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Your Search Ad: No Search, But You Paid Google

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When is a search ad click not really a click? According to Richard Ball of Apogee Web Consulting, it’s when someone clicks an ad on a parked domain to reach a site. So why is Google charging for these as ad clicks?

Your Search Ad: No Search, But You Paid Google
Your Search Ad: No Search, But You Paid Google

“Google is billing advertisers for paid search clicks when, in fact, no searches have taken place,” Ball said in a blog post at the Apogee Weblog. “This is click fraud.”

Despite this straightforward accusation, and the details that followed in Richard’s post, Google has not responded to a request for comment about it. Perhaps the folks who could respond are too busy watching shares of GOOG nuzzle the underbelly of $700.

Richard’s post needs a little explaining, as the activity taking place is a little complex. Someone types in a domain into a browser address bar, iowagop.com in Richard’s test example, and ends up at a parked domain page.

That page contains a list of “hot links.” Clicking one of the list’s items, like Iowa Straw Poll, brings up another page titled, “Search results for: iowa straw poll.”

The ads on the page come from Google’s Ads for Domains program, via a company called DomainSponsor, owned by Oversee.net. For this example, there are links to Airline Tickets, Employment, and Car Insurance, among others.

Richard considers this ‘fake searches click fraud’:

When did a search occur? Is clicking on a link equivalent to typing keywords into a search box? No, this is a fake search. Google classifies these kinds of paid clicks as search clicks because they occur on a parked domain that has a search box on the site. That’s fraud – click fraud, distribution fraud, syndication fraud.

In a followup conversation with WebProNews, Richard said he thinks advertisers aren’t recognizing when this happens, because referring URLs for these ads are masked, by routing them through searchportal.information.com. Richard’s experiment yielded referrers ending with a string identified as a query.

These URLs, when clicked, go back to the parked domain. There is no search taking place, as Richard found.

Here’s how he did it. When buying AdWords keywords for the test campaign, he had the content network turned off. His ads should only show up on Google and on search network sites. They show up on a parked domain because those pages have search *boxes* on them.

Google isn’t hiding this; it’s in their AdWords help regarding ad targeting on the Google Network:

Depending on the design of the site, a parked domain site will be classified as either a search site or a content site. That means your ads may show on parked domain sites if your campaign is opted in to the search or content networks.

If Google says it’s part of the search network, the parked domain’s ad clicks become paid search clicks. A site publisher looking at Richard’s example likely won’t agree, as no search ever took place.

It’s confusing enough, and it even seems to have top search expert Danny Sullivan a little baffled, judging by his August 2007 comments on a Search Engine Land piece regarding the ability to opt out of AdSense For Domains completely:

It’s important to understand that some people think they’ve opted out of AdSense For Domains if they opt out of contextual ads altogether. Not so. Do that, and you’re opted out of paid links on parked domains that people browse and find, by clicking. But if someone does an actual search there (search boxes are almost always provided), then you’ll get traffic from parked domains that way, if you’re accepting traffic from the search network. It’s confusing and one reason why I’ve long wanted Google to make AdSense For Domains an entirely separate purchase.

As Richard demonstrated, searches aren’t triggering this traffic. It’s coming from a direct entry in an address bar, and clicking on predetermined links. No one’s entering a query in a search box.

There is one more thing that Richard thinks makes the whole process look bad. In the referring URL we discussed earlier, and the query at the end of it, the referrer shows the query as ‘Iowa Straw Poll’.

Someone might capitalize Iowa for their search, but Richard doesn’t believe anyone will bother capitalizing Straw or Poll when they type in this string.

“This is an artificial search – Google and DomainSponsor are making it look in server logs like a search is happening,” said Richard. ” But, clearly users are clicking on pre-defined links. That’s what’s bogus.”

Your Search Ad: No Search, But You Paid Google
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  • anon

    Listen david, you are special.

    Stop making such a fuss. Domainsponsor, DemandMedia, GoDaddy, Sedo, NameMedia, and much more are all doing it.

    Stop acting all innocent. This is the internet search business. domains are real-estate. bottom lime, people monetize them because they OWN them.

    it’s common sense. Why the hell would you purchase and own a domain if you don’t plant on monetizing it.

    Domainsponsor just makes it easier for people to do that. clicks are clicks. If people land on a page and click relevant links, its a win win.

    get it?