this thread. If anyone has additional questions or comments you can email me at tsiegel@google.com. We appreciate the feedback.

Hi Tom, I am the founder of Hatchlings. Thanks for looking into this. We completely understand the need to fight fraud. We've spent heavily on advertising as well and rely on Google and others to make sure our spend is not going to waste.

Our beef here is not even necessarily with the false positive. The main problems here are that

a) We have never been accused of wrongdoing by Google. This makes it very hard to defend ourselves.

b) That it takes making a lot of noise in a very public manner to get any sort of response.

and c) That we had a working relationship with Google and a track record of working with our account manager to improve our ad placements, etc.

If there was a legitimate concern with our "traffic quality" why didn't someone at Google give me a call to talk about it and see what we could do to fix whatever issues there apparently were?

Thanks for the additional context. Will look into this and get back in touch via email.

Two years ago my AdWords account was permanently suspended.

I sell a fairly complicated (120k+ lines of code) .NET application (http://www.devside.net/server/webdeveloper) that manages the creation and hosting of websites by using the popular Apache, PHP, MySQL stack, and other apps. And I also provide support for it and the mentioned tech, the cost of which is included in the price of my software. And I've been doing this is some way or fashion since 2003.

For that, I was told, my site "had been flagged for unacceptable business practices", that is, as far as I could de-crypt the support conversation... Selling free items. A big WTF moment for me.

It's unlikely you can help me, but you can help others by white-listing the adwords/adsense customer service representatives’ email domains or IP blocks in Gmail... As both emails I received from them I found in my Gmail’s spam folder (pure luck on my part)!

I can’t think of how many people must get the silent treatment from Google due to this blunder.

Hi Tom,

It's a nice gesture, but... this could have been handled way before and from the messages in this thread it seems like a very common occurrence. As somebody who wanted to use your services in the future that thread totally changed my vision of Adsense and I am exploring other companies for ads.

We need you guys at Adsense to fix the problem after it happens, of course, but also beforehand because holding money for too long can kill a business.


This is too large for a small claims court, and too small to retain lawyers and suit Google.

But the USA has another, well worn, route - class action lawsuits.

This seems ripe for class action, where the class is everyone who has been locked out of AdWords without reasonable explanation, or reasonable reason.

What is required is a lawyer/firm to assess the amount at stake and winnability, for them to get a representative case (this one is good) and to recruit thousands or tens of thousands of members of the class. The lawyers get a huge percentage of any damages, but the class members get rewarded too, and the main issue is the Google will take notice and change their behaviour.

In other countries we can use legislation to change the way Google operates. Check the jurisdiction of your contract with them - and use the appropriate system.

This is the best idea/solution I've read yet, and a clearly appropriate way (at least in the US) to deal with Google on this issue.

Well done!

[Edited at ~15min, original comment below] This "personal site" was http://guitarhero-4.com, which was a thin affiliate site using a brand name without permission (ref: http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=3803696, http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=3803746).

I think we've found the problem...

[EDIT: original comment was: Looking at http://web.archive.org/web/20110203092609/http://guitarhero-... (via http://i.imgur.com/wWyNd.png), it appears that this "personal site" was a seedy affiliate site using a brand name without permission.

I think we've found the problem...]

Not trying to refute you, but how can that be the problem? From the email you cite,

"Please be assured that your Adsense account remains in good standing and any actions taken on this domain do not affect the performance of your other Adsense ads."

The author of the blog post states after receiving that email he took the Adsense ads off. This was also in Feb. 2009 and the account was closed in April 2011.

Does the Adsense team (or whoever) go back and look at incidences from 2+ years in the past when looking for people to ban?

He said he took it down and that Google said everything was ok.

"Debby assures us on February 12 that “your AdSense account remains in good standing and any actions taken on this domain do not affect the performance of your other AdSense ads.” This is the only issue that has ever been raised by Google in regard to our account."

Are you implying that the Google rep was incorrect and that this issue ultimately manifested itself two years later?

It appears that our account rep mis-typed the URL in that email reply. My site was actually guitarhero-4.com, here's the orignal email we got from them: http://i.imgur.com/2mcfo.png

I honestly don't think that site had anything to do with the ban though as there was over 2 years in between those two incidents.

Don't be so sure. Google has been known to ban Adwords accounts for ads that were deleted years ago because the content of a domain that has obviously been allowed to lapse and been re-registered by someone else has changed.

She told him to take it down and he did. Where is the problem?

