Deceptive AdSense Ads Worse Than Click Fraud

Much has been written about the dangers posed by click fraud on the Google advertising products, and how Google has taken steps to address the problem.  Click fraud, however, is only one of the ways for webmasters to defraud advertisers of money.  I will detail another way in this post.  The technique is already widely known among webmasters who use AdSense (and, indeed, sometimes I wonder if Google doesn’t encourage it).  If you’re spending money on the Content Network, you also need to understand it so that you can cut your losses when appropriate.

A bit of back story: recently, I bumped by spending on the Content Network up by 30%, to the “several hundred dollars a month” range.  As you might imagine, at 9 cents a click (bingo cards aren’t the world’s most competitive niche) this means I was getting a virtual torrent of traffic.  During my daily check of the summary statistics (a habit I suggest you get into after major changes to AdWords — in normal operation once a week is fine), I noticed that my click-through rate (CTR) on the content campaign had skyrocketed from 1% to 15%.

That couldn’t possibly be natural.  Remember, an AdSense ad is, by definition, being shown to someone who is at least partially interested in something related to your product but has not expressed any interest in being sold to yet.  (Folks on Google frequently have expressed an interest with their search queries, such as buy bingo card creator, which is why CTRs are orders of magnitude higher there.)  As such, you should expect CTRs to be much lower than on AdWords ads — dropping from 8-10% for a really good AdWords ad to about .5-1% or so for AdSense on most sites.

However, site design can have a major influence on how effective a site’s ads are at getting clicked.  Google recognizes this and teaches some of the tricks to optimize the ads (which, after all, makes them money): blend the ads into your site, place the ads where they are likely to be clicked, etc.  However, they have an anti-fraud policy for sites which toe the line, because using certain techniques to get the ads clicked on results in non-interested surfers clicking them, and that costs advertisers money and drives them away from the service. 

Since web pages are made to be scanned, anything that causes your eyes to be drawn toward an ad but away from its content causes your click-through rate to soar.  One previously common tactic, which is now banned, was to line up images with the advertisements in order to suggest to visitors that the links provided explanations for the images.  This resulted in quadrupling CTRs for the ads.  Since the AdSense equation is

Revenue = (traffic) * (# of ad units) * (CTR) * (cost per click) * (percentage Google gives you)

that quadrupled revenues for participating webmasters.  I’m strongly tempted to say “unscrupulous webmasters”, because once the visitor realizes they’ve been had they’ll be on the back button without a second thought, costing the advertiser money without giving them any chance to pitch their products to an interested customer.  That is, of course, the entire point of the excercise.

So that is the old scam.  Here is the new hotness: using CSS and HTML, organize your website in the fairly typical sections-broken-by-heads style.  Then, optimize your CSS such that the section travels off the page, with the clipping at a common resolution (800×600 or 1024×768) happening in such a way as to cut off the legitimate content and thereby give your visitors the impression that the ad is the content promised in the section headings. 

There are at least eight sites which are using this technique in the quite non-competitive bingo card niche.  I have taken a screenshot of one site which I thought was iconic.  (Editor’s note: After first posting this, the author of that site got in touch with me and said the placement was accidental.  I have no particular reason to disbelieve him, as inspection of his other pages shows a variety of ad placements.  I’m afraid that accident doesn’t explain the other sites, though.  I am keeping the pictures up to demonstrate the general tactic, but have edited the remainder of this post to be less accusatory of his site in particular.)  You really have to see it in full-screen glory to appreciate the effect.  That screenshot is about 255kb and shows the site in default IE7, but if you wanted to be really devious you can use CSS hacks to make it work equally well in all browsers at once, using pixel perfect layouts and a bit of elbow grease.  I have obscured the “branding” of the site, and have obscured the ads of my competitors to avoid associating them with it.  (If you happen to be a competitor of mine, drop me an email and I will happily give you my list of sites which are using these strategies, or you can make your own as described below.)

Here is a close up on the main content area of the page.  Again, you really should look at in in context — the actual CONTENT here is invisible until you scroll.  Unsophisticated visitors miss the distinction between the blended links and the advertisements (which happen to have quite similar titles) and click on the ads instead of the file links.  Click to see the expanded version.

AdSense Manipulation

Remember, the site does not actually show that content in the middle unless you scroll down to see it — and even with the content there, it is easy for an unsophisticated Internet user to click on the ads thinking they are getting the promised downloads. 

And click they do.  From my statistics, roughly 16% of the visitors of that page clicked on my one, single advertisement.  Given there were five advertisements, a click in my niche costs about a dime, and Google splits somewhere in the general neighborhood of 50-50 with webmasters, we can guestimate their revenue per thousand visitors using the above formula:

Revenue = 1000 * 5 * .16 * .1 * .5 = $40 CPM.  (Edit: The site owner suggests that he is earning $7.50 CPM for the site as a whole.  I don’t have access to his console, but I think my estimate is closer than his for pages which employ this technique.)

Sorting the list of the hundreds of advertisers I am paying, and ignoring ones for whom small numbers distort results, it seems like a more typical CPM for an honest advertiser in my niche is about $2.50.  So its fairly obvious why breaking the rules is so attractive — a single page with less than 1k impressions a day could generate something like $12,000 a year. 

