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May 21, 2007

Google Goes Ctrl – Alt – Delete

Three major events took place on, at, or around Google last week any one of which could radically change the company and its relationships with its users, advertisers, and ad delivery partners. Two of the events will have long lasting effects Google’s look and operation while the other has a direct effect on the public’s perception of Google as a trustworthy company.

Chronologically, the events started last Monday with the introduction of the new-look and feel of Google Universal. The same day, Google began the process of cleaning up its paid advertising program AdWords by terminating thousands of poorly performing “Made For AdSense” sites, a process that seemed to pick up speed as the week progressed. The week closed with the premature leak of information from the Fair Isaac Corporation’s ongoing study of billable click-fraud rates.

The last event, the leak of preliminary information from Fair Isaac, is likely the best place to begin an explanation because it (the tone of the report) is arguably the primary causal reason for the other two. It is as if Google suddenly understands the depth of the public relations problems it is going to be facing going into the second half of 2007 and is making very public moves to deal with the root causes of those problems.

Google’s Greatest Problem

Early last Friday morning a press release left the offices of the Fair Isaac Corporation. The press release stated that Fair Isaac had been conducting a study on billable click fraud rates at Google and had found 10 – 15 % of all billed clicks to a small sampling of accounts had stemmed from invalid activity. Naturally both the tech and mainstream media made an enormous issue of the news with virtually every important business or tech section mentioning the story.

By Saturday, the dust had settled and writers began taking a second, less euphoric look at the story. As Kevin Newcomb in Search Engine Watch wrote,

“Media reports (including Search Engine Watch’s) saying Fair Isaac Corp. (FIC) reported industry-wide click fraud at 10 to 15 percent are not accurate. FIC decided to put out a press release and speak at its user conference about data that was extremely preliminary, based on a small sample size, and not statistically significant.”

What happened and why was it an important event? 

The significance of the media’s reaction to the Fair Isaac report is the media’s reaction itself. Within minutes of the release being issued, stories began appearing in Associated Press, Information Week, the Wall St. Journal and in other major publications. Though Kevin is correct in chastising himself and his colleagues (including me) for jumping the gun on the story, that so many of us feel there is a story about click fraud is in itself the story.

Readers have to understand how difficult it is for reporters to write about click fraud as there is very little corroborating evidence outside the information we ferret out of advertisers who complain to us about their experiences. Google and Yahoo are not known to be forthcoming with information surrounding their pay-per-click programs. Journalists rely on third-parties such as Click Forensics, ClickFacts  other analytic companies (in this case, Fair Isaac) to supply us with information which in turn we supply to you the readers.

The numbers that came out of the Fair Isaac press release generally jive with those of Click Forensics and the index maintained by the Click Fraud Network which estimated a 14.8% click fraud rate at the end of the first quarter of 2007. Hundreds of other writers simultaneously experienced the same low-watt light-bulb moment I did hoping that Fair Isaac had provided a solid set of numbers to speculate from.

Unfortunately, as Kevin wrote, it was simply speculation but, the event did point out a gaping hole in Google’s corporate awning. The press is clearly prepared to expect a 10 – 15% click fraud rate, as evidenced by the breakneck speed the story made from wire to writing to print. Perhaps that is the biggest reason for the second important event from last week.

Google to Close Low-Yield MFA Accounts

Google is sending closure notices to owners of low conversion “Made For AdSense” (MFA) sites. On Friday afternoon, reports that Google issued polite emails informing several owners of MFA type sites that their AdSense accounts are going to be terminated on June 1 began surfacing at WebmasterWorld.

Google is targeting a large group of people who use the AdSense system to scam money from advertisers. Some reports have suggested Google is going after the paid-search arbitrage community though others point out that though many (if not most) arbitragers are going to be affected they themselves were not the actual issue Google is dealing with.

Google is moving to close what are called “MFA” sites. Examples of MFA sites include parked domains, misspellings and faux-search engines, all of which tend to have AdSense advertising on them. When users go to or are somehow driven to those sites, those who click on the ads make the site owner (and Google) a little money. Though clicks on these sites might only be worth 5 – 10 cents, the Internet allows MFA site owners to run businesses based on huge volumes of purchased and misdirected visitors. On average, MFA site owners make a few hundred per month on their sites though in some cases, site owners can be making tens of thousands of dollars per month.

Obviously, this use of the AdWords and AdSense programs were far healthier for the MFA site owners (and Google’s bottom line), than they were for advertisers or Internet users. For most, the halcyon days of MFA are over and those webmasters will have to adapt to the new rules surrounding ad distribution through the AdSence program.

As for Google, if cleaning up the system makes advertisers more comfortable over the long-run, it makes far more sense for Google to forgo what is to them a relatively minor revenue source in order to create a more stable advertising environment. Assuming Google successfully removes MFA sites from its system, it will have moved a long way towards cleaning up a highly lucrative arena for click fraud.

Google Universal

The third and perhaps most interesting thing Google did last week was the introduction of the Google Universal results. In a nutshell, Google Universal is about tying many of the multiple search indexes Google maintains into one coherent set of results.

Google literally has over a dozen types of search result available, depending on the type of search each user conducts. Google Universal is their first major attempt to bind all search types into an overarching set of results.

A good contemporary example might be the recent recall of pet foods across North America . This is a topic of extreme interest to pet owners, one that has received a high level of attention from news, governmental and consumer organizations.  A search conducted for “pet food recall” might bring up results from general search, news, YouTube videos, radio reports, shopping search results, etc… Under Google’s old system, a user would have to perform specialty searches to find information kept outside of Google’s general search results. Google Universal should change that by bringing other file formats into what the user will perceive as the general search results.

Google Universal is probably the biggest change made to Google results since the introduction of paid advertising five years ago. The move was made by Google to present a wider array of file types to users. It is a logical change that will have sweeping effects throughout the search marketing industry. SiteProNews will carry fuller coverage of Google Universal later this week.

Last week was one of the most significant and startling weeks in Google’s history. From an outsider’s perspective, it appears Google is taking serious action to improve its services on several fronts. Its greatest weakness is the specter of click fraud, as evidenced by the speed at which the media bit the hook dangled by the Fair Isaac press release. It is prepared to forgo revenues in order to clean up its system and is working to integrate richer media into its general search results. Any one of the three stories could have provided months worth of material for writers in the search marketing space. Together, they provide a clearer indication of Google’s greatest fears and best intentions. This is likely to be another interesting week watching Google.

Author:  Jim Hedger is the Executive Editor of