An alleged former Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) (NASDAQ:GOOGL) employee recently caused pandemonium when he made two separate anonymous claims on a website known as Pastebin, saying that Google systematically bans hundreds of high-earning Web publishers from its AdSense program.
According to the leaker, publishers who made more than $5,000 per month through AdSense were arbitrarily banned from the program right before their monthly checks were paid, and their checks were reversed to Google's coffers.
Not surprisingly, many aggrieved Web publishers, also recently axed from the AdSense program, were up in arms and "confirmed" the claims, which were, collectively, christened the ''Google AdSense Conspiracy.''
It's no secret that Google's AdSense revenue has declined sharply since 2012, when Google began shutting down many sites on the AdSense program. According to the leaker, this was also the year Google allegedly began the practice. The company also completed another purge of ad clients in 2013 to get rid of abusive toolbar products. Google's AdSense program brought in a revenue of about $12.7 billion in fiscal 2013.
The first question that immediately comes to mind is whether these claims are genuine. The second is why Google would want to interfere with its gravy train. Major tech companies such as Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) and Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) exhibit a high degree of diversification in their businesses. For instance, Apple has six separate divisions, each segment large enough to comfortably survive on its own as a separate company if Apple decided to spin it off.
Google began to show some semblance of diversification when it acquired Motorola Mobility in 2012.
With the Motorola spinoff, Google is essentially back to where it started, with more than 90% of revenue coming from advertising. It would, therefore, be imprudent for the company to interfere with its bread and butter, notwithstanding the fact that it enjoys a near-monopoly in online advertising.
In an official blog, Google openly admitted that some of the actions it takes against web publishers are a bit extreme. The search giant routinely suspends or even disables publisher accounts for invalid activity. Quite often, the afflicted publishers are at a loss to explain why their accounts get suspended, or even how to fix it.
However, Google also dismissed the leaker's claims and denied that such a conspiracy exists. According to the company, its decision to ban rogue publishers from the AdSense program was necessary to combat the illegal practice of click fraud.
With click fraud, a computer program or web user clicks on an ad with the sole intent of generating a charge per click without any interest in the target of the ad's link. Google found it necessary to weed out the bad actors who engaged in such practices, and also those that unfairly game the system by using dubious means to attract traffic to their websites, such as buying lots of low-quality traffic instead of earning visitors organically.
Google says that the exercise was intended to clean up the quality of the display network. The company has more than 2 million publishers on its display network, and it seems inevitable that a few hundred, perhaps even thousands, will try to abuse the system.
Why the claims are untrue
The claims resonated strongly with many publishers who have been banned from Google's display network without having been given a clue as to why they got banned. With so many publishers on its network, Google's staff cannot manually monitor all websites to check for publishers gaming the system. Google has two tiers of publishers, just as the leaker claimed. Large publishers' accounts are managed by Google's staff, while smaller publishers get just the AdSense interface.
The reason so many banned publishers feel that Google cut them off unfairly is because Google does not explain the methods it uses to detect sites that have fake traffic. Doing this would reveal the methods it uses to detect click fraud, and enable fraudsters to change tactics to compensate.
Some banned publishers are sometimes entirely innocent. The fake click game has become so complicated that some websites end up being used as pivot points by fraudsters without their owners ever knowing anything about it. Apparently, Google has not developed systems that are advanced enough to detect such incidents when they occur, which leaves publishers exposed.
Regarding the publishers' paychecks being redirected to Google once their sites are banned -- that, according to Google, simply is not true. Google has said that whenever a site gets banned from AdSense, both the publisher's income, as well as Google's cut (usually half of what the publisher earns) are refunded in full to the affected advertisers.
Foolish bottom line
Google chose to take a temporary hit to clean up its display network and prevent advertisers from being scammed by unscrupulous publishers.
Google's top line is expanding at a healthy pace -- 19% during the last quarter. It seems counter-intuitive and highly improbable that the company would engage in the unethical practices described by the leaker and risk alienating its core customers in the process.