Back in March, I wrote about a great friend and good human being who, like I, had been deemed undesirable by Google, banned without the opportunity to make a defense and without a chance to rectify the (unknown) errors of our ways. We were Guilty Until Proven Innocent.
Seeing the treatment he received, it was hard not to see Google as not just a monopoly but a socialist state, where right and wrong are defined in secret and applied with subjectivity and prejudice, creating an effective but flawed system for any who skate too close to the edge risk not just falling in but getting sucked to the bottom of an advertising blackhole, smashed by the weight which is the Google system. For me the ban certainly felt embarrassing, but the emotional distress couldn't compare to the financial impact that my great friend suffered, who as a result of his ban had an overhead that he couldn't pay. It isn't as though his business was designed purely for Google, i.e. not an arbitrage play that only works with AdWords , but having watched him struggle for the past six months trying to gain scale on the other search properties, it merely reinforces the dominance Google has achieved and the sway they hold over many businesses wanting to do business online.
Unfortunately, rarely a day goes by where I am not reminded of my ban, and so it was when quite a few of my friends sent me a link to a NY Times article published on the 12th of September titled, "Stuck in Google's Doghouse." The story describes the challenges of Sourcetool.com, a one-time multi-hundred thousand dollar a month business to business directory and AdSense publisher. Those who have operated in the space for any appreciable time or followed enough of the landscape will find no surprise in hearing Sourcetool's outcome, that his profitable business evaporated with the rollout of Quality Score.
His site was algorithmically punished, his bids raised from the five and ten cents he had paid to lows of one dollar. When trying to receive insight into what for him must have been a devastating situation, Sourcetool's owner, Dan Savage received the all too familiar cut and paste vacuousness from customer service, namely "Your landing pages will continue to require higher bids in order to display your ads, resulting in a very low return on your investment. Therefore AdWords may not be the online advertising program for you." Two days later, in another e-mail message, Mr. Savage received the final blow, "Please refrain from repeatedly contacting our team." Luckily for Mr. Savage, he wasn't banned from advertising, his site was simply deemed of low quality. There's a big difference, but in all respects the outcome is the same.
The litany of unofficial evidence suggests far more people have found themselves unable to improve their Quality Score, despite the guidelines of Google's system that would suggest otherwise. The author of the article points out, "Though nobody at Google would say so directly, I got the distinct impression that Google thought Mr. Savage was practicing a form of ad arbitrage with his site. He did, after all, bid on search terms and make his money on advertisements on his site." While it mind sound simplistic, it gets at the very heart of the Google machine.
When sitting in the audience at a panel recently, I listened to a presentation from the CEO of Vitals.com, one of the more intriguiging lead generation plays, a consumer site designed to help match doctors and people. (As an aside, they have stayed out of the obvious model of selling leads to doctors). In the presentation, the CEO spent a fair amount of time emphasizing the value they bring in the process, how for as helpful as Google is a search engine, it will have gaps in certain areas.
One seat over from me sat a Google employee, and while you could see the strained expression when the Vitals.com CEO spoke of any shortcoming in Google, he did nod his head rather emphatically when the discussion of how an intermediary must add appreciable value to the user, especially if there is a commercial intent to the site. Mr. Savage's site had real content and real value, but it made the mistake of leveraging the content purely for advertising clicks. Had he not had all his traffic go to AdSense, he probably would have fared better in the initial Quality Score. Unfortunately, once banned (even in this case if it wasn't a "ban"), forever scorned.
Google, though, has little incentive to share concrete information regarding what would do well in its system. They don't want to give people insight into how to cheat. If they have determined that a site's business runs counter to the Google dictum, they will work on keeping not just that site out but that person. Once a cheater, always a cheater in the eyes of Google - or in the eyes of the algorithm. As a result, Google's examples and blog posts tend to tell more about who will get punished than what you can do to get rewarded.
It is hard for me, though, not to identify heavily with one other point made by the article, "But it is also true that people like Mr. Savage, who are demonstrably
not bad guys, find themselves in Google’s doghouse and then can’t even
get the company to respond to them. Is it any wonder that they feel
treated unfairly by a ruthless monopolist? What makes it worse is that
Google simply refuses to acknowledge that its algorithms could ever be
wrong. Could Google really treat its own customers so shabbily if it
faced true competition?"
For someone like myself, we understand that the system works by flagging a larger amount of false positives than it theoretically should. With the NYTimes piece, others are starting to understand the danger it poses for the sancticty of the system and future health of online advertising, one where all parties are created equal and everyone has a chance at redemption, where redemption doesn't depend on corporate strenghth and ability to influence the system. If only Google's fit that mold.
Now, that my focus in on LeadsCon, my search activity will not resemble that activity which caused my account to be flagged. At least Google hasn't told me to stop contacting them. They simply don't reply.