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Google: At a Critical Crossroads

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There's no doubt that companies in hyper growth mode find that they can only do so many things well at one time. And for many of us, our interactions with Google exist as a series of 'siloed' experiences.

- We need directions; we use Google maps -- an extraordinary product.

- We want to check our mail; we read our Gmail.

- We want to upload and share a video; we post on YouTube.

- And of course, if we want to search the web; we use Google search.

I love Google. What it was, what it may be. But not what it is. And so, for the past three weeks, I've been writing a string of emails to my friends at Google. Some senior execs, some I've never met, and some with only first names. The subject line of the email was: "Google at a crossroads."

Now, it appears I'm not the only one who's been feeling some anxiety about Google's future. Larry Page seems to know what I've only sensed. That Google must connect with what he calls 'social search.'

That may be harder than it seems. Because Google has grown big fast, and the source of much of that growth is the revenue engine that has created so much wealth: Google AdSense and its sibling Google AdWords.

And as Page reaches to be more social, partners privately can only describe their interactions with AdSense as anti-social, or worse.

Google AdWords is the self-serve service that is used by millions of customers to purchase those ubiquitous text ads that now appear it seems on almost every page on the web. And Google AdSense is the service that publishers employ to place Google's ads on their pages.
Together -- they are a closed marketplace. A private ecosystem that has remained almost entirely a secret collection of business practices, constantly evolving algorithms, and opaque payment terms

But today -- the rapid expansion of web content, combined with Google's now near dominance in all aspects of web advertising, and the courts increasingly critical view of Google's dominance and lack of transparency, threatens what has been Google crown jewel.

AdSense is in trouble.

But first, some history.

In December of 2000, Los Angeles based Oingo announced the launch of AdSense -- explaining: "AdSense, a new application that delivers highly targeted advertisements online by analyzing the meanings of a user's search terms. AdSense accurately matches banner ads against the meanings of search words, effectively quadrupling current market click-through rates."

Google acquired Oingo in April 2003 for US$102 million -- with Sergey Brin saying at the time "This acquisition will enable Google to create new technologies that make online advertising more useful to users, publishers, and advertisers alike."

AdSense revenue comes from AdWords, which has an auction-based pricing model.
AdSense website publishers/owners sign up, and display Google Ads. These publishers are "Google Partners". The ads chosen by the Google-bot for display are contextual and the ads are related to the contents of the publisher's website, more specifically that particular web page. Google shares the revenue with the website publisher but the revenue sharing ratio has historically been "undisclosed ".

Almost since its launch -- AdSense has been the target of fraudsters, generating a whole variety of get rich quick schemes. In particular 'click fraud' is difficult to weed out -- and Google has worked hard to remove sites from the network that encourage or engage in clicks generated by anyone other than legitimate audience members.

And while programmatic fraud can be detected and eliminated, Google has at the same time created and modified the type of content that it will allow its ads to be placed on to become more restrictive and complex.

None of this would be newsworthy if it wasn't for the fact that Google has also been consolidating ownership of the leading advertising technology, services, and networks -- making it the largest web advertising company -- by some estimates controlling 76 percent of the search advertising market -- and by any reasonable definition a monopoly.

  • Apr 13, 2007 Google buys ad network DoubleClick for3.1 B
  • November 9th 2009, Admob for750 million
  • June 2, 2010 Google buys Invite Media70 million
  • March 2010 Google has been awarded a patent on advertisements targeted by location.

While Google's position in the market has changed dramatically since the purchase of AdSense back in 2003, its basic position regarding its role in the market remains essentially unchanged. Google's terms and conditions broadly restrict objectionable content in broad terms. In specific -- here's what Google's program policies ban:

Sites with Google ads may not include or link to:

Pornography, adult or mature content, Violent content, Content related to racial intolerance or advocacy against any individual, group or organization, Excessive profanity, Hacking/cracking content, Gambling or casino-related content. Illicit drugs and drug paraphernalia content, Sales of beer or hard alcohol, Sales of tobacco or tobacco-related products, Sales of prescription drugs, Sales of weapons or ammunition (e.g. firearms, firearm components, fighting knives, stun guns), Sales of products that are replicas or imitations of designer goods, Sales or distribution of coursework or student essays , Content regarding programs which compensate users for clicking ads or offers, performing searches, surfing websites or reading emails, Any other content that is illegal, promotes illegal activity or infringes on the legal rights of others

The list is extensive, and customers find, in practice, it is remarkably hard to discern what sites Google will and won't allow ads on. Can a travel site have Google ads if they include Las Vegas as a destination? Can a movie-related site have Google ads if they include trailers and reviews of R rated films? Can a health-related site have Google ads if they include advice about how to have safe sex or prevent STDs?

