Carve another couple names on the wall, and add another two voices to those of the tragic masses.
No, there’s no death involved, and perhaps not even anything really tragic. But as of last Thursday, Google AdSense has claimed its latest victims in the persons of my wife and myself.
A brief primer on how this service works. You have a published website. Creating a free account, you sign up for Google AdSense, whereupon you install code on your site that displays ads. Based on secret voodoo algorithms and/or the preferences of those paying for advertising, Google then tries to match up appropriate ads based on your website content, in the hopes that some of the people visiting your site will click on and visit the advertisers. Based on the amount of click traffic, you are paid an amount of money. The more clicks, the more money. No clicks, no money.
Now, I should be putting the verb “paid” in quotes when I use it, because you do not get paid immediately. The way you are compensated is that, once you reach $100 or more in your account, Google cuts you a check. $99 or less and it’s just numbers on a screen that you can’t really access… you just keep the ads running, work hard to bring more traffic your way, and watch as the maybe 14 cents a day you’re accumulating slowly ticks upwards towards the promised land.
After a year and a half, we were a little over halfway there with Zombie Ranch, and hopefully the rates would be getting better as time went on and more readers dropped by the site. However, as of a few months ago I realized that there was a giant caveat to this system: at any moment, for any arbitrary reason, it could all be snatched away. So it wasn’t a total shock, but it was still disappointing when it finally happened.
This is all part of Google AdSense’s Terms of Service, you see. If they somehow determine you to be a “significant risk” to their advertisers, they can instantly pull the plug on your account and don’t have to pay you a dime. More than that, they don’t even have to explain what happened, or why the decision was made. Your site goes on the banned list, all the money you earned is supposedly refunded to the advertisers (even if it was earned over a course of several months), and that’s that. Oh, there’s an appeal form to be filled out, but I haven’t heard from anyone where that worked.
And by anyone, I mean all the other names on the wall. Small to medium web businesses who, in good faith, worked with the AdSense system and gave up site space for months or even years, only to suddenly and inexplicably have the rug yanked. Hundreds upon hundreds, maybe even thousands, locked out of fairly earned funds because…
Well, that’s the kicker, isn’t it? None of us know why. Speculation is this is based on some sort of metric catching “invalid clicks”, like multiple clicks from the same IP. Website owners rightly point out, there is no conceivable fucking way for them to stop someone from clicking on an ad multiple times. Google either does not care, or this is not the reason. What is the reason? They won’t tell you. Ever.
I won’t go so far as to call it a scam. Many businesses do use AdSense and get money out of it, sometimes hundreds of dollars a month, which is also great for them because it means they get a check every month. You also don’t hear of any of these guys being shut down. Maybe there’s just too much traffic to be able to metric anything “unusual”? I don’t know. It seems to be the smaller fry that suffer the most, the ones who never got to see a single check, or maybe got one or two before being mysteriously cut off.
All I know is, the system has problems and is horribly open to abuse by those in charge of it. And there’s a lot of innocent victims on the wall, judging by the horror stories around the ‘net like this one and the comments beneath it:
Just because it’s in the terms of service, doesn’t mean those terms of service are fair and legal. A Palo Alto judge already put his foot in Google’s ass over it:
The choice bits if you don’t want to read the article (and if you’re using AdSense or thinking of using AdSense, you really should)
After my explanation, the judge had a question.
“What was the reason Google gave you for disabling your account?”
“Beyond, ‘posing a signficicant[sic] risk to advertisers,’ they didn’t give a reason.” I said. “I don’t know.”
Google’s Ms. Milani didn’t know either. She argued that advertisers had already been refunded my $721.00, even if they hadn’t asked for a refund. She claimed that Google could terminate accounts for any or no reason, and that I had agreed to such terms by signing up for AdSense in the first place…
[Judge] “But you couldn’t terminate my account because of the color of my eyes, could you? I have brown eyes. You couldn’t terminate my account because of that.”
Ms. Milani reiterated her previous arguments, but the judge didn’t buy them. “I don’t think I have the power here in Palo Alto small claims court to make you reinstate his account, but I think you owe this young man $721,” he said finally. “I think there might be money in Google’s treasury for that.”
Alas, that decision from early 2009 appears to have changed AdSense’s stripes not one whit. This is probably because most people affected, like Dawn and I, don’t have the time or money to pursue a small claims case over a few dozen dollars ($721 would be more like it, but we certainly never got near that!). But the end of Greenspan’s article is certainly worth quoting, as well:
But it’s not fair!” Google’s paralegal protested. “What if everyone whose account was canceled sued Google?”
It’s a valid question. Yet until Google changes its policies to
become more transparent, which might also reassure skeptics that AdWords and AdSense, which have oddly limited reporting capabilities, aren’t just two sides of the same ponzi scheme (for why else would one want to terminate legitimate accounts with high monthly liabilities when they’re supposed to be making money for Google on each click?)–I will give this answer:
Maybe everyone whose account was canceled, should.
Now, we’re not suing. We didn’t even track things closely enough to know exactly how much money we were owed, and that information is lost to us since the account has been blocked. But we can at least warn others. Don’t use AdSense. Maybe if you’re big enough, you can get away with it, but it seems like small timers get the axe with disturbing regularity and are left wondering what the hell they ever did wrong, at least in terms of anything they might have conceivably prevented.
And the worst part of it is, we’ll never know.