I am completely unable to follow your post. Instead of editing comments to include corrections, upvote and respond to the corrections.

The original comment used the word "seedy". It was edited to "thin affiliate" which is less hostile.

My apologies. The original comment referenced guitarhero-5.com, but apparently this was a typo by the Google affiliate and should have been guitarhero-4.com (see http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=3803746). This would completely invalidate my comment, prompting me to delete it, except that guitarhero-4.com is also a thin affiliate site - so the original point stands. But my post is indeed confusing, my apologies.

its hillarious you present valid evidence, and people vote you down. Google is evil.. rabble rabble. Yes this was just one case.. without hearing the full story .. this example just proves that theres more to the story.

We provided that email in an effort at full transparency. If you'll note it is in the original post; we're not trying to hide anything here.

says the guy that got banned from adsense for somehow violating TOS, and have been warned in the past of doing something they shouldn't have. Yeah.. im sure the story isn't skewed to benefit you at all.

Great timing on the article. Easter is here... good way to acquire new customers in the "festive" mood.

As the cliché goes: "When life gives you lemons, make lemonade."

When Google inevitably smooth this over to avoid the bad PR, just spare a thought for the hundreds of smaller sites who don't have the option to generate that kind of press (Google screwed me out of $50 on my blog about kittens doesn't have the same ring to it)

That's the main problem with automating as much as possible, and having as few customer service reps as possible. It feels like talking to a brick wall when something non-standard happens.

If this issue gets resolved in light of the publicity it's now getting, it just further shows that the Google system is deeply flawed for it's users.

My personal experience with Google is that they have almost a pathological obsession with making it as hard as possible for you to get in touch with them.

They operate off the notion that pretty much everything is self-service and there are no requirements for human support. When Google Enterprise first started, their only offerings were M-F, don't call us, we'll call you support. It certainly clashed quite a bit with the traditional expectation of enterprise customers.

There is no customer service for Google Apps besides an email. And even that, you won't get a response for days, besides a canned, "Thank you for contacting Google...".

And look at their phone, which failed IMHO. One of the main reasons was the lack of customer service. Like a customer is gonna email you and wait 3 days for a reply when his phone doesn't work.

And now they are about to release a tablet? Good luck.

That sucks for Android users. You want a Nexus device because it has a better chance of getting an update but otoh support sucks because it is Google.

To be clear, I'm perfectly fine with Google not supporting free products (although it is good customer service to do so). However, this bad behavior applies to products and support that customers pay for which IMO is unacceptable.


It's sad that the only way to get customer support from Google is to get to #1 on HN.

It's almost worst than no support at all (because less equitable).

To me this highlights a much wider issue. Basically, you fall fowl of some web-admin and that's you banned for life with absolutely no come back what so ever. And the sad fact is that too often it boils down to a bruised ego, and then colleagues backing up their friend.

I do not know what to do about it, except for an internet arbitration organisation to exist that can negotiated between a user and a web site. Problem is, it would need to be voluntary and as we all know, these sites have so many users they couldn't care less about the odd user.

I have a similar experience, and this is why I left the Google Services thing. I signed up for Adsense 6 years ago. I worked with it for 3 years and I was making $150/month with it. Then I decided to change the payee name (was using my sisters'). I closed that account and signed up for another one. A month later, I made around $147 and got my account suspended.

The reason: A risk to advertisers. I tried to contact Google but I received the same email the author did. I didn't care much, after all, it's $140. Why would Google care?

But $40K? That's quite serious.

Thank you for sharing, and preventing me from potentially falling into this trap.

I was considering doing an ad based project until I read this.

So, you should balance this. There are lots of people out there that do well serving ads. It really depends on your product and your alternative avenues to revenue. It is a cautionary tale, but you shouldn't close the door because of that.

You may want to read "Why I sued Google and won" [1]. The guy has a similar story to yours, sued Google for the revenue already earned, and won all of it (it was only ~$700).

For $40k, I'd sure look into it.

[1] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/aaron-greenspan/why-i-sued-goo...

If you read the follow-up, you will see that he actually lost an appeal by Google: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/aaron-greenspan/why-google-bot...

In particular:

> Despite Google's objections to what they perceived to be technical violations of their AdSense terms of service, they also had an entirely separate (but confusingly similar-sounding) program called AdSense for Domains, which handled the exact problem I was trying to solve--that of using advertising to profit from "parked," or unused, domain names, much like putting a billboard on a vacant lot. Though AdSense for Domains was closed to the public for years, Google did finally open it up December 11, 2008, just two days after my account was cancelled. Had it allowed my company to join in the first place, I would have had no reason to create my own billboard using "normal" AdSense since Google would have already taken care of it for me, and no violation would have occurred.