And when I say generating, I mean “taking it from the advertisers”.

Most business owners understand the economics of advertising a product, but a brief review for the peanut gallery: I sell a $25 product, of which $24 is profit.  (It helps to be in software, the gross margins are quite healthy.)  The primary goal of having a user visit my page is to get them into the free trial of the software, which convinces about 2.5% of them to convert (i.e. buy), getting me my $24.  Thus, it is rational for me to spend anything less than $24 * .025 = 60 cents (at the margin) to achieve one trial being downloaded.

I have reason to suspect, given a year of data, that the attractiveness of my website and sales proposition should convince about 22% of interested visitors to take the trial for a spin.  Given that clicks in my niche cost about 9 to 11 cents each, this gives me an average cost of about 36-43 cents per trial download (it bounces around on a daily basis).  As 43 is less than 60, that means I am mildly profitable, with not too much room for error (if my conversion rate decreases to 2% and my cost per trial rises a few pennies I’m not making money anymore).

Bamboozling visitors to click on my ads hurts me more than errors ever could.

When an unsophisticated Internet user clicks on the “Create Bingo Cards” link thinking “This is step #1 of the 3 step process this website is pitching to me”, and then they are suddenly whisked to my very visually distinct site, they figure “Uh oh, something went wrong”.  And they immediately click the Back Button, to try to fix the mistake.  (Many of them probably click on a different ad instead, a mistake which is frustrating for them and great news for both the publisher and Google.)  As a result, it wasn’t 22% of folks coming in from these ads who actually completed a trial download, no, it was about 2%.  Which means that I was paying approximately $50 to get a sale of a $25 product — I guess I can make the loss up on volume? 

Oh, but it gets worse: Google is very, very smart about where they show your ads.  This is why they have a Content Score for the search network which prioritizes high CTR ads over low CTR ads: this maximizes money.  Google’s incentive is to maximize the number of clicks while minimizing the number of impressions,  because if they capture 100% of my budget then they want me out of the rotation ASAP so they can sell the inventory to another sucker advertiser.  This unholy, and I hope unintended, alliance of Google and the publishers using this trick sucked my budget dry within the first two hours of every day.  Google’s automated algorithms helpfully suggested I increase my spending by a factor of ten to compensate, so that instead of spending $15 a day to make $7.50 I would be spending $150 a day to make $75, for a monthly loss in the $2,000 range.

That Certainly Sucks.  What Can I Do About It?

1)  First, if you’re not in the position to routinely monitor your AdWords performance, opt out of the content network and don’t come back.  The scum sites are always one step ahead of Google, by definition, and if you’re not one step ahead of them that $2,000 a month loss could be yours.

2)  If you are in the position to routinely monitor your AdWords performance, use the Reporting feature in your AdWords console.  The report you want is Site Placement, for the previous 7 days.  Make sure you include the CTR and Cost Per Conversions columns.  Then, every day, grab your report in CSV format, and run a simple script on it to report all of the URLs where the CTR is higher than a threshold (I use 4%), the number of clicks is substantial (otherwise you’ll ban a lot of mom-and-pop sites for no good reason because 100% of their 1 visitors this month clicked your ad), and your Cost Per Conversion is greater than your profit.  (Almost guaranteed if you set your threshold right, because the only way to beat that threshold is to be exploiting your visitors, and exploited folks don’t make happy customers.)  Then, take any domain which appears on this screen, and add it to your banned list.

I am a Cygwin junkie so I do this with a gawk script every day, but if you are not a scripting wizard you can do it the longhand way, by increasing the number of rows in the visible report to 100, sorting by descending CTR (click it twice), and then visually identifying the rows that have significant number of clicks.  Then, take any domain which appears on this screen, and add it to your banned list. 

3)  If you are an engineer or product manager at Google, please, we could use some algorithmic help here.  I realize this suggestion is going to cost you money in the shortrun, but when advertisers lose money you will eventually lose money too, because they will stop advertising.  We give you all the information you need to calculate our maximum desirable cost per conversion (I have my doubts that we are intelligent in doing this, because you can use that information to screw us over royally, but business is based on a foundation of trust and for the moment I’m going to trust you).  You should provide a setting (or make it default behavior!) that ads stop appearing on any site where they transparently won’t be profitable.  I would also suggest screening sustained abnormal CTRs automatically for fraud or Terms of Service violations. 

4)  If you find a website which is abusive in their ad placement, you can complain to Google.  Realistically, I think they value algorithmic solutions over manual ones so much that you have zero hope of being heard (and they have to — they got to being a gazillion dollar company by NOT having to pay a human to deal with the little shrimp with the $15 a day advertising budget).  But if it makes you feel better, here is the link.

[Note: This post has been edited, as the author of the pictured site disputes my characterization of it, and claims that the effect was accidental.  As I have no particular reason to disbelieve that, and his other pages do not appear to be exploitative, I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt and have edited this post to remove accusations directed at his site specifically.  The technique, however, is being used by multiple sites and it strains credulity to think that eight people independently accidentally developed cross-browser compliant CSS and liquid layouts to achieve this effect.]

