Feeds

Google accused of selling free clicks

'Conversion inflation syndication fraud'

The Power of One eBook: Top reasons to choose HP BladeSystem

Harvard professor Ben Edelman calls it conversion-inflation syndication fraud. We call it typical Google.

In early February, at a net-conscious conference in San Francisco, Edelman exposed one of those online boondoggles that shows you just how much Google overplays the efficiency of its web-dominating ad system.

Using a PC loaded with WhenU - a sly piece of adware along the lines of Gator or Zango - he had recently visited the website run by RCN, a US cable outfit. As he surfed RCN.com, WhenU would all but fill his display with Google ads, including one for RCN.com.

In other words, Google may be charging RCN for traffic it's already getting.

"RCN has already paid to get a user to its site - perhaps via a postcard, TV advertisement, display ad, or other paid search activity," Edelman writes in a blog post. "But then WhenU intercedes and puts a roadblock in front of that user...A typical user presented with that popup will click the RCN entry to get back to RCN and continue the signup process. But then RCN pays twice to reach a single user."

And, he argues, this false traffic may actually encourage RCN to spend more on its Google ads. "If RCN is tracking conversion rates, it will notice that this WhenU/Google placement seems to have a high conversion rate - reflecting that this ad was shown to users already on the verge of signing up with RCN," he writes. "So in all likelihood, RCN will increase its Google bid to attempt to obtain more traffic of similar (apparent) quality.

"But the supposed high conversion rate is misleading at best: Since these are users who were already at the RCN site, without any intervention by Google or WhenU, it is nonsense to credit Google or WhenU for resulting sales."

When Edelman unveiled this RCN quagmire back in February, a senior Google trademark lawyer was in the audience, and according to Edelman she promised to investigate. But three months on, the situation persists.

Google did not respond to our multiple requests for comment.

Apparently, several intermediaries sit between the Mountain View ads giant and WhenU's adware pop-up. Edelman's network monitor shows traffic passing from WhenU to LocalPages to Nbcsearch and on to InfoSpace before reaching Google. In addition to serving ads onto Google's search engine and other Google-owned sites, the company's AdWords platform syndicates ads to third-party search and content sites, and so many advertisers are unaware of where their ads might turn up.

As Edelman pointed out, this is just one example where Google ads may force sites to pay for redundant traffic. In turning a blind eye to typo-squatting, Google allows all sorts of parasitic web middlemen to siphon traffic away from legitimate sites. The middlemen may return the traffic - but at a price.

If an unsuspecting web surfer attempts to visit Comcast.com but leaves out an "o" when typing in the url, Edelman points out, they'll be taken to cmcast.com. And, yes, cmcast.com includes a Google ad that links back to Comcast.

But in some cases Google may create redundant ad traffic without a middleman. When you type stuff into the main address bar on Google's Chrome browser - the so-called Omnibox - it likes to suggest Google searches. You may be typing a url, trying to visit a site directly, but Google will still suggest a Google search. As Edelman shows, if you begin to type "Expedia.com," the first suggestion is "Search Google for expedia." And if you search Google for expedia, you get an ad for Expedia.com.

"Omnibox makes it so easy to run a search and it makes it somewhat harder to run a direct navigation," Edelman tells The Reg. "Chrome is encouraging you to search. That's in Google's interest. But is that in your interest? Is it in the advertiser's interest?

"All these examples stand for the same proposition: Google is taking something that advertisers should be getting for free for all rights, and they're bundling it up, packaging it, being a little bit sneaky about the whole thing, and telling advertisers they have to pay for it."

The point here is that the realities of Google's ad platform don't match the company's pitch - as we've pointed out before. The way Google tells it, its "advertisers pay what a click is worth to them." But advertisers don't really know what a Google click is worth. And in some cases, they're paying for nothing. ®

Top three mobile application threats

More from The Register

next story
Stick a 4K in them: Super high-res TVs are DONE
4,000 pixels is niche now... Don't say we didn't warn you
BBC goes offline in MASSIVE COCKUP: Stephen Fry partly muzzled
Auntie tight-lipped as major outage rolls on
Philip K Dick 'Nazi alternate reality' story to be made into TV series
Amazon Studios, Ridley Scott firm to produce The Man in the High Castle
iPad? More like iFAD: We reveal why Apple fell into IBM's arms
But never fear fanbois, you're still lapping up iPhones, Macs
Amazon Reveals One Weird Trick: A Loss On Almost $20bn In Sales
Investors really hate it: Share price plunge as growth SLOWS in key AWS division
Bose says today is F*** With Dre Day: Beats sued in patent battle
Music gear giant seeks some of that sweet, sweet Apple pie
There's NOTHING on TV in Europe – American video DOMINATES
Even France's mega subsidies don't stop US content onslaught
You! Pirate! Stop pirating, or we shall admonish you politely. Repeatedly, if necessary
And we shall go about telling people you smell. No, not really
Too many IT conferences to cover? MICROSOFT to the RESCUE!
Yet more word of cuts emerges from Redmond
prev story

Whitepapers

Implementing global e-invoicing with guaranteed legal certainty
Explaining the role local tax compliance plays in successful supply chain management and e-business and how leading global brands are addressing this.
Consolidation: The Foundation for IT Business Transformation
In this whitepaper learn how effective consolidation of IT and business resources can enable multiple, meaningful business benefits.
Application security programs and practises
Follow a few strategies and your organization can gain the full benefits of open source and the cloud without compromising the security of your applications.
How modern custom applications can spur business growth
Learn how to create, deploy and manage custom applications without consuming or expanding the need for scarce, expensive IT resources.
Securing Web Applications Made Simple and Scalable
Learn how automated security testing can provide a simple and scalable way to protect your web applications.