Deceptive Ads and Invalid Clicks

I've been noticing a strange AdWords trend that has me really concerned about how it might affect me as an AdSense publisher. I keep seeing very deceptive ads that I'm sure generate invalid clicks through no fault of the AdSense publisher.

These ads have turned up on various sites but today I found one on this very blog as I was previewing my last article.

The ads are disguised so they don't look like ads. The example I included in the screenshot above even closely matches the colors of my site's template.

From time to time I notice a new AdSense click that has high earnings (5-10x my average EPC), then a short time later the click is still there but the revenue has vanished

In some cases it seems these ads are a willful attempt to get more impressions and more clicks but not have to pay for it. The scam appears to go like this:
  1. Create an ad that looks nothing like an ad.
  2. Make sure the ad can be confused with the content of the sites it's likely to be displayed on.
  3. Bid very high for your ad placements.
  4. Hope the ads generate a lot of invalid clicks so you get a discount.
Is anything being done about this? Are these types of ads potentially putting my AdSense account at risk of being disabled?
First, just let me point out. I have no inside knowledge of this and based on how little information AdSense gives its publishers concerning invalid activity or even generally what ads are being clicked, there is a lot of speculation and opinion in this post. I'd like to hear other people's opinions as well.

I am very mindful of AdSense policies when it comes to ad placements so that my visitors don't mistake my AdSense ads for content. My goal is to put ads where my visitors will see them but not in a way that draws unwarranted attention to the ad or disguises that it's an ad.

I'm also very careful about how I get traffic to my sites. Probably more careful than I need to be! Definitely more careful than other AdSense publishers that go crazy with buying traffic and use article spinning to essentially place hundreds of backlinks on all sorts of sites.

But how am I supposed to handle ads that seem to be designed to generate invalid clicks???

Types of Deceptive Ads

There are at least two main types of ads I've seen on AdSense sites that concern me.

Ads Meant To Blend With Site Action

That's probably a poor way of describing them. These ads are like the ones that I used in my example above. I noticed the ad as I was previewing my last post before publication.

It appears to be an ad for Microsoft's Download Manager. There is a giant button that reads Download and the text describing what the ad is for but that text is positioned far away and in small letters.

I'm not too worried about that ad on this site as I don't really offer any downloads but I've seen similar ads on sites that do offer downloads. I myself have accidentally clicked on such ads on other sites not knowing they were ads. Did that click get marked as invalid?

Ads that Look Like Ordinary Photos

These seem to be showing up more and more. Ads that look like photos. No message, no description, no "click here to learn more", no text such as "20% off Red Widgets", no text at all!

Earlier this week I was looking up information for a lawn tool and I ran across an article that had the information I was looking for when I noticed the picture to the right.

I knew it wasn't a picture of the tool I was expecting to see but it looked like it might be able to perform a similar function.

At first I thought it was related to the article until I noticed the little AdChoices triangle in the upper right hand corner.

Did you realize it was an ad before I mentioned it?

Other Ads That Generate Invalid Clicks

A thread was recently posted in the AdSense Support Forum by a publisher that was concerned about a large spike in CTR for Animated Image ads.

He claims Animated Image ads started generating over 35% CTR and a lot of these clicks were being marked as invalid which resulted in a big reduction in his earnings per click and overall revenues.

He didn't identify which ad was actually causing the problem and couldn't figure out why. AdSense doesn't provide a means for publishers to know this. 

His solution was to make all his ad units text-only. While it improved his current situation it might have hurt his earnings since image ads and rich media ads tend to have higher earnings per click. Limiting ads to text-only also reduces the number of bidders for ad slots which can also reduce earnings.

Why were these clicks being marked invalid? Why was there such a high CTR? 

The publisher doesn't know. It could be that a competitor was clicking on the ads to take that ad out of rotation but it could also be because the ad was just very effective. Either the designer of the ad really knew what he was doing to get people to notice the ad and click on it, or maybe because the ad was deceptive. We really don't know.

What Are Invalid Clicks?

