There's been a lot of this going around lately. Publishers are getting banned from Google AdSense after Google tells them they're in violation of their rules. This happens after the publisher accrues a sizable amount of earnings and readies for the payday. It also happens after Google reps have indicated that the sites were in compliance in the first place. That's how the story goes anyway.
Do you think Google is doing anything wrong? Share your thoughts in the comments.
Another publisher, SuperCrayCray, has come out suing Google over this. But first a little background.
Similar stories have been circulating for years, generating varying degrees of attention in the media. Last year, the issue got possibly the most attention to date as a new mysterious, but ultimately debunked element came into play.
The 'Former Googler'
Last spring, someone claiming to be a former Google employee accused the company of stealing money from AdSense publishers posting on Pastebin that they "took part in what I (and many others) would consider theft of money from the publishers by Google, and from direct orders of management."
"There were many AdSense employees involved, and it spanned many years, and I hear it still is happening today except on a much wider scale," it said. "No one on the outside knows it, if they did, the FBI and possibly IRS would immediately launch an investigation, because what they are doing is so inherently illegal and they are flying completely under the radar.”
For the curious, the entire post and "explanation" is still live here.
After this made its way to the spotlight, numerous publishers claimed to have experienced similar treatment by Google to what was described. Basically, Google would ban their sites as payments became due, and they wouldn't get their money. Various industry types poked holes in the story presented by the so-called ex-Googler, including the use of inaccurate terminology and the fact that Google only makes money on AdSense when it delivers the ads. In other words, it's not in Google's interest to ban successful sites.
Google strongly denied the accusations, calling the whole thing “complete fiction.” Still, the theories and allegations persisted.
A Criminal Investigation?
The FairSearch Coalition, a group of Google competitors, which frequently complains to government agencies about Google’s business practices, called for a criminal investigation into the company’s AdSense business.
“Google often tries to reinforce its image and reputation as a tech innovator rather than an advertising-funded corporation driven by profits,” it said. “But These recent allegations are another sign that Google’s thirst for profits comes at the expense of meeting its legal obligations and commitments to business partners it says benefit from its own dominance. In the past few years, the company settled for $500 million with the Department of Justice for assisting in the illegal sale of prescription drugs online, and several state Attorneys General have voiced concern over Google’s revenue from ads placed with YouTube videos that depict or promote illegal and other activities harmful to consumers and even children.”
“Trust, but verify is an old maxim that applies to Google’s business too,” the coalition added. “The time may be near for another investigation into Google’s business practices. The outcome could very well be potential criminal and civil charges against the company, especially if top executives were aware of the practice, as they were in the illegal pharmaceutical ad sales.”
FairsSearch member companies include Microsoft, Nokia, TripAdvisor, Hotwire, Expedia, Level, Foundem, ShopCity, Twenga, AdMarketplace.com, Travel Tech Association, Buscape Company, TheFind, Allegro, and Oracle.
In May, a class action suit was filed against Google related to claims it was stealing money from publishers. This one was filed by consumer rights law firm Hagens Berman (which had previously filed another questionable suit against the company related to phone pricing). The suit claimed that Google “unlawfully denies payments to thousands of website owners and operators who place ads on their sites."
The suit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, and alleged that the company “abruptly cancels website owners’ AdSense accounts often without explanation shortly before payments are due, and refuses to pay for the ads that ran prior to the cancelation.”
“This wrongful practice has sparked numerous bitter complaints from website owners across the Web, with some reporting losses reaching thousands of dollars a pop,” said Steve Berman, one of Hagens Berman’s founding partners. “What we believe to be true from our research is that Google’s practice is likely hurting thousands of website owners and operators who feel they have no way to fight giant company like Google.”
After the debunked Pastebin document came out, there were indeed numerous individuals commenting around the web that it sounded suspiciously like what had happened to them, sometimes matching time periods mentioned in the story. The law firm claimed the suit didn't depend on that document's merits.
After the suit came out, GigaOm reported that Berman had represented Microsoft in the past, and speculated that the company was behind the whole thing. Considering that Microsoft is a major part of the FairSearch Coalition, it's an intriguing theory. The publication, however, updated its report with a quote from Microsoft denying any involvement.
Several months later, a nineteen-year-old entrepreneur, who runs a text message site called MesTextos, claimed to have lost nearly $50,000 after Google decided the site didn't comply with its AdSense rules. Business Insider reported at the time:
In an email Google sent to Sami, Google says MesTextos was incentivizing or forcing people to click on ads to use the site, which is against the rules; Sami denies that. He says two different Google sales staff praised his revenue-generating efforts and, in separate emails, offered to help optimize his site to improve its performance. He says he wasn’t warned there was something wrong with his site until it was too late.
The report included screenshots of the emails, which were in French, as well as a generic statement from a Google spokesperson, who wouldn’t comment on this particular case:
… we always send a note to the publisher explaining which policy was in question and, in many cases, give them a chance to make changes to their pages to keep the account in good standing. Publishers are also given an opportunity to appeal policy decisions.
According to the report, the ban came less than two weeks after Google sent the young entrepreneur an email offering to help him boost his revenues. He claimed to have spoken with the company, and that they told him “everything was good.” He also claimed to have “begged and pleaded with Google,” but was unable to figure out what Google actually thought was wrong with the site.
