July 10, 2003

Google Metamorphosis

Ok, so Google isn't turning into an insect, but there is something Kafkaish about the place. Alert readers of the site might have noticed that some Google AdSense powered ads showed up on the site a week or two ago. Don't look, they aren't there now, so let me kick you the story.

I'm an info junkie and an early adaptor. New technology comes around and I'll play with it. Not blindly cause its new, but with a critical eye, I want to know what it does, how it works and if its useful. So of course I signed up for AdSense the moment I heard about it, didn't even cost anything. If fact it could have even made me money.

Sign up was as easy as they come, the Google simplicity was on point. More importantly though Google was serving based on the content of the page so the ads promised to be relevant to reader. I was impressed, they started serving up ads that were genuinely interesting to me, at least from a curiosity standpoint. I've always felt that when advertising is done right its actually a good thing. If the information delivered is useful to you then you're happy to see an ad. People hate ads cause they see to many that aren't interesting to them, and that sucks, especially if they try hard to grab your attention.

But Google was getting close to the advertising wholy grail, ads that people really want to see. And not just because they are funny, because their interests and needs match with an advertiser. Naturally I was interested on what Google served on my site, so I clicked on a few ads. Nothing in the terms of service indicated I shouldn't and Google provided no backdoor into the ads. Was mildly interesting, and I moved on.

Then I decide to place the ads on the subpages of the site. Now that was interesting. Each page now got its own specially tailored set of 4 ads. Most were quite different. Now I was really interested. I clicked on almost all of them. Some were great, sites on globalisation in Africa, philosophy books, and political sites. Others were somewhat relevant, and a few were pretty wrong. A couple right wing organizations would pop-up. The word Iraq seemed to trigger only ads for those Iraq's most wanted trading cards. Felt a bit guilty clicking on all those links, but hey, it was my site, and there didn't seem to be any other way to see what was getting linked. Plus I posted a huge link list of most of sites I visited, figured they deserved some free linkage for advertising on my site.

That sedated most of my curiosity, but I was still wanted to know more. Google never told which links were getting clicked, why a given link would get served, or how much a given link was worth. But they did give frequently updated reports on the total clicks and the total money earned.

My site's pretty low traffic (I was on course to make maybe a $1 a day), so I found I could inter a bit more info by clicking on a few links and then checking the reports. Most of the links were worth about 10 a click. Some were closer to a penny it seemed. And one page in particular stuck out. I had used "cash" in a post title. And that seemed to trigger ads for borderline loansharking operations. "Instant Cash". Not exactly my favorite kind of people.

What was interesting was that these links seemed to be worth a lot more then most, close to $1 a click was my guess. The post in question was pretty long and political too. It could have easily triggered a lot of other ads.But the "cash" seemed to win out every time. The loansharks were obviously willing to pay a lot more per click. And this seems to have triggered Google's ad placement algorithm to give them priority. Interesting. Wonder what the tipping point was. Larger archive pages with that post on them weren't getting the loanshark ads. Made a mental note to research more later.

Instead I got a terse letter from Google informing me my account was cancelled. I guess I had clicked on one click to many. I was a bit worried that all my clicking on the "subpage" day would trigger something in their system, it had pushed my click through rate to 40%. But it also resulted in a whole $12 of money, not exactly high impact. Figured a computer might notice it, but then a human would get involved and it would get worked out.

Humans, yeah remember them. Turns out they are in short supply at Google. The first letter was almost certainly computer generated. And the tone was nasty. "Subject: [#2801845] Account Terminated", what a way to start off an email... I was a bit taken aback by the brusk language. I expected at most a warning, which I hoped might actually lead to a dialogue about making more info available to people serving AdSense ads. Instead I got accusations:

"It has come to our attention that fraudulent clicks have been generated on the ads on your site(s). Please understand that we consider deliberate attempts to violate our policies and compromise the integrity of our program a serious matter. Furthermore, your actions have cost Google and our advertisers both time and money. Actions such as this are not tolerated by Google."

Hmmm, guess they are sort of new to customer service. I reviewed the terms of service, I wasn't in violation, although it did say they could cut anyone off. Time to get a human involved. I wrote back asking for a review of the situation and included by phone number. As I sent out the email I noticed the return address. adsense-spam@google.com, hmmm maybe its not going to be as simple as talking to a person.

After a day of no response I decided to call them up. Took some digging on their site but I got the phone number. It lead to a labyrinth. There were a surprising number of dead ends. If you want to talk about "x" hit 1. Hit 1 and you find out that google won't talk about x. Great. As far as I can tell there is no way to get a human on the phone at Google without randomly dialing in extensions. This was beginning to feel a bit like 2001, slowly dealing with a computer out of control.

On Saturday night I got an email back. It seemed to be written by a human, but was signed the "The Google Team". They had no problem addressing me by name though, a nice demeaning touch on their part. Still accusing me of fraud too. No details as to what that fraud was though. Great.

Figured I'd give one more shot, wrote back explaining everything I had done that might have set their computer off, and tossing in some suggestions on how to make it better to boot. Pretty much given up at that point, but it was worth a shot. No love back on their part. Guess the experiment was over.

The worrying thing about it for me is the inhumanness of it all. The money was pocketchange wasn't going to turn it down, but it would have been server costs and small xmas bonus at best. But I enjoyed watching the ads, seeing what got served up, and actually getting paid at least a token amount for writing. And the more I look at Google the more worried I get.

Google of course is still the best search engine around. But there is something brewing there I think that's a touch unsavory. They hold their information really tight to their pockets. They'll gladly lead you to other people's information, but won's share their own. Even their trends pages is hidden and sparse, in pretty dramatic contrast to the Lycos 50 and Yahoo Buzz Index. They've got a treasure trove of data, and it doesn't seem like they plan to share it. Too much potential profit buried there. But that just makes me jealous.

What makes me scared is that they are dangerously close to becoming the only search engine that matters on the web. And that gives them tremendous power. If they use it well then its all good. So far they have done a pretty good job. But they are young, they could change. Going public could change them. Political pressure could change them. Greed could change them. And the fact that they refuse to put out a human face doesn't bode to well. I'll be keeping my eyes open.

Posted by Abe at July 10, 2003 12:03 AM


I've been running AdSense for nearly a month now. I had the same problem, wanting to see what some of the ads were, but what I did was snarfed the link, looked at the actual URL, and typed that into a browser, so I could go to the sites without generating clickthroughs. Something like this should certainly be explained in the FAQ. (Another option would be to automatically ignore clickthroughs from any IP address that accesses the AdSense reports, though that might get messy with dynamic addresses and proxies.)

But it's hard to blame Google for being so impersonal - the only way they can offer a program like this to small "dollar a day" publishers is if they keep overheads to an absolute minimum, and automate absolutely everything they can.

Yes, obviously I should have gone that route, it was just too annoying. I've customized Firebird tab browsing to make it really easy for me to click on a lot of links really quickly.

As for not blaming Google for being impersonal, well they can do whatever they want, but that doesn't make faceless corporations any less scary and threatening to our future. Honestly I just expected better of them.