Google shafts blogger, adds gagging clause to Adsense

Your First Amendment rights are violating our contract…

Google has added a gagging order to its Adsense Terms and Conditions in an attempt to quell a firestorm of controversy over payouts to participants.

Erik Thauvin, a well-known figure in the Java community and an Apple alumini [weblog], discovered his AdSense account was suspended this week, with Google owing him two months worth of revenue. Adsense is the version of Google's Adwords classified text ad technology, only geared for larger sites. In an email, the company said that it suspected fraudulent clickthroughs, a claim that Thauvin strongly denies. Google prohibits the use of spiders and robots to bump up the numbers, and even discourages users from soliciting for clicks.

"I looked at my logs and didn't see a pattern," Thauvin told us today.

Google suspended his account on Tuesday evening, hours before payment was due for two months' worth of ad revenue.

"I don't really care how much they owe me," says Thauvin. "What really bugs me is that I really don't know what I was kicked out for.

"They're basically saying you can't check it, and we're not responsible for the content either. I can't dispute their claim of invalid clicks, because there's nothing for me to dispute, I have zero info," he says. "And I don't even know how much that is exactly, because I can no longer access my account."

After fellow member of the Mobitopia site, Russell Beattie publicized the episode, Google overnight added a new clause to its Adsense Terms and Conditions, forbidding Adsense users from talking about the advertising program.

Google shrouds its Adsense business in characteristic secrecy. Users must apply for the program (Thauvin was initially turned down); and users are already forbidden from comparing clickthrough rates. However, the latest gag prevents users from discussing any aspect of the program:

"#17 Miscellaneous. Except as required by law, You may not, without Google's prior written consent, issue any press release or make any public statement about the subject matter of this Agreement or use or display any Google logo or trademark in any manner (except as otherwise provided to You by Google as part of an Ad Unit)."

Google is engaged in a battle royale with rivals Overture -acquired by Yahoo - and Sprinks for the lucrative classified text ad business. Initially welcomed as the potential savior of small websites, including blogs, Adwords payments have trickled away in recent weeks, webloggers note.

With the program shrouded in secrecy, bloggers are finding the payouts as capricious as the approvals process. "Google gets to decide what they pay you for and how much, and they can change these rates at any time," notes Beattie. Different topics get different rates. Thauvin notes that clickthroughs on the same subject fell from over $1 to 5 cents over three months.

Thauvin's site received 3.5 million page impressions from 75,000 visitors last month, which puts him under the 20 million per month that Google suggests for Adsense applicants. He thinks it is a "strong possibility that Google is removing smaller sites from the program.

"The fact that it happened on the last day of the month kinda makes me think it's an automated thing," he told us.

If Google follows its own contract to the letter, we could start seeing mass expulsions from the program as users compare information, or even simply discuss the controversy. And surely that's the one thing Google doesn't want to happen.

The giant search engine - increasingly criticized for exercising power without responsibility - had not responded to our request for comment at press time. ®

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