Is AdSense A Scam?

For the record I don’t think AdSense is a scam and I’d like to make that clear from the start, but when I think about how to best profit as an AdSense publisher many of the tactics are designed to trick people into clicking or to at least hide the fact the ad is an ad. Is that honest? Is it a flaw in the system? Or is it business as usual?

The idea behind contextual advertising is that the ads are relevant to what you are currently looking at. You’re reading information on a site about astronomy and right there as you read is an ad for a telescope. Since the ad is aligned with your current interest you are more likely to click and more likely to buy. AdSense should in theory be sending targeted traffic to the advertiser and targeted traffic is worth paying to have.

But does it really send targeted traffic? Think about the Google Heat Map. Why do you think adds placed in areas usually occupied by navigation perform so well? Could it be that people clicking think they are clicking on a link to another page of your site and not an ad?

Similarly, why does common advice recommend blending ads into your content? Again it’s to make them look less like an ad. Much of the advice to improve click through on your ads is to reduce the chances that someone will think they are ads. Are we really sending AdWords advertisers people predisposed to buying the advertiser’s products or are we engaging in a thinly veiled form of click fraud?

Quadzilla has an interesting post today about how how you can increase your AdSense profits by observing people lacking in tech savvy.

These people don’t know about adsense or affiliate links. They can’t tell the difference between what (to you) is obviously spam and a relevant link. They stumble through the web hoping to somehow land where they want to be.

Take a look at the list of the basics Quadzilla mentions and think why they work and whether or not they work in the way an AdWords advertiser would like them to work. Think too of some other tactics to increase CTR like

  • placing ads near icons
  • placing ads within your content
  • placing ads in common navigation locations

and ask yourself why they work and why less web savvy people are more likely to click them.

Aaron Wall wrote a post a few months back about the factors affecting AdSense CTR and earnings saying many of the same things including:

Dumb or naive people are less likely to realize they are clicking paid ads when they land on your page.

Aaron goes on to mention some common signs of intelligence or lack of intelligence such as having sites on topics geared toward kids or misspellings and misuses of language, any of which can be used to improve your AdSense earnings. He also mentions how on average a Google user is probably more savvy than someone who searches through MSN. I know the CTR from MSN and AOL searchers has always been higher than the CTR from Google searchers for this site.

If people are clicking because they are naive or because you’ve done a good job of making your ads look like content, is the system working the way it was intended? Are these people targeted in any way? If you place AdSense on a site for children is it even remotely realistic to think the person clicking an ad is likely to buy?

I mentioned at the start that I don’t think AdSense (or YPN or any form of contextual advertising) is a scam. Assuming the system is working the ad should be related to what’s on the publisher’s site. A person clicking on a link, any link, is showing an interest in what might be on the other side of that link. The person who clicked the ad for telescopes on the astronomy site is interested in astronomy and is going to be more likely to purchase one than someone without interest in astronomy. That should be true regardless of whether they realized they were clicking on an ad.

Maybe the naive clicker is a little less targeted than the person who knew they were going to land on a page selling telescopes, but they are still more targeted than some random person who happens upon an astronomy site. Advertiser sshould also be paying less for clicks on the network than at the search engine itself so the value of the click may be in line with the cost of that click.

You could even argue that the naive visitor will end up being more likely to buy than the savvy visitor. They should at least be easier to convince.

There’s still something about it that doesn’t quite sit right with me, but I don’t think it has to do with AdSense itself. It’s more something about taking advantage of those less savvy shall we say.

I’m curious what you think. Is something wrong with the concept of contextual advertising? Does it really send the kind of traffic advertisers are paying to get? Or is it all just business as usual, no different then using celebrities to push products or implying promises that no product can deliver?

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21 comments

  1. I guess the advertisers want people to click the adverts too, They wouldn’t get visitors or sales if people didn’t. But there is definately a very thin line between placing your adverts in a position where they will catch someones eye and intentionally making them look like they aren’t adverts in order to trick people into clicking them.

  2. True Matt and I do think that someone who ‘accidentally’ clicks on an ad because they think it’s navigation is still more targeted than someone who randomly finds the site. They were at least interested enough in the link to click and are possibly still in search mode to an extent.