On Google's discussion boards, and in the communities of other webmasters and content site owners, there is a growing sense that Google's content-related take down notices are being generated programmatically, often inconstantly, and without a clear path to resolution or improvement of the process.

Tens of thousands of posts, most echoing a concern that they've been banned without reason, recourse, or an understanding of context.

Here's the email that one AdSense Customer received for the site OnlineTitanicMuseum.com:

Hello, While reviewing your account, we noticed that you are currently displaying Google ads in a manner that is not compliant with our policies. For instance, we found violations of AdSense policies on pages such as http://www.onlinetitanicmuseum.com/. Please note that this URL is an example and that the same violations may exist on other pages of your website. As stated in our program policies, AdSense publishers are not permitted to place Google ads on pages with adult or mature content. In addition to photos and videos which contain nudity or sexual activities, below are some other examples of unacceptable content: * Lewd or provocative images * Crude or indecent language, including adult stories * Sexual tips or advice * Sexual fetish sites (e.g. foot fetish content) * Adult toys or products *

Or this one: from rbdeli

My site: http://toygunshopper.com was said to be disabled due to containing adult, sexual or lewd content. No such content exists.

I wouldn't know where to begin to fix this misunderstanding. Google doesn't seem to provide me a way to let them know I'd love to fix the problem if I could, but there seems to be a mistake.

My site is strictly toy guns and I have no interest in adult content on any of my sites. This kind of stuff offends me.

What seems to be lost on Google is the moral that Spiderman's uncle -- Ben Parker -- bestowed upon him: "With Great Power, Comes Great Responsibility."

The content backbone of the internet relies on, and is powered by, the economic underpinning of Google advertising.

And AdSense is already the basis of advertising on YouTube, raising concerns among video makers about what happens if their video about gun control, or spoken word performance about rape triggers a ban on their account. Google's increasingly connected eco-system threatens the creation of free content, the free flow of ideas, and very open nature of the web. And while Google may not recognize this, increasingly the courts do.

Loyal Customers -- hurt and angry -- take Google to Court

Talking to Aaron Greenspan, you don't get the sense that he's much of a troublemaker.
In fact, he's the CEO of a well regarded valley tech startup. So, when he notices that a domain on his site was getting a lot of search traffic, he did the logical thing. He put Google AdSense code on the page. For a while, everything was great; then, as he tells the story:
"At 11:00 A.M. on December 9, 2008. With a single click, a faceless Google employee decided that Think Computer Corporation's membership in the AdSense program 'posed a significant risk to our AdWords advertisers,' and the account was disabled with no warning."

Clearly -- no one likes to be accused of being a 'significant risk', and in particular the charge without any specifics seems a bit like a Kangaroo court without the ability to face your accusers. Greenspan's account had $721 in unpaid revenue, and at the very least -- he wanted that.

He explains: "I offered to send Google hundreds of pages of log files to prove that no fraud had taken place, but no one replied."

He tried calling Google headquarters, and asked to speak to anyone in AdSense, or anyone in the legal department. He even tried a random number so he could be transferred to a human being. But AdSense doesn't answer the phone, or it seems, have anyone in charge.

Finally -- Greenspan got someone from Google AdWords on the phone. The conversation went like this:

"I spoke with Adam C. of AdWords. After pointing out that in the United States of America, the accused are generally given the right to know both the crimes they are being accused of, and the identities of their accusers, Mr. C. responded by saying that such thinking did not apply to Google's terms of service. Effectively, Google's position was that it was above the law."
Greenspan sued Google in Palo Alto small claims court -- and since lawyers aren't allowed in Small Claims, Google sent a paralegal. Google's position: we can cancel any account for any reason. The judge, it seems didn't agree. The quick verdict for Greenspan, $721.00 plus 40$ for court costs. Hardly a windfall, but it's rare that anyone gets AdSense before a judge - so when Google's paralegal cried: "no fair" and asked the rhetorical question -- "what if everyone who has an account closed sued AdSense?" Greenspan's answer was a curt: Maybe they should.

Greenspan isn't alone -- in fact searching the support forums for Google AdSense and you'll find an extraordinary amount of anger, and the ongoing theme of 'class action suit'. In every angry post -- the issue is simply how can the world largest internet ad company not have the resources, or the technology to explain to a customer why their account is being banned?

