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'Please ignore the cash machine behind the curtain'

Internet Security Threat Report 2014

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The same logic applies to the Google "content network," a collection of third-party websites that ties into the AdWords program. In addition to serving ads onto its own search site, Google serves them onto other sites, offering those sites a cut of the AdWords pie.

Sergey Brin

Google co-founder Sergey Brin

In this case, ads aren't matched to keywords. They're matched to a site's content, and ultimately, it's Google that decides what's a match and what's not.

Many advertisers have great success on the content side. There are valid reasons to drive ad traffic through third-party sites. But it's a very different game than pure search advertising. People browsing content sites aren't actively searching for anything. They're just reading. This means that click-through-rates and conversion rates are often much lower. And since Google has complete control over matches, it's even harder to control where ads show up and where they don't.

Nonetheless, when advertisers sign up for AdWords, they're automatically included in the content network. And again, many don't realize it. They think they're bidding for nothing but keywords, when in fact they're bidding for placement on third-party content sites as well.

"All new search campaigns are automatically run on the Google content network unless an advertiser opts out," Google told us. "Contextual targeting is an extension of search advertising. Just as users can search for keywords on Google and see ads related to those keywords, visitors to content network sites can see ads related specifically to the content they are viewing on a web page."

Using something called "smart pricing," Google automatically tweaks bids for use on the content network. But once again, this doesn't always work in the advertiser's favor. "Google says that smart pricing will figure it all out, taking your search bids and turning them into content bids," says Aaron Wall, another well-known search marketing consultant. "But if you don't take the time to separate those bids, a lot of times you're going to get hosed."

"I do feel like Google duped me into the content network."

Chances are, an advertiser will inadvertently serve ads onto sites that have nothing to do with their ads. And by the time they realize this is going on - sometimes months down the road - they've already burned some serious cash. Six months passed before MuleSource's Rosenberg discovered that a majority of his ads were being served onto content sites, and a good portion of these sites clearly had nothing to do with his product.

In fact, many of the sites were obvious domain parkers, sites that do nothing but make money from ads. "You could tell just from their names," Rosenberg told us. These domain names included "1000jogos.com," "23qqw.cn," and "193.164.132.164."

"I do feel like Google duped me into the content network," Rosenberg, who spent close to $7,500 a month before discovering his ads were appearing on the content network, said. "You can get completely screwed - unless you go in and exclude irrelevant sites manually for every campaign you run." And of course, if you don't make such exclusions, Google reaps the benefits.

Security and trust: The backbone of doing business over the internet

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