"If Google would've let me into their private club I wouldn't have had to trespass in it" probably didn't sit too well with the judge.

Except that case was appealed by Google, and the judgment was cancelled.

Why would google sooner disable a site showing ads and remove all revenue streams, than simply stop showing ads to "repeated" violators (based on IP, or whatever else they use to detect clickfraud) on that site, and only refund money made by THAT SECTOR the clicks came from?

Presumably, Google assumes that the account owner is the person or entity committing the click fraud and will find ways to continue perpetrating the fraud if only an IP or range is blocked. It's probably much less of a headache to just nuke an account than play a game of cat and mouse with fraudsters.

Wow, this makes Paypal look like angels. I suppose we are just starting see the effects of ad monopoly. Once a few more alternatives are taken away, there will be no where to hide.

Google seems to be very good at what they are doing to it's customers & will continue to do so until someone in that company wakes up & smells the garbage they hand out. Hatchlings is not the first small enterprise they have taken advantage of nor are the people who invest their time & money in said "game" the first or the last. Delve into another of Facebook's "games" called SuperPokePets (SPP) originally brought to FB by a company called Slide that Google decided wasn't raking in the big bucks fast enough so executives in Google decide to stop the game with a minimal warning to it's customers. SPP in all aspects that we the users could see was making plenty of money to keep the game active but instead higher-ups decided to hang it up causing loss of fun & incredible hurt to thousands of children and their parents. Google is a very selfish,greedy, animal. They will,I hope, eventually find themselves with very few customers,advertisers,or money which they value the most. Corporate greed does not go unpunished in this world anymore. They took people's trust & their money then hung us all out to dry without an apology or a reasonable explanation. I see no reason to give them anymore of my time or my money.

I was banned from adsense about 6 years ago... using my main personal email account.

I tried to log back in a few times over the years, and after about 4 or 5 years I was told that they no longer had any record of my account.

I signed up again (using the same email and personal information) without a hitch. I have been receiving checks for many months now.

I have a question about what happens when an account gets disabled/suspended while there's a positive balance. Does Google keep that surplus, or return it to advertisers? If the former, that's truly evil, so let's say the latter.

If they return to advertisers, would they suddenly see a drop in their budget spent, and number of clicks produced? For example, say I have an AdWords account and yesterday I owe Google $100 for 100 clicks, and today someone who had a balance from my ads got suspended, and they generated 2 clicks at $1 each. Does my bill go down to $98, and clicks to 98? If so, that's pretty weird.

Does anyone who has an AdWords account know?

dangrossman posted a link to a screenshot showing "click quality" account credits.

search this HN thread for "in the billing summary" to find it.

I would like to make sure that people here understand one thing. The hatchlings guys are doing it wrong.

Who's to blame in this story? The guys who based their business on something they had absolutely no control on, or the company using algorithms to protect its customers (the advertisers)? I am absolutely not defending Google here, but honestly, this has been said a thousand times, ffs, do not base your business on AdSense.

Better, the more people stop using AdSense, the easier it is gonna be for a competitor (your next startup?) to come, and the more chance we have to see a change coming from Google.

I spread the word, sorry for your problems, but they will help other people and me (and you too once you swallow your pride).

Keep working at it, you got something. The fact that they are even willing to screw you tells you so.

Conspiracy Theory: Isn't this a great way to boost earnings before the end of a quarter? "Hey, we have a $50 million shortfall, let's close down some AdSense accounts and take their money".

It's one thing to suspend an account and say "as of tomorrow, we dont want to do business with you and won't pay you for clicks going forward" - they don't have to provide a reason, they are a private company and can do whatever they want.

However, when you're seizing money, whether its hundreds of dollars or tens of thousands, there needs to be proof and an appeal process. Algorithmically closing down accounts and seizing cash just doesn't work. Plus, it seems like it'd be all to easy to get a competitors account shut down by running a bot and generating fake clicks on their site...

From the article: "Your outstanding balance and Google’s share of the revenue will both be fully refunded back to the affected advertisers.”

Unless Google never refunds to "the affected advertisers," there is no motive other than preferring algorithms to humans.

