The personal blog of M. Scott Smith

I'm Done with Google AdSense... 🔗

DCSki.com, an on-line winter sports publication I run, is subsidized by local advertisers, including mid-Atlantic ski areas, ski shops, and real estate companies. These companies place banner ads on the site using a custom advertising engine I developed.

In addition, I have included textual Google AdSense ads on many pages. The Google ads have only brought in a (tiny!) fraction of the money of my normal ads, but I figured a little extra money was welcome, and some of the ads might be relevant and useful to my readership. But I've always been uncomfortable with Google's business model: it's like the Fight Club. (First rule of the Fight Club: there is no Fight Club.) Or, to put it another way, they ask for our trust but don't let us verify. Their entire system is one big black box, and they don't let anyone peer inside. Advertisers can't peer inside; publishers that lease ad space to Google can't peer inside.

It's rather shocking that they're able to get away with this. (They won't tell advertisers exactly what they'll charge for pushing out ads, and they won't tell publishers exactly how much they'll get paid for showing ads, or what percent Google is keeping as a "commission.") Traditional advertising mediums would never be able to get away with such opaqueness. But Google seems to be content to head down a path of monopolistic behavior.

Not only does Google not reveal the exact mechanisms it uses for determining (a) how much advertisers pay and (b) what cut publishers receive for showing the ads, but the company prohibits publishers from discussing the revenue they've earned from each other, for fear that people might figure out their algorithms. So, for example, I cannot share details of the revenue I have received from Google with you or anyone else (except, perhaps, the IRS on my annual taxes). I have noticed a suspicious correlation between Google's rising profits and the diminishing amount of money I appear to be paid for showing targeted ads. Google can obviously tinker with their algorithms ever so slightly to shift more money from publishers to their own pockets, without ever revealing that they're doing so.

This has never sat well with me.

A few years ago, I advertised DCSki through Google AdWords, but quickly stopped, out of disgust that the amount they charged was -- from an advertiser's perspective -- essentially random and non-deterministic.

I also do not want Google's ads to compete with DCSki's formal advertisers, so I have preferred that Google's ads be for national or international companies, but not local companies. But I know that local companies have often specifically advertised on DCSki through Google, in order to reach DCSki's audience at a reduced cost. This isn't fair to companies that are buying traditional ads, and I've blocked individual Google ads in many cases to address this.

But the final nail in the coffin arrived this morning in the form of an e-mail from Google. This is what the e-mail said:

It has come to our attention that invalid clicks have been generated on
your Google ads, posing a financial risk to our AdWords advertisers.
Please note that any activity that may artificially inflate an
advertiser's costs or a publisher's earnings is strictly prohibited by
our program policies.

We understand that you may want more information about the activity we
detected. However, because we have a need to protect our proprietary
detection systems, we're unable to provide our publishers with any
details about their account activity, including any web pages or users
that may have been involved. Thank you for your understanding.

In other words, Google is now accusing someone (me, the publisher?) of fraudulent clicks, but is unable to share any evidence or details whatsoever; not even what day they believe they occurred, or the I.P. address they believed the clicks arrived from. That is just unbelievably offensive. At this time of the year (the off season), Google's ads on DCSki might generate a click or two a day. I'm certainly not the one doing the fraudulent clicking, and no one else is in a position to financially benefit from "fraudulent" clicks on DCSki. So this is rather absurd. Could it be an angry advertiser who had advertised through Google but whose ads I removed? Who knows. I am not given any information to investigate. (I do credit Google for attempting to weed out fraudulent clicks, since it is estimated that a non-trivial percent of AdSense clicks are fraudulent. But again, since they don't share details of how their system works with anyone, and prohibit customers from comparing notes, it's impossible to know how many they're missing, or how many false positives they're detecting.)

So guess what? I'm done with Google. That was the final straw. Google's ads no longer show up on DCSki.

This isn't a terribly hard decision to make. In any given year, the amount of money I receive from Google is well below the amount I receive from a single advertiser using DCSki's least expensive advertising package. And yet, I've provided Google with some of the most valuable screen real estate on DCSki, on a heavily trafficked site that has a razor-like target and audience. I have been so close to making this decision for several years, and am kind of glad that e-mail from Google arrived this morning -- that made the decision, and I don't need to feel conflicted about this anymore.

If other publishers took the same stand, perhaps Google wouldn't be able to get away with being so secretive about the program. It's really kind of unbelievable what they are getting away with. Don't get me wrong, I think the concept of the program is great -- it's the secrecy I don't care for.

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