Here's a thread -- just one of many

Reading this you can see why Google appealed the small claims court decision in Palo Alto -- and overturned the $721 dollars that the judge said was owed to Aaron Greenspan. For Google, the issue clearly wasn't about the money. It was about the flood of unhappy AdSense customers that could have followed Greenspan into court.

Jeff Jarvis, a highly regarded blogger and author of What Would Google Do?, has been a powerful voice -- calling Google on the carpet for its secretive ways regarding AdSense. In January of 2010, Jarvis used a public forum at Davos to press them on the lack of transparency in the AdSense business. "There, Google's president of global sales, Nikesh Arora, replied that the company was reconsidering its transparency on AdSense" explained Jarvis. In May Google announced that it would reveal its formerly secret ad split. While Jarvis sees this as a move toward more openness, blogger Danny Sullivan who writes the influential SearchEngineland blog isn't so sure.

Says Sullivan: "Google's incredibly hypocritical in its failure to disclose its AdShare split. For years, the company has run a campaign that the web should be more open with data, though it's most vocal about being "open" in areas where it is behind competitively. Google's the leader in contextual ads that AdSense provides. Apparently, it sees no need to be open there."
So what's driving Google to release the ad split data? It seems that the Italian Federation Of Newspaper and Periodical Publishers asked Italy's AGCM -- similar to our FTC-- to see if Google's behavior is anti-competitive.

Certainly AdSense sharing its fee structure with customers is a good thing -- but it is worth noting that this isn't so much a change in policy, as it is trying to get ahead of a charge of anti-competitive behavior.

AdSense: Google's crown revenue jewel is broken and leaderless.

I need to share a disclaimer. I use Google. A lot. I like what they've done to empower the web, to create a new world of connected data, and to innovate in ways that we could hardly imagine. Some of my favorite people work at Google. I've had lunch at the cafeteria in Mountain View.

So -- as you read this, understand: I don't think Google is beyond hope. But I do think it's lost at sea, overwhelmed with opportunity and the speed of change. And willing to let its crowned jewel be managed by a faceless, nameless band of managers without last names or phone numbers.

Simply put -- as the web has gotten more complex, they've left AdSense on auto-pilot. There's a pattern that goes back to 2006 -- when the ad market was still fractured and competitive. But today Google owns the market. Yet as their position changed from upstart to leader, to the single most powerful force in web advertising, little changed in the way they manage their AdSense relationships. Here's the proof.

The first time it happened, I admit I thought it was kind of funny.

The email said that Google had discovered offending content on one of our 83,000 web sites. They'd suspended our ad serving. This had happened before -- always when someone had built a channel on our service and then linked to or uploaded something objectionable. In the past, the answer had been simple. Take it down. Problem solved.

But in May of 2010 -- Google sent an ominous note. They had instituted a Zero Tolerance policy -- taking down offending material would no longer be enough, it would have to never go up. And we had 3 days to remove offending material from our network or be banned for life.

So, what was the offending material? The spreadsheet from Google had about 20 items. Some were obvious, boobs and such. But there in the 20 files was a video from the band The Buzzcocks. A mistake? Of course it was. But how could we report a false positive to Google. The clock was ticking just 2.5 days -- the email said clearly: you may not respond to this email.

I sent an email to one of the senior execs I knew at Google, and included the Wikipedia link to the Buzzcocks. They were a great punk band from the 80's -- hardly porn. My friend was amused, but not optimistic. The team that caught 'bad' AdSense pages didn't like to be told they were wrong. Best to take down the band -- forever. And so, down came the band, and the boobs, and other videos of backyard fighting that Google deemed 'violent.'

We spend weeks building a complex, powerful, automated system to scan sites for dirty words, offending topics, nasty key words, and then scrubbed what was then almost a billion media content items. Then, proudly, we were back on AdSense. Problem solved. Or so we thought.

That lasted until August.

Another stern form letter from Google. We'd been warned about this before. But, they'd found more offending files in our now billion plus video network.

Among them, an interview on The Charlie Rose Show with Marc Andreessen.
Perhaps Google didn't like Andressen I suggested to my Google friends? They weren't amused. If the algorithm had determined it was an offending file, than it must be. Remove it. A closely inspection determined a typo, Charlie Rose wasn't a 'host' in the meta data, he was a 'Ho' - ah, of course.

Now I was getting worried.

