What's wrong with Google AdWords

I have been using AdWords for quite a time, having setup ad campaign both for PeopleWords.com (freelance translation marketplace) and for Lokad.com (business time-series forecasting). And, being both a AdWords consumer (yes I do click on ads) and an AdWords publisher, I must say it’s quite surprising to see a company weighting hundred billions of dollars, with a business so crippled with long-lasting intrinsic issues. Please note that this post is not a complaint against Google, they are quite good at what they are doing; my point is that the AdWords business model is really weak against adversarial behaviors.

Adversarial behaviors

First, let me clarify what I mean by “adversarial behavior” here. Put very simply, it’s a situation where an actor (can be a company, an individual) does not play by the rules (can be the laws, can be ethics, can be traditions) and attempts to exploit system weaknesses for its own profit with no overall benefits for the society as a whole. I would oppose this behavior to a “constructive behavior” where an actor attempts to make profits by building wealth with a positive overall benefit for the society.

Typical adversarial behaviors includes stealing, cheating, lying. To avoid those issues, most modern societies have laws to fight those behaviors. On the web, the situation gets more complicated. Not because law does not apply to the internet (which is totally untrue) but because laws gets really complicated to enforces. For example, if you’re caught stealing 10000toyourneighbor,you′reintrouble.Butwhathappenifyou′recaughtstealing0.001 to 1,000,000 people from 30 countries over the worlds? Well most probably nothing is going to happen, because nobody is going to complain for 0.1cent.

Such situation is precisely what is causing spam. There are a lot of spammers; the impact of each spammer is low on the global scale, but all together the spammers are a real pain for everybody. E-mail as it has been designed several decades ago is super weak against adversarial behaviors. Yet, also the problem is very well known, it’s still quite easy to mess up, see the Coding Horror story about trackbacks .

The Google AdWords case

It has been quite a lot introduction, but the point I will defend here is that AdWords are almost as broken as the e-mail system to fight adversarial behaviors. Let’s review what I get for “open source ecommerce”, I have pasted below the result obtained at 2007-01-07

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Ok, what’s wrong with this listing? Actually the first result is just a blatant lie, HomeStead.com is absolutely not featuring any open source solution (just check their web site if you do not believe me). Well, try to do that on a National TV show, and I am pretty sure that you get a class action the next morning. The second ads, for GetACoder.com, is also a lie but I would say that it’s lesser lie since it can be argued that nothing prevents you to find freelancers to customize an open source ecommerce application. Google can’t be accused of willingly carrying lies, certainly they do not. Yet, they can discard their responsibility. Both Homestead.com and GetACoder.com are lying here, but their behavior is not totally adversarial, they do both provide added-value solutions for their customers.

The two next results are more subtile but also more perverted. Those two links, Linx-best.com and Yoursources.info are not real website but just a super aggregation of advertising links. Yes, they do not feature any content, they just gather a huge amount of sponsored links into a self generated web directory (I suspect the directory architecture to be actually nothing more than the Dmoz.org directory itself). Actually, what ever link you click in those websites is a sponsored link. I guess that the business idea is to buy cheap Ads from Google (notice that they are not the top results) and to sell random clicks from lost web visitor that happen to get to their website.Those trash websites represent a very significant percentage of the Google AdWords results (I would be on 20%).

Even Google is guilty

Just for fun, let’s see what we get for “make money fast” on Google (results obtained 2007-01-05). Note that the results are split in two sections, the first section being displayed before the actual search results, the second section being displayed on the side at the right of the search results.

Make Money Fast
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Well, I am quite astonished that Google put an ad titled “Make Money Fast”. To the people of marketing dpt. of Google Inc: Under-promise and over-deliver! and Don’t be evil!, anybody remember? Frankly, I will not even bother to review those links, they are all crap.As a conclusion, please don’t get me wrong, this post is not a Google bashing. Any company that will go in this direction (online automated Ad marketplace) will encounter the exact same problems. The “naive” technical solution (i.e. AdWords in its present state) is directly leading to this situation. Also no laws and no regulations will solve this situation. IANAL, but in France, I am pretty sure that there are enough laws to condemn every advertisers listed in this post.

Reader Comments (5)

I agree, nothing worse than clicking on a link and then having to click on another ad to get anywhere. Of course Google doesn’t care, they’re making money on both clicks. January 7, 2007 | David Temple

Well, knowing several people actually working at Google, I would say they DO care. They even care a LOT. It would be a bad move to shoot for such short-sighted approach to make money. They desperately need to “clean” the marketplace they created to maintain a respectable image and a positive user experience. But, for the moment, they are just overwhelmed with the intrinsic issues that plagues such kind of “social” applications. January 7, 2007 | joannes

[…] There are quite a lot of things that are just simply wrong in the IT industry nowadays, I have already discussed the case of the Google Adwords, let’s move to the subject of PAD files. […] February 12, 2007 | Joannes Vermorel’s blog

Note that “aggregation of advertising links” sites, like 10-BestSites.com are of course prohibited by Google : “# No Google ad may be placed on any non-content-based pages. # No Google ad may be placed on pages published specifically for the purpose of showing ads, whether or not the page content is relevant. " I’ve not tried to report them to Google, though. I wonder if clicking on the ads those annoying sites are paying for could take them to bankruptcy… But I’m not allowed to encourage people to click adword links ;-) February 19, 2007 | Jean-Baptiste Rouquier

[…] and unfortunately, most recent systems are just very weak against adversarial behavior (see my previous discussion on the Google case […] April 6, 2009 | Joannes Vermorel’s blog