I'm both a consumer and a publisher of Google Adsense advertising on the Web and even though Web advertising makes me some money by publishing ads on this blog and in a few other places around this site, both publishing and providing ads feels like a bit of black magic over which I have only a tiny bit of control.
But let's start with the part that really gets my goat, which is the buying of advertising. As a small software vendor with a number of products I've some time ago turned to Web advertising with Google because the magazine market at which I had frequently advertised in the past has simply disappeared. When I first started advertising on Google I noticed by tracking requests and tracking sales that it was bringing a fair bit of traffic my way, but the longer it has gone on the less value I see from this advertising to the point today that I seriously question the value of it at all. In fact the count of incoming links are getting less and the quality of them is drastically degrading while the cost seems to be rising.
A couple of months ago I started in earnest tracking the advertising hits that Google generates for me. And what I found is not a happy picture. About 30-40% of the traffic generated - ie. the traffic that I pay for - comes from link farms, that is Web pages that have nothing more than a bunch of links that redirect to Google Adsense links. Another 10% or so doesn't have referring links at all so I can't track the source which is also pretty suspicious. This means that almost half of the traffic that Google generates is either worthless or not tractable.
As to link farms: It's places like this ( I didn't link them here explictly to not encourage any more traffic their way <g>)
These come straight out of my link capture log and you can probably see a common theme in a few of these links. In fact, it looks like a few of these are probably hosted by the same companies. There hundreds of links like this in my log and the domain names and links often vary slightly covering all sorts of weird words and domain mistypes. Windgouru.com for example is a mistype of windguru.com which is a Windsurf wind forecast site (that I happen to visit frequently <g>). But as you might suspect - other than the Wind part in my company name and my hobby - windsurfing has little to do with goes on on this site. Even the photoalbum which does contain some windsurf related pictures and jabber is only a tiny little part of my site.
So - that windgouru.com link is really going to help my bottom line, right? Granted Web advertising is a bit like aiming buckshot at 100feet out, but the fact that there's a link farm and it's not even hitting a primary target that I'm paying for - well it pisses me off. Somebody (mostly Google) is making 80 cents to a dollar a click of that shit that I'm paying for.
It's the same with most of the link parking sites. They have zero value to advertisers even if they do send you traffic because it's very likely that the traffic they do send is either completely mistargeted or - in my opinion just as like - illegally clicked.
Let's look at this from the Link Park operator - their only profit motive is to get as many people as possible to come to their site and click on links. There's no content creation, there's not even an attempt at capturing customers, it's just thousands of pages of links generated by computer on thousands of different IP addresses that essentially prey on web browsers who mistype a link. The only reason these sites exist is to make Adsense revenue. Nothing else. How far removed is the idea to use those same thousands of IP addresses and computers to randomly (in relatively low volume) have these links clicked? It'd be pretty damn tough for Google or any other advertisers to track low frequency links that are spread out amongst a few hundred thousand Web page. Add to that IP spoofing and you have a potentially profitable business on your hands.
I sent an email to Google Adsense support and asked about Link Parking sites and what their policy is in regards to counting these hits towards paying clicks. The response was essentially a shrug of the shoulder: Yeah, we know about it and they are legal, and sure you have to pay for these links. In fact the support tech was trying to convince me that these Link Parking site links do better conversions than 'regular' links. Better for whom? For Google? Sure, people will click on links to get out of the fucked up link park, but it's doubtful they do so because they actually want to go to my site or become a potential customer.
So Google's answer to get around this problem: Block the sites in the AdSense manager. IOW, let me figure it out. Since there are literally hundreds of sites and that the sites keep changing that's hardly practical.