Google has a created a site for both AdWords advertisers and AdSense publishers that deals with Ad Traffic Quality including discussions on invalid clicks. 

Basically invalid clicks consist of click fraud and invalid traffic.

Click fraud can be any number of things including publishers clicking ads on their websites to generate AdSense revenue, having associates click on ads for them, hiring people to generate invalid traffic and clicks using click farms, click bots and bot nets.

Other AdWords advertisers may also engage in click fraud by causing clicks to be generated on their competitors' ads so that their ad budget is used up preventing them from getting clicks from users with actual interest in the ad.

Google says it's hard to know the intent when someone click's an ad but that's ultimately what their invalid click detection algorithms have to do.

They don't explain exactly how they detect invalid clicks but the goal is to maintain a good ROI for advertisers. I can think of a few indicators they could employ to determine when a click is invalid but many of them leave open the possibility of false positives.

Detecting invalid clicks can be very subjective and that's not an area computer science has mastered yet.

How Does Google Detect Invalid Clicks?

Check out the Ad Traffic Quality page which explains in more detail how Google protects against invalid clicks. In summary they do the following:
  • As soon as the click happens - Use automated tools to identify all clicks on AdWords ads to try an determine if the click was invalid. Basically trying to gauge the intent of the click. Clicks that appear to be invalid are accounted for instantly and are not charged to advertisers.
  • Some time after the click - more algorithms and manual reviews are used to analyze clicks after they have occurred to gauge the validity of a click. These tools are primarily used for ads from AdSense publishers but are also used for Google's own ad serving.
  • In response to advertisers' inquiries - If advertisers suspect unusual activity on their ads they can report it in which case the clicks on their ads will be investigated

What's Missing?

Google has left out one important step in their documentation. The review of the effectiveness of their automated tools and the incidence of false positives. 

This type of analysis appears to be a normal part of the general Google developer culture. That makes me believe that this would be part of the process but on the other hand it seems that certain types of ads (like the ones above) can generate invalid clicks through no fault of the publisher.

Deceptive Ads Are Bad For Publishers

Since it seems these ads are bidding very high, they're going to take up a lot of ad impressions. If the clicks are being marked as invalid a publisher may be getting more clicks but his overall earnings per click and revenue will decline.

Other ads that would be more relative to the readers, that would generate valid interest, would not be seen as often. 

These ads can also diminish the publisher's credibility if his visitors believe he/she is responsible for putting the deceptive ad there.

Other AdWords advertisers may see that a certain publisher's site is not effective and decide to no longer target that site.

Any invalid activity on a publishers account is a cause for concern as it may ultimately result in an account being disabled. Google says "However, AdSense publishers are ultimately responsible for all of the traffic to their ads." It doesn't matter if it was the ad itself that was generating invalid clicks. Or does it? I think it should.

Deceptive Ads Are Bad For Other Advertisers

Other advertisers that follow the AdWords guidelines lose out on exposure when these ads are taking up a lot of impressions on the ad network. Few impressions equal fewer clicks. Fewer clicks equals fewer conversions.

As I mentioned before these clicks have a very high earnings per click. It doesn't matter since the advertiser eventually gets some of that money back.  This ultimately drives up the amount the advertiser would need to get the exposure they want.

They're also paying more for ads because they're not getting the invalid click discount these deceptive ads are getting.

Deceptive Ads Are Bad For Google

Anytime someone successfully games a system it's bad for the reputation of the system as a whole. 

When someone creates an ad that by its very design generates invalid clicks, they wind up getting a discount on their AdWords spending. This ultimately reduces earnings not only for AdSense publishes but for Google itself.

On less popular ad networks I have seen ads that try to get clicks. An example is an ad that blinks, says through text and audio "Click me you won $10,000". I haven't seen these types of ads on Google. I'm hoping it's because they do not meet AdWord's standards.

What Can Google Do About It?

I think the solution is pretty straight forward. Google doesn't need to create fancy image analysis algorithms that determine if the ad is trying to be deceptive. Let the free market sort this out.