Happened to me, it sucks - luckily it was on a small site and not one that I was relying on for income. Good lesson not to rely on third party advertisements in the future.

I guess he will get his account back because someone at Google is looking at this now, but this also proved that their appeal system is broken for the vast majority.

The number of comments mentioning similar events are frightening. I always thought these were isolated incidents, flukes if you like. Apparently not.

It happened to me for a blog where adsense was removed for years.

I moved my adwords campain for other business sites since then and advocate it when I can.

If they're screwing people over, sounds like it's time for a lawsuit, not yearning for a startup white knight to ride to the rescue.

The main problem here is that Google has god awful customers service. Even for their paying customer on Google Apps. Just terrible.

There should be a sub-clause to "Don't Be Evil": "Don't Be Indifferent".

There is. Being indifferent, in certain situations, is being evil.

And Google isn't being indifferent here, there is well documented extreme hardship created by Google's choice to operate in the way they do. They know this and choose to continue their behavior. It appears as long as Google believes it is more profitable to act in this way they will continue to do so. I would imagine (based on their actions and words) if this behavior was to negatively impact their estimates of their profits then they would change.

Posting from a throwaway handle, so that there is no way that Google would track me down.

Our company uses AdSense, and we have not been disabled so far. Our monthly revenues are much larger than Hatchling's. We have user-generated content. Despite our MOST extensive, multi-tier keyword-based content screening system, we are terrorized by Google weekly, from noreply address, that AdSense ads are disabled on this or that user's page, due to various violations found (often in the content in obscure languages, e.g. Hungarian , Finnish, Turkish), threatening to shut down the whole account. We are aware that the account can be shut down at any moment, and have been diversifying our ad revenue component for the last couple of years, using CasaleMedia, TribalFusion, Adbrite, taking conscious cuts in ad revenue compared to AdSense in exchange for security. Those companies actually care about your revenue.

DO NOT RELY on ADSENSE as a sole revenue provider for your startup! Do not! AdSense is only a good idea either if your revenue is negligible, or if you are a highly public high profile client like MySpace, where they KNOW that they cannot get away without serious negative PR.

On my opinion, this is why Google Payments never took off: they used the same smart-ass approach to shut down merchant accounts, knowing when a merchant was about to commit payment fraud before it was actually committed. In the case of sale of physical goods, an account termination could be much more harmful, so people stuck with PayPal, no matter how imperfect it was.

I don't understand. If you're smart enough to shut down an account before it does anything fraudulent, then you have no conceivable excuse not to pay the balance out when you close the account.

Thanks for bringing up some Adsense alternatives.

"DO NOT RELY on ADSENSE as a sole revenue provider for your startup! Do not! "

This is really a classic business issue. There is always a tradeoff between putting all your eggs in one basket (say what zynga did with facebook initially) and having a diverse customer base. Same goes for relying on a single vendor or source.

Obviously if you can diversify it makes sense. But it all depends on the revenue hit your take by doing so. Extra money that you earn can be banked toward the future as well.

Right, but the wise thing to do is to set up the other ad networks before Google shuts you down. Then you can just re-allocate percentages. Setting them up, optimising, etc requires time, so the best is to have the mix ready in advance.

Also try ValueClickMedia, in the past they paid a lot better for me than the alternatives you mentioned. Get someone on the phone though, don't try their automated application process.

Do you happen to use an ad manager that distributes traffic among all of those ad networks? I currently use Google's DFP and I realize that's not exactly all that safe either.

when i hear "don't be evil", i immediately thought whoever said this must have something that _is_ evil, as for a typical good behaved company, it does not need say this loudly to itself or somebody else, in fact, this kind of slogan will not even come to its mind at all.

On an unrelated note:

> Sorry, due to a security vulnerability this browser is not supported. You might like Google Chrome.

I actually hate Google Chrome, it's Internet Explorer 6 with a service pack. You don't support Opera? Seriously? For a long time Opera has been the most secure browser on the market, I don't know it's status in the last year. What security hole?

They don't honor no-cache headers in the same way that all other browsers do which allows for duplication of virtual goods in some cases. We've spoken with their dev team but it's apparently a "feature" not a bug.

Our V2 that is coming out soon will definitely support Opera though.


I am downvoting you because this adds nothing to the discussion. While DDG may be a worthy search engine and a good alternative to Google as a search destination, it does not offer an alternative or a solution to the problem that is AdSense related.

(for those downvoting him further - there's no reason to get him hell banned, pretty sure he got the point!)

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