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Ad 'quality' meets scam shilling
Analysis With his ill-fated defense of Google's multi-million dollar Yahoo! handshake, chief legal officer David Drummond told Congress the search engine tie-up would rejuvenate the Yahoo! web with "better, more interesting ads." It's a common Google refrain. If you believe the party line, Mountain View's top secret advertising money machine rules the roost for one reason: an unswerving commitment to "quality" ads.
But as Google tightens its grip on the all-important search market - even without the Yahoo! pact - it's worth remembering that Google's commitment to quality goes only so far.
Take a moment to google "Acrobat" - or, better yet, "Free Acrobat." Each time you search on those semi-provocative keywords, you'll see a slightly different collection of ads running down the right hand side of the page. But chances are, no fewer than three ads - and maybe more - will offer you a free copy of Acrobat 9, Adobe's $200 PDF editing suite.
"Free Adobe Acrobat 9," one ad might say, "Instant Download of Acrobat 9.0 Latest Version. Hurry Act Now!" And if you look just below it, you may see another: "Free Acrobat 9 PDF Suite. Download Acrobat PDF Suite Now. 100% Safe, Fast, & Easy!" Each ad links to a different url - addresses like "www.PDF-9.info" or "www.Power-PDF9.com" - but they all make the same pitch.
Now click on them. You'll see that each ad points to nearly identical pages. And if you hit that big red button to get your free Acrobat 9 suite, you'll see that each site shuttles you to the same sign-up page at the same domain. And if you key your name, email address, and location into the form, you'll see that your free Adobe 9 suite isn't free. You're asked to key in your credit card number for "access and support." The ostensible fee is about $2.50 a month.
It's not just that these ads violate the Federal Trade Commission's advertising guidelines, misleading the gullible with bogus claims. It's not just that they're breaking copyright law, selling pirated software. They also violate Google's very own AdWords policies, which prohibit double ad serving.
Adobe wouldn't discuss specific ads with The Reg. But it did say this: "We are aware of many such links that are served up as part of the Adwords program which can lead consumers to unauthorized sites, often duping them into divulging identity and personal financial information - including credit card and bank account numbers.
"There are NO authorized websites other than adobe.com offering Adobe products for download. So, if a consumer is taken to a site offering Adobe products for download, it is a reasonable bet the site is unauthorized and likely pirating our software."
Though Google did not answer our requests for comment, it's well aware this goes on. Adobe and its anti-piracy trade association, the Software & Information Industry Association (SIIA), regularly flag such ads. And if piracy is involved, Google will remove them - as it's required to under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. But according to Keith Kupferschmid, senior vice president for Intellectual Property Policy & Enforcement at the SIIA, Mountain View tends to take its time.
"There's all sorts of scams and piracy going on with these sites, and we've tried to work with Google - and others; it's also a problem on Yahoo! - to get them taken down. And we've had some amount of success," Kupferschmid tells The Reg. "But our biggest complaint, especially with Google, is the amount of time it takes to take this sort of thing down. It can take upwards of three or four weeks, maybe even longer for Google to take them down.
"You can imagine the damage not only to the companies involved but to the consumers who are sucked in by these scams."
By contrast, if the SIIA sends similar takedown notices to eBay, the auction site typically responds within 12 hours - if not sooner. Sometimes, they respond within 5 minutes. "This is a good comparison," Kupferschmid said. "eBay is a very big operation."
Google is applying the same logic to its ad engine that it applies to, say, YouTube. If users post copyright-infringing material, Google will remove it - if the copyright holder makes the request.
But search ads aren't viral videos. In addition to stepping on Adobe's copyright, those bogus Acrobat ads are cheating everyday web surfers. And they're eating into the profits of legitimate advertisers. A click gained on www.Power-PDF9.com is a click lost on so many other "sponsored links." Plus, AdWords is ostensibly an auction. Bids from one advertiser boost prices paid by another.
And, unlike a YouTube video, a search ad is a direct source of Mountain View income. You could certainly argue that Google chooses to turn a blind eye because a blind eye juices profits. The Acrobat problem is just one example.
You could also argue that AdWords is far too vast for Google to police every scam ad. Kupferschmid makes this argument. But that brings us back to the Google AdWords pitch. After an ad platform revamp in early September, Google's ad coverage leapt 18 per cent during the third quarter. Profits jumped 31 per cent. And Google's Willy Wonkas said this was largely the result of certain "quality improvements."
"As far as the quality announcements [rolled out in early September], it was one of the bigger things we did in the quarter, and these things tend to manifest themselves in terms of their impact reasonably expeditiously after they're launched," Google Senior VP Jonathan "Perfect Ad" Rosenberg said during the company's most recent earnings call. "Most of the benefits of the typical quality enhancements occur very, very quickly."
So, when Google cranked the dial on its epic money machine last quarter, it did so in the name of quality. But what does quality mean? As you can imagine, "free stuff" AdWords scams have been an issue for ages. And the Adobe Acrobat keyword is hardly an AdWords backwater. We know from conversations with multiple advertisers that this particular area has been a problem for months - and that Google has received countless complaints.
Kupferschmid wonders why, at the very least, Google doesn't institute a fine for advertisers caught pirating intellectual property or scamming consumers. "That way, maybe these sites would think twice before advertising on Google," he says.
The US Communications Decency Act likely protects Google from legal action over deceptive ads. And if it responds to takedown notices, there's no consequence for posting piracy-driven ads. But if quality is Google's concern, shouldn't it go further?
Or does Google see quality in www.Power-PDF9.com? ®