All they need to do is look at the CTR for an individual ad and the ratio of invalid clicks being generated by the ad across the whole network as well as on sites in certain markets and then be less strict about marking clicks as invalid.

If the intent of the ad was to generate a high CTR (irrespective of how targeted those clicks are) and that's what the ad is delivering, then they should pay for it. Doing so makes the practice unprofitable which would cause the advertisers engaging in such activity to lower their bid price if they don't want to lose money.

Some ads are just naturally going to create more user interest than others. Those ads will lead to more clicks, which is the ultimate goal of AdWords advertisers. If an ad generates a lot of clicks and the landing page meets user's expectations it will result in a high conversion rate and it may be profitable to bid high with these ads. If however the ads are deceptive and lead to low conversions then it won't be profitable to do so.

I don't know if Google does any of this currently. I hope they do or are at least working on it.

What Else Can Google Do To Help Publishers Protect Against Invalid Clicks?

Although I didn't intend this post to be about invalid clicks in general I think it's a good place to add some of my thoughts on the matter.

I believe that the majority of AdSense publishers are honest and that there are a few that cause headaches for Google either through ignorance or plain old fraud.

Because of this small group of people, as well as Google not wanting to be taken out of the middle between publishers and advertisers, they are very secretive invalid clicks and even what ads are being clicked.

What if Google gave more to publishers that have gained their trust? 

If a publisher has been with AdSense for many years and has a good record could they get a little more transparency?

Let's say I had a website that reviewed all the dry cleaners in Detroit and I have been a good AdSense publisher for years. One day I get a huge spike in strange traffic. It would be nice if I could get an alert such as:
Hey buddy, I noticed 90% of your traffic and AdSense clicks in the last 7 days is coming from the country of Weclickistan. This is an unusual traffic pattern for your site. Can you please look into why this might be and give us an explanation? If this looks screwy to you too, click this button and we'll automatically mark put a hold on all earnings generated from this activity until the issue is resolved.
If it turns out someone hired a click farm in Weclickistan to click on your ads fraudulently, either to try to help you, harm you or harm the advertiser, the appropriate action can be taken.

If however a new popular nightclub opened up in Weclickistan called Detroit Laundromats (Weclickstanese is a strange language) and the ad clicked was for that nightclub, well you get the money for the clicks.

Better AdSense/Analytics Integration

AdSense needs better integration with Analytics. Right now you can only link one Analytics "account" with one AdSense account and if you have multiple websites you need to create multiple profiles within that account. I don't want to let third party tools like StatCounter have access to my AdSense performance data.

The way it's setup now Analytics is a little less useful for publishers that have multiple websites and have had their analytics setup this way before the integration.

I think it's time that AdSense followed the model that Analytics uses and an AdSense publisher can segment their AdSense account into different groups.

This would have numerous benefits in addition to making it easier for publishers to protect their accounts against invalid clicks. It would allow greater flexibility in optimizing AdSense for each individual site.

For example, I may run a blog where I express my political views as well as a fitness blog where I share my fitness goals. On one I may want to block political ads but allow weight loss ads and vice versa. That's currently not possible.

Good for large sites too! This isn't only helpful to publishers with multiple sites but also for large publishers that have sites which cover multiple topics. It allows them to have more fine-grained control over AdSense in different areas of their site. 

The Super Pub Id

The AdSense system is old and has been designed around the concept of a single pub_id for each account and that pub_id is used for each website the account holder owns. It would be a big undertaking to change that but I think there might be a way of doing so that would be less painful for the AdSense development team.

Create a Super Pub Id. Each account has a single Super Pub Id but can have multiple Pub IDs associated with it. Publishers can request additional pub_ids and associate their various AdSense products with it. I can group my ad units, search units, videos, etc into different pub_ids. I can associate my Analytics accounts with individual pub ids. And hopefully if I manage analytics and adsense for a third party they can grant me analytics and adsense access so I can monitor their performance to come up with better optimizations and help protect against abuse.
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