14 August 2007

Google AdSense should worry about the other kind of PR.

Tales of webmasters being banned from Google AdSense have become commonplace topics in forums and blogs. I strongly suspect that a good number of those banned by Google really did violate the AdSense Terms of Service at some point, despite all their tearful proclamations to the contrary. However, if even a small number of people are being banned (potentially for life) from AdSense for no reason, that is disturbing for everyone who makes money with AdSense. Unfortunately for Google, I suspect that new webmasters will increasingly have the notion in the backs of their minds that AdSense is an unreliable ad network that could ban you at any time. Personally, I've never had any trouble with Google AdSense and I have a high opinion of the network, but I do think all this banning could come back to haunt Google in the long run.

When Google and PR are used in the same sentence, most people think of Google PageRank, Google's system for ranking web sites based on the number and the nature of their incoming links. However, there is another type of PR, too -- public relations. Google has built a strong reputation for providing free, high quality web services. Google's reach is so massive that, for some services, it has a more or less captive audience and needn't work extremely hard to maintain that audience. However, I don't think Google AdSense is such a service. There are many other alternative ad networks out there that Google must compete with for both publishers and advertisers, and large sites often sell advertising space directly, without going through a network. With every webmaster banned, AdSense loses another publisher to another ad network. With every new publisher gained, each alternative ad network becomes a little bit more attractive for advertisers. The effect of these bans can easily cocoon as well; one complaining banned publisher could convince three old publishers to drop AdSense and five new publishers to not even bother to signup for AdSense, for instance.

So, what should Google do? On one hand, AdSense's viability is dependent first and foremost on it being trusted by advertisers. To secure and maintain that trust, Google must crack down hard on those who cheat the system. On the other hand, advertisers will go wherever the eyeballs are; if enough publishers leave AdSense, advertisers will leave, too. My opinion is that Google needs to be very careful when it comes to banning. If a webmaster is suspected of clicking his or her own ads, for instance, why not just throw out the suspicious clicks and send a polite note to the webmaster informing them of this? Most naughty webmasters will soon understand that cheating won't make them money; some, perhaps, will reform their evil ways. In some cases, webmasters have claimed that a competitor or personal enemy has gotten them banned by repeatedly clicking on AdSense ads...that's not something that should ever be allowed to happen. Unfortunately, even a giant like Google has limited resources to police their network, but due diligence is necessary if both publishers and advertisers are to be well served by AdSense. While the potential for false positives exists, Google should be very reluctant to ban. Additionally, many banned publishers are complaining loudly about how difficult it is to be reinstated by AdSense once banned; this process should be more straightforward, too, as it is one of the best ways to silence a disgruntled webmaster. Even a publisher that has previously abused the system may well obey the terms of service once he or she realizes that AdSense is not so easy to game.