When Google's content network lacks content
Let's go fly a kite
Just how much money does Google make from so-called "domain parkers" - those clever characters who populate countless web pages with nothing but advertising?
Judging from a recent legal attack on a small army of these clever characters, Eric Schmidt and his minions make far more than they'd like the world to know.
Earlier this week, the IDG News Service leaked word of a recent Florida court order laid down in response to a "typosquatting" lawsuit from mega-PC-manufacturer Dell Computer. Dell is suing sixteen companies you've never heard of, but the court order also involves a certain web giant based in Mountain View, California.
In October, Dell brought suit against sixteen domain registrars, claiming they're serving ads from more than 1,000 domains that infringe on Dell trademarks. According to court papers, these urls include addresses like "delcomputing.com" and "deldimension.com."
"Typosquatting is a form of cyberquatting - which essentially involves registering variations on a trademark owned by an established company and brand so that you can drive traffic to your own site," says Jeffrey Glassman, a lawyer with the California firm Moldo, Davidson, Fraioli, Seror & Sestanovich, told The Reg.
This sort of typosquatting may or may not be illegal, says tech law blogger Eric Goldman. "We don't really have a whole lot of precedent on this, so it's hard to draw any legal inferences about it," he explains. "It's still a legal gray zone."
Then, late last month, a federal judge issued a "freeze order" that put the freeze on revenue collected by these Dell's adversaries - revenue that arrives by way of Google.
You see, these Dell-like domains belong to Google's AdSense network. Google populates these sites with ads, and every time someone clicks on one, Google gets a cut.
The freeze order orders Google to shuttle a portion of the defendants' revenue into an account for safe keeping. Each month, court papers say, the first million goes into the account, while the second million goes on to the defendants. Then, if revenues top $2m, half of what's left over goes into the account and the defendants get the other half.
That's sixteen defendants, and they're potentially raking in more than $2m a month.
When we contacted Google, a spokesman declined to talk about this case specifically, but he did half-answer a few of our questions about domain parking in general. Google insists that if you complain about typosquatting on its AdSense network, it will take action.
"Regarding typo-squatting, we take trademark violations very seriously," the spokesman said, via email. "Our trademark policy specifically prohibits the use of trademarked terms. When we find or are made aware of trademark violations we take immediate action including removing ads from our system and sites from the AdSense network."
Has Dell chosen legal action over a simple complaint to Google? It's hard to tell. Dell wouldn't talk to us at all. Like Google, it doesn't normally comment on pending litigation.
Let's go fly a kite
But typosquatting is only part of the problem here. Dell's suit also claims the defendants are "kiting" domains. After registering a url, you can return it within five days for a full refund. Clever types have been known to do this time and again with the same domains, getting good use from them without actually footing the bill.
This allows domain parkers to spread their ads over a, shall we say, much larger number of sites.
The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) is working to stop on this sort of behavior, but in the meantime, it's still fair game.
Just a few days ago, Google announced that it would crack down kiters using AdSense. Was this a response to Dell's suit? Maybe, maybe not. Whatever the case, this crackdown only goes so far.
"We have long discouraged domain kiting as a practice," Google told us. "In order to more effectively deter it, on February 11 we will launch a domain kiting detection system. If we determine that a domain is being kited, we will not allow Google ads to appear on the site. We believe that this policy will have a positive impact for users and domain purchasers across the web."
A domain kiting detection system? Please. All you have to do to stop kiters is ban any url that's less than five-days-old. Plain and simple. Plus, you put an end to so-called "domain tasters" - those clever types who are simply testing the "marketability" of recently registered urls.
Why then is Google set to role out a domain kiting detection system? Refusing to actually talk to us on the phone, Google avoided giving an answer. But clearly, there's only one reason: If you eliminate all less-than-five-day-old domains, you eliminate, say we say, a fair amount of extra revenue.
But let's take this a step further. Kited urls account for only portion of all domain parking. Why doesn't Google just eliminate all domain parking from AdSense? Why not limit it's content network to sites that actually include some content?
Google not only allows parked domains. It will set them up for you. It even has a snappy name for the program: AdSense for domains.
Some have questioned whether Google is breaking the law if it coddles domain parkers using trademark-infringing domains. Gold club manufacturer Vulcan Golf filed suit against Google last summer. "This is another gray area," says Eric Goldman. "But at least one party believes Google is responsible here."
Google sees things differently: "AdSense for domains allows domain name registrars and large domain name holders to provide valuable and relevant content on their parked pages," the company says. "Parked domain pages generally have no content; however, by adding targeted ads, we hope to help users find what they are looking for."
That's right, the Mountain Viewers say they allow domain parking because they "hope to help users find what they are looking for."
Famously, Google also says "You can make money without doing evil". But that's not the only way to make money. ®