Does Google Design AdSense Contract So You're Almost Forced To Break Its Terms?

from the seems-kinda-evil dept

We've noted numerous times in the past that one of Google's major faults is that it's absolutely dreadful at customer service. To much of the outside world, Google represents something of a big white monolith, with very little human face. When something goes wrong, such as people locked out of their documents or a blogger having his blog deleted with no recourse, the company often appears to be nearly impossible to reach in a human way. People send emails that never get answered, or get answered in a highly automated way. Decisions are made with absolutely no recourse or real explanation. This is most clearly true in cases involving getting kicked out of Google's advertising programs. Now, it's no secret that there are a lot of folks out there looking to game the system, and Google appears to have taken a low tolerance approach to dealing with just the potential for wrong doing. Many users might actually appreciate that, but if you're suddenly kicked out without clear evidence of why, and almost no human contact to help work through the details, it certainly feels extremely cold.

The latest such example of this, as sent in by a few different folks, is from a rather successful freelance journalist who was just kicked out of Google's Adsense program, which he'd been using to make a fair amount of money in posting quite popular videos about trucks and slightly less popular videos about sailing. As the guy, Dylan Winter, explains, he feels like he's been fired by an algorithm. The piece is really kind of long -- but the crux of it is that the guy has a huge following around his truck videos, and a much smaller following around his sailing videos. But the community who view his sailing videos are pretty committed to what he's been doing with those videos, and it appears that they may be clicking the AdSense ads much more than is standard. Google's response, without any warning whatsoever, was to shut down the account. The guy complained, and got back a notice saying that after reviewing his account, the decision stands, that's it. Oh, and by the way, the guy won't be getting the thousands of dollars he'd earned in clicks since October.

We've heard this story, or variations on it, plenty of times before. I'm sure Google's response is that it has to act this way to avoid scammers from figuring out how to game the system, but it still seems really exceptionally cold. The other part that's quite interesting is that Winter claims that the AdSense terms of service -- especially if you use them on YouTube -- is written such that it's impossible to avoid violating the terms -- meaning that Google always has an excuse to kick out whoever it wants to kick out:
The contract is designed so that it is almost impossible not to break the Google rules. If you disclose site data then you are in breach. YouTube discloses just the sort of site data that would have me thrown out -- but YouTube is Google which is Adsense.

If your subscribers are clicking on adverts and not buying, then you are in breach. This is a new concept -- do not look at an advert unless you intend to buy.

[...] The website owner is to be held responsible for the activities of his site users. Imagine that being applied to cars or baseball bats or hamburgers.

Here is a great one -- if you are an Adsense account holder and you hear of another Adsense account holder who is breaking the rules then you must report them to Adsense, otherwise you too are guilty by association and will have your account disabled.

Presumably since Youtube appear to be breaking the rules as well and I have not reported them to Adsense then I am breach of the contract I ticked.
This is probably a bit of an exaggeration. I don't think the AdSense contract forbids the release of all "site data." Looking at the actual terms suggests it's a bit more limited. It does say that you agree not to disclose Google confidential info, and among the things that includes are:
"click-through rates or other statistics relating to Property performance in the Program provided to You by Google"
That appears to only apply to the clickthrough rates on ads -- which is not the sort of information that YouTube makes widely available, contrary to Winter's claim.

That said, it is true that Google does seem to have an itchy trigger finger, and a pretty broadly worded terms of service that it can almost certainly claim almost anyone violated, and it provides little real recourse. This is, of course, Google's right to do this, but I still keep wondering if this is going to come back to haunt Google. The company never seems to think that its poor customer will hurt its reputation, but this is the kind of thing that can snowball pretty fast, and it's not the sort of thing that you can just fix on the fly. This situation here may have other issues behind Google's decision to terminate (6% clickthroughs seems ridiculously high), but Google's failure to respond in a human way is getting attention again, and it still seems like a major weakness in Google's efforts.

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  1. icon
    Skeptical Cynic (profile), 30 Dec 2010 @ 5:14pm

    Re:

    I agree that that is not good business but I can tell you from experience that if you had been generating 25,000 page views a day and 500 ad clicks they would have talked to you. So I think it is based on click through rates versus unique page views.

    For example I had a website I did SEO/SEM for and they had around 178,000 avg unique page views a day. The website owner was happy about the traffic but he had to up his hosting plan 17 times in 9 months because of the traffic for a website not selling anything so he put a plea on his main page that people buy the products the ads were selling to help him pay for hosting. (He did this before I could tell him he could just put a "Donate" button on the site.) Google dropped his account, but after 8 or 9 emails to various people we got his account reinstated after removing the plea.

    Lesson: Small websites you have no hope.
    Big websites you can get it fixed.

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