Fast forward to last month. Business Insider says it has heard from seven companies that they have lost ad income when they were suddenly banned by AdSense, and that each company claims to have been following Google's rules about ad placement.
"Some were even encouraged or given approval by Google’s sales staff — only to be told they had been banned from the service, losing out on all the advertising revenue they had accrued," Business Insider's Lara O'Reilly writes.
Last month, the publication reported on a "bunch of lawsuits," against the company, including one from a company called Pubshare, which sued Google for about a million dollars, which was reportedly generated by AdSense before Google sent the company the following message:
LAYOUT ENCOURAGES ACCIDENTAL CLICKS: Publishers are not permitted to encourage users to click on Google ads in any way. This includes any Complaint implementation that may encourage accidental clicks, such as placing ads near flash games or navigation bars, or placing ads and site links extremely close together.
As the report says, the guy who runs the site and filed the suit claims to have been using the same format as other popular sites who were allowed to continue using AdSense. It also includes a quote from his lawyer, which would seem to represent the crux of most of these complaints:
“Allowing an AdSense publisher to accumulate hundreds of thousands of dollars in earnings without any warnings of improper practices, and then abruptly refusing to pay out any of those earnings by means of auto-generated form e-mails is the very definition of bad faith."
Google had reportedly asked for the suit to be dismissed, but a judge allowed it to continue. Meanwhile, the suits are piling up. Included in Business Insider's report are: PubShare (claiming a loss of $1 million); a viral news site claiming a loss of $500K, a business accelerator site claiming $200K, a publisher claiming $300K, MesTextos claiming $46,000, a quiz site claiming $35,000, and a storytelling site also claiming $35,000.
In another report, BI points to a comment it received from former Googler Fili Wiese, who used to be on the company's Ad Traffic Quality Team, which handled click spam and invalid clicks:
So one thing that may not be clear here is that Google loses money too when a publisher gets banned. All money that is not paid out is in full returned to the advertiser, so Google also does not make any money. It is also important to keep in mind that Google is the client and the publishers are the suppliers. The publishers are responsible for the quality of the traffic they are delivering to the advertisers of Google. Google AdSense is just the platform which makes this easy and possible. If the publisher delivers traffic that can result in invalid clicks then the advertiser is paying for this. The trust of the advertisers is of utmost importance. Without this Google AdSense would not be possible at all. Ask yourself, would you want to keep paying for low quality products, such as invalid clicks?
A common theme among a number of the complaints is that Google allegedly assured the sites that they were compliant ahead of the banning.
Business Insider shares a screenshot of a conversation between an AdSense rep and the site owner in which the rep did assure them that "no additional action is needed" on their part.
The report makes an important note that the folks at Google who are lending such approval are separate from the staff that bans publishers.
Now there's SuperCrayCray. Marketing Land brought this one to the spotlight. SuperCrayCray is a content site that seems to follow the BuzzFeed model (which seems to be working out pretty well for BuzzFeed I might add).
SuperCrayCray says Google suspended its account the very day it was supposed to get paid. It claims to have accrued $535,000 in earnings, which were supposed to be paid out in October. The site says Google suspended it on the grounds that it "encouraged accidental clicks," and like others before it, it claims to have gotten approval on its site and clicks from a Google rep.
Once again, there's a chat record, which appears in the suit. This occurs between Denis Gayev (SuperCrayCray's co-founder) and Ryan J (an AdSense rep):
Denis: We reported our selves previously in the month asking to verify if our site is fully complaint (sic) with all TOS [Terms of Service]. We never received a response, does that normally mean that it was checked and no issues were found?
Ryan J: Correct, warnings are resolved once you mark them as such. If there is a future issue the policy team will get back to you.
Denis: Honestly, our biggest concern was our CTR on our ads. We wanted to confirm if it was inline with whats normal. We wanted to double check that the CTR was not in anyway a result of accidental clicks, or what not. Is that something that’s checked periodically when a site scales quickly? Or is that something checked in the 2 week period?
Ryan J: We do validate all clicks and impressions and are monitoring it constantly. The CTR you are seeing is within the normal range. I’m also not seeing any concerns are you site, ex. implementation that could cause a high amount of accidental clicks.
Ryan then allegedly confirmed that the site was set to receive a payout, and the same day another co-founder of the site sent a message to an AdSense rep to make sure high click-through rates he was seeing was okay and that the ad placement wasn't generating invalid clicks. The rep responded that Google found implementations to be "correct," and that they appreciated the "honesty" and "efforts" to keep the account in good standing.
Several days later, yet another AdSense rep allegedly recommended the site not change anything.
So after all this confirmation that everything was copacetic, the site spent $300,000 promoting its content before being denied the $535,000 it's owed and having the account suspended. Allegedly.
Google has been relatively quiet on the matter.
AdSense is said to account for roughly a third of Google’s revenue.
Do you believe the publishers' stories? Do you think Google owes them their earnings or do you think they're really violating Google's guidelines? Does Google need to do a better job of communicating problems? Discuss.
Image via Google AdSense (YouTube)