Obviously, the Loren Baker / Search Engine Journal story about Google possibly helping fund terrorists groups by displaying ads on terrorist sites has brought about a large response. Yes, the article title is obviously designed for linkbait. Yes, it appears that the slant of the article is geared more towards the terrorist angle, merely for sensationalism, when the real meat of the story is a little more hidden because it is less linkbait-worthy.
Still, there's a lot to be discussed regarding these issues. And I say THESE ISSUES (plural) because the entire story encompasses several different issues, all of which are important. Only the terrorist angle has enough sensationalism to really catch some people's notice. But that doesn't negate the fact that there are some other important issues to discuss as well.
I just finished listening to the WebmasterRadio audio broadcast, which is only part one in a series (the only part currently available). It was an interesting broadcast, and it should be noted that although the terrorism angle was discussed, it was not the main focus, although it was the part that would raise the most eyebrows. So, while I'll give my response to that aspect of the story, I'll be responding to other important points as well…including some points that weren't brought up, but that are related – in my mind, at least. But please, if you haven't yet listened to the WebmasterRadio broadcast, go do that now, before you finish reading this post. Then come back. My remarks will make much more sense after you hear the broadcast for yourself. In addition, there are many more points made in the broadcast than those I've listed below.
The broadcast is a conversation between Jim Hedger (of WebmasterRadio.fm) and Clarence Briggs, CEO of hosting firm AIT.com, who was a lead proponent in one of the click fraud class action suits that Google settled a few months ago. The interview focuses mainly on the issue of click fraud and the use of automated botnets to perpetrate that fraud. It also deals with several other aspects, so I've listed all of them here (remember, these are the points made in the broadcast, and are not stated as facts here):
1. Click fraud and the use of automated botnets is much higher than is being reported by the search engines.
2. That although Gmail blocks IP addresses from the RBL (restricted blacklist of known spam sites and proxy servers), it does not block them from Adwords/Adsense.
3. That Google does not give advertisers any proof that the clicks that the advertisers have paid for are legitimate clicks, and advertisers have no recourse but to trust Google – despite the fact that their log files may show damning evidence otherwise.
4. That Google displays ads on sites that may be owned by terrorist groups or other criminal organizations. (Note that Orkut itself was not mentioned in this particular broadcast, but just the general use of the word "blogs" was used).
5. That domain parking using syndicated ad networks is an industry that is wrong and is essentially "stealing".
6. That at least some of these issues have been brought to the attention of the FBI and the Senate Judiciary Committee and are being investigated.
Mr. Briggs makes the case that Google could share more information with advertisers regarding proof that clicks were legitimately charged for, without giving away any "secret sauce". Obviously, without knowing what the secret sauce is, I can't make a definite stand one way or the other, but my gut tells me that Mr. Briggs is probably right. The relationship between Google and advertisers (and indeed between Google and publishers) is based purely upon the fact that advertisers and publishers must put their complete trust in Google. Webmasters are essentially playing the game blindfolded, while Google plays not only without blindfolds, but indeed with microscopes and telescopes at hand. (That's a metaphor in case anyone decides to ask how I know they use microscopes and telescopes. Sometimes, one just has to be clear about these things). Even when armed with evidence based on log files that they have been overcharged, webmasters still have to accept Google's word for it that "everything is fine". Google does not have to provide any evidence of its own. No matter how you slice and dice it, this just isn't right, and it never has been. Whether it is an advertiser refuting click charges, or a publisher wondering why he was banned, neither should be at the mercy of the almighty word of Google, without some sort of proof. Surely, as Mr. Briggs suggests, there must be something that Google can show that doesn't divulge their secret sauce.
If an advertiser's log files show that thousands of clicks from suspect IPs occurred far too fast for humans to be clicking during a certain time period, but Google says that no click fraud occurred during that time, why can't Google show why they believe that to be the case? If true, it should be easy enough to show that proof to the advertiser, without divulging any secrets, and the whole issue would be over and done with. Again, since i don't know the secret sauce, I can't be sure that they could show proof without disclosing their algorithm, but surely their geniuses can find a way, don't you think?
And if they did show proof, we would all know (without having to take their word for it) that click fraud is not a huge issue, and automated botnets really are caught by Google. Really, is it so much to ask to expect some sort of proof of this? Tell us. Show us. And we'll shut up, right? Don't tell us, don't show us, and all we can do is wander around with our blindfolds on, hoping that Google is telling us all the truth.
Ok, now, let's talk about the whole terrorist / organized crime issue. Obviously, it's been pointed out since the original Search Engine Journal article was published, that profits from Adsense ads shown on Orkut do not go to anyone other than Google, and that it seems clear that only non-profit ads are shown anyway on the terrorist example used, so that discussion is over and done with. The WebmasterRadio broadcast only discussed ads being shown on terrorist-related and organized crime related blogs, and without any urls to check out, I have no way of knowing if they exist or not. I have to assume, however, that because a publisher only has to get one site approved, and then may place code on any other site he or she chooses, that there must certainly be plenty of these types of sites around with Adsense ads on them. Whether or not paid or non-profit ads are shown, I have no way of knowing.
Still, let's make the assumption that there are terrorist-related and/or organized crime related sites out there that are indeed showing paying Adsense ads on them. How can this be stopped? The answer is a simple one, and it's one I've been talking about for a long time. The solution, in fact, would also prevent other abuses such as MFA sites that are clogging up the Internet with their useless, spammy crap, and that are causing users to become Adsense ad-blind. The solution? Rather than only approving a publisher's first site, and then letting him place Adsense ads on any other site, simply change that rule. Google should have to approve every site, before allowing a publisher to place ads on it. And then, Google should do random, periodic reviews of each and every site to be sure that the site is still approval-worthy. Sure, that takes manpower and money. But who, if anyone, has manpower and money? Google does. Google could get rid of a few extremely highly-paid employees, and hire a ton of lower-paid minions to review all Adsense publisher sites. Suddenly, you've knocked out MFA sites, because it will no longer be profitable for publishers to create them, and you've prevented ads from being run on terrorist or organized crime related sites. You've taken a huge step in preventing ad blindness, and you've made a lot of people happy. Don't tell me Google only likes to use automation. What Google says it wants to do is make users happy. If that means human reviewers, then just do it. Use your automation elsewhere.
Now, regarding the domain parking issue, I agree that it is a bit flaky and sort of falls into the whole MFA point above, but I don't have any real opinions on it otherwise, so if you have some strong opinions on it, feel free to voice your thoughts in the comments.
Finally, if the FBI and the DOJ really do make this an issue, it will be extremely interesting to see the process and outcome. I have no idea what kind of shakeup might be involved, but it seems to me that the ramifications could be huge. Or, as in so many things in life, nothing may change at all. Time will tell.
If and when future parts of the WebmasterRadio series are aired, I'll be listening and commenting on those as well.