    I would think ‘accidental’ clickers are somewhere in between random visitors and the person who clicks on an ad knowing it’s an ad. I also think AdSense is self correcting for this with lower bid prices on the network as opposed to search results.

    Assuming a lower bid on the network still returns a positive ROI then likely everyone in the chain is happy. Advertiser still makes money, Google and publisher get paid for the click, and the person clicking was directed to a page they had showed some kind of interest in viewing.

    It’s why I don’t think there’s any scam involved, but like you said it can be a fine line. I’m sure there are advertisers losing money by keeping the same bids for the network and search results and I’m sure there are people clicking who didn’t quite get to the page they were hoping to find.

  3. Google deleted my account without notification and without warning. They do not respond to your correspondence either.

    • Was there a reason why the deleted your account? They generally won’t delete accounts unless they suspect something was happening against their TOS.

      I’m not saying you did something against the TOS, but did Google give you a reason why they deleted the account?

    • Welcome to the club, I am personally going to sue them for $1496 they owe me after closing my account for no reason. And I agree 110%, they do not return emails. They suck ass, 20k employees and they cant figure out customer service if their lives depended on it. Once I win in court I will post the court docs for all to see.

  4. I don’t think Adsense is a scam, however Google doesn’t give a thing about you. If you are in trouble because someone is attacking your site, you are toasted not matter what.

  5. Google adsense is definitely a scam! I had an account for years but my payments were on hold. I revisited my app architecture and increased by ctr from 2% to 20%, as everything was fine… until I released my hold on payments. Plain and simple Google doesn’t want to pay legit publishers if they’re making money.

    • Seems like plenty of publishers do make money. I’m not saying you did anything wrong and I do know some legit publishers do get banned from the system, but is it possible you did something that went against the rules?

    • Yeah, and did you notice that once your site gets traffic the first few click throughs pay decent, then they figure it out that you are making money and the same click throughs become worth .01 down from $1.85, etc…

  6. AdSense is a scam, not because of anything to do with publishers, but because google has a clear record of ripping off small time publishers, stealing thousands of dollars, in order to make their Advertisers happy.

    Google to client: AdWords campaign didn’t perform as well as you expected? You’re pissed that you spent 5k and the return was negligible? Let’s see what we can do, ah yes, here are 200 little publishers who comprised 1,000 of your 5k budget, let’s just boot those little publishers (no one will notice) and give you your money back. Happy now? Would you like to start another campaign?

    If you think I’m making this up, get a job at google and see for yourself.

  7. I want to just say that I have tried twice to have accounts with Adsense, and have them run through my website. Both accounts were closed within a month, with both accounts having accumulated roughly $50 at the time of being closed. Myself and a friend both work on our site, which we are currently in the process of rebuilding, and so we each opened an account in our own names. Each time we were told that there had been illegal ‘clicking’ on our site. The emails were exactly the same and there was no way to figure out how or why it happened. We have friends who check the site weekly…and are architecture majors…and the ads are all with regards to architectural projects and components…so they click on the links and sign up for competitions and such…but we lose our account…all I am saying is that I am sure that some people have success with this program, but I have even tried parking random domains i have purchased, and that too had my account cancelled…so whether or not its a scam, I don’t know. But i do know that they don’t ever communicate with you and even after filling out appeals, they still cancel the account…so I don’t know if I believe it or not…

    • My guess is your friends were clicking a little too often from the same IP address, which led Google to decide they were less interested in the ads as they were helping you and your friend make money.

      Keep in mind Google would have no idea your friends are architecture majors. They just see the same few IPs consistently clicking ads on one or two sites.

  8. It is true regardless that Adsense is run by a company that wants to make as much money as possible, so don’t be surprised if Google tries to squeeze you for every possible cent

  9. I make a very good living using adsense. I make about $95-275 a day, depending on which day of the week. If you can get tons of traffic from different IP addresses you won’t have a problem. but If you have low traffic and the same IP addresses clicking on your ads, YOU’LL GET BANNED even if it wasn’t your fault.

    • That’s great Cris. Good to hear you’re doing well with AdSense. Have you ever thought of selling direct advertisements for some of your ad blocks instead of using AdSense for everything?

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