Most advertisers probably have no idea where their ad dollars are actually going and Google isn't providing much of anything in terms of information how the advertising dollar was actually applied. I know looking at my link logs, I can tell that Google is clearly metering my clicks exactly to pay out the maximum amount of my highest bid I specify for an ad campaign in the Adsense Manager. Day after day I see EXACTLY 14 clicks of this product and 22 of another which means, that even though bidding is supposed to be competitive, it almost always ends up at the highest bidding rate. Looking at the click through hit chart from Google hits on my site is like looking at the consistency of clockwork that matches the very top end of my ad bids.
This also means Google - for all its supposed 'security' and watch dog operations - is rarely if ever deducting clicks from my account. After I pushed the tech I was talking to I got a spreadsheet with adjusted clicks from the rep. A whopping 100 adjustments out of 120,000 clicks. Yet on the other end - when serving ads here - there seem to be regular adjustments and it ain't me clicking my own Adsense links.
The fact that I see the above domains repeatedly and consistently, and that the pages have very little content and certainly no content that has anything related to the products I'm supposedly advertising there, is a pretty good indication that this is bogus and clearly Google is not keeping up its end of the bargain to ensure click fraud checking. Yet the domains persist and Google doesn't care - and why should they, really? Google has no financial interest in shutting down link farms like this. They make Google a shitload of money even while it practically invites link fraud.
The other End of it: Publishing Ads
I also use Google to make a little money from ads I run on this site. While I also use a couple of .NET specific advertisers - mainly Steven Smith's Lake Quincy .NET Network and The Lounge - I also use Google here on the WebLog and in various other places on this site where .NET only content is not appropriate. Mainly I use all of these to provide a little variety. The .NET content is not various enough and the Google ads provide a little additional content that makes the ad content maybe a little more varied.
All of the combined advertising pays the hosting bill and a little more actually. I have to admit I fretted putting advertising on this site at all, because - well, I hate advertising. But given that I put out a large amount effort into publishing content I thought I'd see how advertising would work out and given that it brings in enough to pay the operational bills plus a bit extra it's hard to throw that away. It's by no means a major part of my income but it's also enough to be too tempting to ignore.
So at least some of this advertising income comes from Google. Google tracks ad display and clicks and at times I take a look and see how things are going and try to make adjustments. Over the last few days you might have seen a few adjustments here with ads running a little more prominently due to some experimentation with ad formats (which surprisingly has resulted in some fairly big increases in rotations and clicks).
So I went to the site yesterday during the day to find that there was a good number of clicks and a fairly high dollar amount of commissions for the day. Then the next day I happened back to the site and checked the totals which were significantly less. And I have to wonder how the fuck that can be since it sure isn't me clicking on my own ads?
So if it's not me, and not robots what could possibly account for these adjustments of more than 30% at times. Checking back a few days now I see adjustments frequently days although the adjustments are not quite as drastic. On my ads that I pay on I had a 100 ads adjusted against well over well over 100,000 ads served, yet on my ad publishing the ratio is measure by well over 10%? What gives?
The real frustrating part though is that you really can't get any decent information out of Google unless you contact them and discuss with a tech. If I screw around with Google Analytics I can see how ads are served when and where etc. but it doesn't really tell me if clicks are removed or why or even how the rates are applied. A lot of times the relation of traffic to hits or clicks is so completely out of whack (one day I have 10 clicks and $15 another day I have a 100 clicks and it's only $5). Getting information on why adjustments have been made have never been made clear as where links where served from and if there are adjustments what they are made for. If you just check your stats after the fact you may never actually know that adjustments were actually made.
In the end it feels like black magic. Google (and other advertisers as well to be fair) control the process so completely that if there's any foul play either on Google's part or for cheating publishers that contest clicks on the other end there's almost no real way to tell that it's happening and unless you have the time to keep very close tabs on it there's no way to follow the money all the way through - on both ends. And who has that kind of time?
