AdWords “Security Patdown” Got You Down? It Could Be Worse


No one likes to be the victim of a false positive. Every time you’re “randomly” searched in an airport, you curse under your breath and silently rail against the excessive security. Of course you would, because it’s happening to you. But at a system level, we all agree that we have to do anything we can to keep bad guys from hijacking planes or transacting the kind of business that leads to drug wars and general lawlessness that affects our daily safety.

I feel so strongly about that principle, I’ve taken it upon myself to barge into one-sided forums demanding the banning of airport pat-downs. There are some incidents and false positives, of course, but the answer is not to persecute hard-working security personnel or to make it really easy to wander onto an airplane with a weapon. All you can do is try and make the system better while minimizing some of the inconveniences.

I stated that case in one of those forums, and seconds after doing so, received an email invite implying that I should go join a “Nazi” forum. O-kayyy… surely there must be some balance between considering airport security trivial and the other extreme of living in a police state. You see travelers dress down security personnel all the time, when they’re just doing their jobs. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a single one thanked.

Analogously, there are considerable inconveniences in having an AdWords ad, account, or related site sit in a queue for awhile while Google decides that you’re not a criminal. But to put it in perspective, few have had to enrol in extensive counseling to deal with the trauma. It’s annoying, but the alternative is a bigger nightmare — the specter of a search engine space full of junk, where you can’t get seen because users have given up trusting most of the ads.

Sometimes, then, Google’s automated and human “scam-spotting” activity can affect a legitimate business. More rarely, it can make it impossible for a legitimate business to grow and flourish. In the affiliate and arbitrage marketing communities, and the “info product and aggressive offer” spaces to boot, this security regime has sometimes been trivialized by calling it the “Google Slap.” While it’s true that Google includes some of these kinds of businesses in its policy list of business models that may have trouble showing up in the AdWords system, what it’s trying to protect consumers from can actually be a lot more sinister than that. This runs the gamut from deceptive offers to out-and-out scams: phishing sites, malware, ripoffs, illegal or criminal activity, and more.

Many advertisers aren’t up to speed on the depth of Google’s effort in this area. I just had the opportunity to chat with David Baker, Director of Engineering, Advertising, at Google. He provided some additional insight into some of what’s behind today’s update on the official Google blog covering Google’s editorial and consumer protection activities in the AdWords program.

Unfortunately, the magnitude of the effort is much greater now than it was five to six years ago. “My sense is that there was a dramatic uptick in ‘bad’ and scam type ads in 2008 and 2009,” said Baker.

When consumers are duped or even defrauded, they may point the finger at Google. But more importantly, constant vigilance in upholding standards of trustworthy advertising is needed so that users don’t become gun-shy about clicking ads. Baker noted: “Success in this (editorial and consumer protection in terms of ad and account approval) area is Google’s greatest opportunity for increased revenue. It’s important to us that end users trust the ads.”

As pointed out in the blog post, Google increasingly relies on sophisticated pattern matching and machine learning to look for potential red flags at three levels: the ad, the site, and the account. This is combined with human intervention where serious violations are likely. From here, accounts can be suspended or closed, ads can be disapproved, or all accounts can be blocked from sending any traffic to specific sites.

This is to the extreme end of the continuum of vigilance that incorporates Landing Page and Website Quality into overall Quality Scores. If advertisers were looking for cues as to the degree to which minor user experience and relevancy problems are going to be factored into their Quality Scores and ad eligibility, in my judgment, Google currently has a “fish to fry” problem that is forcing it to devote many resources to playing “whack-a-mole” with the worst offenders. Minor website issues will not typically be a problem for Quality Scores and the resulting CPC’s and ROI.

Another takeaway must be that this strain on Google’s resources may mean slow ad approvals and temporary periods where Google’s pattern matching puts you in a suspicious category. It’s natural to be outraged — “how could they take all that money from Canadian pharmacies (Google paid a $500 million fine for knowingly doing so), and then leave our ads for legitimate medical equipment in limbo for so long just because an algorithm says it overlaps to a certain extent with a suspicious category or pattern? Don’t they know it’s *us*?”

Unfortunately, there are a lot of “us’s” and too few humans at Google (even with a significant increase in resources) to offer speedy approvals at all times. Google may decide to err on the side of consumer protection rather than reducing friction for advertisers.

That being said, Google dislikes any such friction. It does not wish to take steps to make it harder to advertise in general. Baker noted that Google had studied “barriers to entry” like a $1,000 bond (or more), but that overall the system has been such a boon for so many small advertisers (with a hacker mentality, if you will) that it would be a shame to move to a slower-moving ad setup process.

Like many of you, I’ve seen a lot of gray-area ads since I’ve been in the business. In particular, I often feel strongly that a client is getting a raw deal from the auction in light of an unscrupulous competitor’s false claims or — if not literally ‘counterfeit goods,’ then substandard quality that makes a mockery of direct price comparisons. Some competitors also like to rip off content and ideas, even taking the family bios and histories of my client and claiming them as their own. We had one national ecommerce client whose most unscrupulous lookalike competitor was the founder’s own son.

It now seems that Google will be fighting so many battles against hardcore bad guys, it will be difficult to see much movement in any attempts to complain about lesser ripoffs. Resources aren’t infinite, and there is probably no good way to police some of it anyway.

Quite simply, that’s where consumers have to come in. When they receive shoddy goods, etc., we need them to get on various third-party sites and make their voices heard. Google will have to pour far more resources into building and policing their own review platform as well, or that will become merely another platform for gaming by bad actors. Finally, Google is building a Trusted Stores program that will presumably elevate a minority of retailers to a rock-solid status as uncommonly trustworthy.

Google willingly took on the mantle of what they call “organizing the world’s information” — a task that implies “ranking what’s best,” in the minds of many consumers. Along the way to becoming vastly successful in mediating an enormous open marketplace of ideas and commercial messages, Google has assumed a huge burden as a “certifier” of what consumers can trust. Due to the scale, it’s a job that is vastly harder than test-driving a few cars from known manufacturers. That’s why, at times, I have referred to Google as becoming almost like a government (“the guvernment“). While it may be great to be “in power”… it’s also a case of “be careful what you wish for.”

What’s amazing, given the persistence of bad guys with credit cards, is that problems with rogue advertisers aren’t much greater than they are. Google reportedly suspends or closes in the hundreds of thousands of accounts per year. A Google spokesperson also informed me today that Google routinely passes on information about suspicious parties to the legal authorities.

I’ve been working hard for years to explain this paradox. Google wants advertisers’ money, but it must often turn away money if the result will be user dissatisfaction. Legitimacy and trust are currency for a search engine. I still remember the conversation I had in a pitch meeting at a venture capital firm, for a startup I’m involved with. I tried to explain how businesses like Yelp and Google must sometimes incur the wrath of paying businesses, because their overall legitimacy depends on users, which in turn provides the basis for a large advertiser base in general.

One of the partners lectured me condescendingly: “I don’t think Google is in the business of turning down advertiser dollars.” He was wrong then, and he’s wrong now. Google often turns down a lot of specific advertiser dollars in the short run so it can make more from advertising in the long run.

Baker closed his post by noting that he will go on “fighting the good fight” against bad ads. Next time you stop by the Googleplex, maybe you could thank him — if for no other reason than to watch him fall off his chair.

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