The Orwellian overload was making decisions about what could and couldn't be on the web - and sending out automated demands. Comply or be banned -- forever. No human interaction. No ability to flag for a false positive. And most troubling -- Google didn't just stop serving ads to the page, or even to the site -- they banned the entire network. Now 84,000 sites -- with topics from poetry to music to sports to skydiving.

Just how important is AdSense? Well, in 2010 it generated $2.50 billion, or 30% of total revenue. That's a staggering 22% jump from Q4 2009 revenue of $2.04 billion. And it is at this point the only monetization option for most small to midsized websites. And, it gets worse. Because the AI behind AdSense is putting ads on YouTube, and soon will be running the Ads on Google TV, and also powering revenue on Android devices.

AdSense is -- in many ways -- the core of what Google is.

Today - it runs without a visible leader, or any attempt to engage its users, or most critically -- to learn from its mistakes.

"I Can't Let You Do That Hal" keeps echoing in my ears. A robot out of control.

So, What Happened To AdSense?

What has happened, as best as I can surmise from what my sources tell me, is that AdSense isn't a cool gig for up and coming Googlers. It's the cash cow. It's trying to put ads on 'clean' pages -- but the actual definition of what Google says is clean is hard to pin down. No gambling. No extreme violence. No sex. No pirated content. And most disturbingly; no bad words. What does that mean? It means that absent an understanding of context (which is an AI challenge that's yet to be met) a site about breast cancer is as likely to be banned as I site about naked breasts.

What can Google do?

We've reached a moment where the volume of content on the web is swamping algorithms. Noted Mashable blogger Pete Cashmore writes on CNN of the coming "Google-fatigue" in a column that proposes that human curation is one the rise. And while Google goes to great length to keep its AdSense customers out of the equation, sites like FaceBook are now inviting users to dismiss ads, and report objectionable or poorly targeted ads to them. Their ad network is learning from customers. Google is not.

Who at Google is reading the page after page of AdSense publishers who've been banned, each for seemingly unclear and un-appealable reasons? Are these all click-fraud criminals? Or more likely, web publishers struggling with the same challenges that Google faces in an era of overwhelming data?

It's worth noting that Google doesn't hide all its executives. The head of YouTube is well known, as is the head of Google TV and executives like Marissa Mayer are regulars at industry events and functions.

But AdSense, with a full 30% of the company's revenues under its command, is run by an unknown executive, and customers who request reviews of decisions are funneled into a faceless 'star-chamber' process with responses that come from The AdSense Team. Or emails with first names only and no return email.

I reached to Google Public Relations with what I thought where three straight forward questions.

  1. Who runs AdSense?
  2. Was Neel Meehta fired? (he was the last AdSense executive I had contact with, his emails now bounces with no forwarding address).
  3. Was AdSense 30% of Google revenue in 2010? (hadn't been announced yet)

That I got a response at all was encouraging. But the response itself, like Google's response to publishers, was a canned sound bite:

"We can't comment on specific publishers, but our policy is that publishers aren't permitted to place Google ads on sites that contain adult content. We also give our publishers multiple avenues of recourse when their content is found to be in violation of our policy, including time to fix the violation and an appeals process."

"Regarding web search, many Google users prefer not to have adult sites included in their search results. Google's SafeSearch screens for sites that contain this type of information and deletes them from your search results" said Andrea Faville, a Google spokesperson.

Of course, that doesn't answer the question.

What Should Larry Do Next?

Google's culture has been that the algorithm can drive everything. But in the fast moving world of the social web -- the content needs to be seen in context.

Google needs to embrace curation, the concept that technology can't alone discern what's objectionable or valuable. Our peers, friends, and respected thought leaders are going to be part of our personal filter to help us find signal in the noise.

Google needs to have a corporate cultural intervention. No customer should be fired without clear cause, without an explicit explanation of what they've done to break the rules, and a path back to Google's good graces.

While Facebook is asking its customers to explain why they find an advertisement objectionable, Google is banning the partner -- for life.

Customers are Google's greatest strength -- but without engagement and transparency -- they're going to find they've lost trust. Once that happens -- then there's a real opportunity for competition.

Finally -- Google needs to embrace content. The shift of the web from static pages to a fast moving stream of endless data abundance has swamped current search, and the ability of individuals to engage in what matters to them. Facebook, Twitter, and curatorial readers like FlipBook have replaced search for certain kinds of information. But it's early days. Curation is still an emerging editorial art form -- and the future curators are still in College, or working out of their garage. They're not on Google's Mountain View campus. They should be.

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