Advertising: The Evil Cousin Nobody Wants but Everybody Uses
Web Advertising is a necessary evil for the availability of free content. To be honest I don't really understand how we got to the point that Google is as big of a company as it is because of advertising. Seriously, how many of you actually pay attention to ads - any savvy Web browser these days has some mechanism to block out ads both physically at the computer, not to mention the mental blocking we all apply to ads to ignore the irrelevant content on page? All this effort to provide ads that most people ignore.
I really wonder how many clicks on ads are really of a potential customer vs. fraudulent, frivolous or accidential click. I suspect the number is really, really low. And at 80 cents to a dollar that's an expensive wasted click! Ultimately I really question how much value Google advertising provides these days to advertisers? I'd be curious to hear from others how well ADVERTISING with Google or other similar service (Yahoo, Micorosoft) is working for them using what amounts to small budget advertising.
Yet we still continue to publish ads because there's obviously a small profit motive for ad publishers. More for some than others. I imagine in some third world countries even a small profit from AdSense amounts to a huge amount of income. And it's not surprising to see that many of the link farms originate in low income areas of Southeast Asia and other low income areas of the world.
A whole industry exists around advertising on the web and exploiting Google (but actually exploiting advertisers - Google actually benefits) any way they possibly can. It seems just too easy to spoof the system with the current technology.
Web Advertising is at the root of a lot of the things that are wrong with the Web today. It's a scammers game especially when you look at AdSense. On the one hand it's enabled everyone to advertise in ways that wasn't previously possible. But on the other you have this wild west mentality where the distributed publishing puts advertising in unexpected places where the value might be quite debatable. It's a long way from targeted advertising if you compare it to more traditional means like magazine advertising. The fact that it's so easy to be a publisher and that the electronic medium is so easy to spoof makes it a big fat target for scammers trying to make a buck off - well nothing in many cases. Case in point are link farms.
As an advertiser I have a hard time seeing the value anymore, at least recently. Some time ago the targeting worked pretty well and I ended up with a good number of leads. These days the 'hit' ratio of bad links that are actually hitting what I would consider the right target audience is getting much worse, while the prices for advertising have shot up through bidding wars. It's a pretty sucky proposition and I've cut way back on my Web advertising recently because of it. But truth be told I don't really know of many alternatives other than using a different advertising service. I suppose Google is the biggest target for scamming the system since it has the biggest network and most variety. So maybe a smaller network might provide better results.
It's too damn easy to cheat
It seems to me that the way Web advertising works is so fickle that it simply invites publishers and the big advertising companies to cheat. It's way too easy to cheat and the sad part is that it can be pretty profitable. All the advertising for the most trivial content is everywhere. If a little rinky dink site like mine can do $300+ a month in advertising revenue (combined for all providers) for very little targeted effort, imagine what an organized effort could do. I could probably do better if I'd do a little research but frankly it's not financially worth the extra effort.
Certainly having lots of content helps, but having lots of bogus content in link farms is all too easy to create and scam off of. I see nothing wrong with sites that have actual useful content and display advertising off of that - that's plenty fair even if it's a bit out of control on many sites. But unless my tracking data is just unusual there's getting to be less and less quality content to go around with more and more crap springing up just to invite ad content linking.
And even the quality of good content is going down - in order to drive advertising.For example, you've been to one of these sites I'm sure: There are two paragraphs of an article on a page one and 10 more 'pages' to wade through all of which are loaded to the max with advertising on all sides so that you actually have to search for the actual content. Most of the time the content on these sites is barely valuable - like somebody copied the content from a book and reworded it just so there could be some content out there to drive the ads.
All this crap is targeted at advertising is making it harder and harder to find the good content when searching. And just this last week Google announced that they are actually going to punish publishers who publish large pages (ie. likely REAL content that is useful and not cut up to maximize ad revenue) by weighting down pages that are long (in terms of content size) and reduce them in search priority. So much for 'only do good'. Corporate crap like anybody else.
How did we get here? The advertising means have become an end in itself that now outweighs the original premise for many operations.
I'd be interested to hear other's experiences are with Google or other ad providers.