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13 Comments on “Deceptive AdSense Ads Worse Than Click Fraud”

  1. Brandon Says:

    Very nicely presented article. Only thing that I’d say is that I’ve actually had very good luck with Google responding when I’ve had minor problems with their services. Specifically maps and mail.


  2. I think this is where cost per action will work well, you only pay when the prospect downloads a file.

  3. Phil Says:

    “And when I say generating, I mean “stealing it from the advertisers”.”

    That seems a little strong (disclaimer, one of my businesses runs on AdSense). I don’t think the sites are the ones to blame here as much as Google. Google is paying the site essentially to give prominent placement to it’s ads. Google themselves make the ads look like normal page content, and allow the skinning of the ads to further camouflage them. Advertisers are encouraged to write content that does not seem “ad like”. The whole idea is set up from the get go for this kind of thing to happen.

    At that price range, site owners are HIGHLY motivated to get the ads clicked on. Personally, I think Google should ban sites that offer no legitimate content besides ways to drive AdSense, and should have someone personally looking at sites before they allow AdSense to be used on them.


  4. You obscured the branding of the site, but you left the URL visible in the URL bar. I’m not sure if that was intentional or not.

  5. Mike Says:

    I would say that stealing is an appropriate term. Most advertisers don’t even realize what is happening on the content network. I’m surprised any advertisers uses this program.

    Now as for the word. Stealing is an action where something is acquired without exchanging for it. In a store, the exchange is n the form of money. When it’s a service, the exchange is the product of the service itself. In advertising, it is a lead. These clicks are not leads, they are mistakes, hence no exchange has taken place. So it is is tantamount to stealing.

    Great article for exposing the scum.

  6. David Says:

    While I very much agree with much of what is said in this blog, I think the website you took this from was a bad example in general. You would also have to search the entire website to find another such example like that one. Furthermore the eCPM of this website is $7.50 which means you exaturated by more than 5 times in the article.

    We love building these templates. The templates are free.. We have received 100’s of thank you email – and until today’s article no ONE SINGLE NEGATIVE email about our website. Checkout those Bingo templates they allow you to create multiple Bingo sheets in random configurations in just seconds and do so for free. Other websites charge a $10 monthly fee for something we were happy to build for free.

    On a final note the website doesn’t make any money at all. The cost of the website is still more than the website earns from Google Adsense. We do it because we like building them.. That is all there is to it.

    I do agree with much of what is said in this article and I have accidently clicked ads a time or two which is frusterating.. I would rather use banners running up and down accept that the design of the website isn’t quite right for it..

    I will be happy to change this particular ad – but you will notice on many of our pages we have NO ADS and on most we have only one ad..

    – David

  7. Rex Doris Says:

    Just one problem here… It seems that the person that started this blog runs a bingo related website and is just upset that this particular one is giving away similar services free of any charge. Your tactic to disrupt this website which is in fact presenting a product for free that does work is far more unethical (I tried their Bingo PDF file after reading the last blog to see for myself). If you were truly objective this would not have been the website you would have selected as it is a poor example of what you are trying to state.

  8. Chuck Burns Says:

    WOW!,
    What a great article.
    I have no interest at all in Bingo Cards.
    I am a budding entrepreneaur(sp) at 62. Just starting my online business venture with an eBook. Next will set up some affiliate sites. I don’t have a clue what I am doing but am learning tons everyday.

    As I said, no interest in Bingo but, I will be checking your site to read YOU. Excellent article.
    You seem to have a lot of knowledge and express yourself very well. Please give us more about the marketing/business side.
    Thanks , Chuck

  9. Chris Says:

    Great article. I’m getting read to start testing the AdSense waters and it would seem I have a bit more to learn still. I’ve done a little in the past, but never really put the effort into it. I love the gawk reference. Between sed and awk you can accomplish amazing things. Keep up the writing both here and over at the Business of Software forums.

  10. Patrick Says:

    Rex, I have no problem with people giving away free bingo cards. I do it myself: http://www.bingocardcreator.com, click on the link in the main title bar for Free Printable Bingo Cards which will take you to exactly what it says it will take you to.

    What troubled me is exactly what I said troubled me: the site appears to be designed to maximize advertising revenue (which is money which comes directly out of my pocket) by directing its users to click on ads to get the free bingo cards. When clicks on ads happen, the site is emphatically NOT free.

    David: I received your mail earlier but haven’t had a chance to read it yet (not accessible on this system). If you requested a response I’ll try to get to it later. If your placement of the ads was accidental, I apologize for lumping you in with the scammers and will edit the post to reflect that. Unfortunately, there are several sites using this strategy and while I’m generally charitably inclined I can’t credit an accident for all of them.


  11. […] Deceptive AdSense Ads Worse Than Click Fraud « MicroISV on a Shoestring (tags: blog adsense seo) Share and Enjoy: These icons link to social bookmarking sites where readers can share and discover new web pages. […]

  12. Chui Says:

    Dang, bingocardcreator.com has gone offline.

  13. Patrick Says:

    Appears to look good over here, Chui.


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