From AdSense to SpamSense to Spam Cents

Google announced they rolled out their anti-overly-aggressive-ads algorithm. They didn't give a specific % on how much of the above the fold content can be ads, but suggest using their browser preview tool. Using that tool on Google.com's search results would of course score it as a spam site, but for some small AdSense webmasters that avoided Panda, Google may have drew first blood.

Much Quicker Updates

With a limited number of recoveries nearly a year after Panda, the first bite might seem like a big concern, however the "too many ads" algorithm updates far more frequently than Panda does:

If you decide to update your page layout, the page layout algorithm will automatically reflect the changes as we re-crawl and process enough pages from your site to assess the changes. How long that takes will depend on several factors, including the number of pages on your site and how efficiently Googlebot can crawl the content. On a typical website, it can take several weeks for Googlebot to crawl and process enough pages to reflect layout changes on the site.

And for those who got hit by Panda then tried to make up for those lower ad revenues with more AdSense ad units, they probably just got served round #2 of Panda Express. ;)

Is it Screen Layout, or Something Else?

In the past Google suggested to a nuked AdWords advertiser that more of his above-the-fold real estate should be content than ads.

However Google has such a rich data set with AdSense that I don't think they would just look at layout. If I were them I would factor in all sorts of metrics like

  • AdSense CTR
  • average page views per visitor
  • repeat visits & brand searches
  • bounce rate
  • clickstream data from Chrome & the Google toolbar (so even if you are using other ad networks, they can still sample the data)

Some sites are primarily driven off of mobile views while other sites might be seen on large monitors. When Google sees every page load & measures the CTRs, tacking actual user response is better than guestimating it.

They could come up with some pretty good metrics from those & then for any high traffic/high earning site they could manually review them to see if they deserve to get hit or not & adjust + refine the "algorithm" until those edge cases disappeared. Google's lack of credible competition in contextual & display ads means they can negotiate pretty tough terms with publishers that they feel are not adding enough value to the ecosystem.

It's Not Just Algorithms Cleaning Up AdSense

In addition to these sorts of algorithms, over the past year they have manually hit networks of sites with the doorway pages label & disabled ad serving on sites or entire accounts where they felt there was a bit too much arbitrage. One of our SEO Book members pointed me to this thread where a lot of Pakistani AdSense accounts got torched last October & another sent me a sample termination email from Google similar to this one:

Notice that in the above:

  • There was no claim of click fraud, copyright issues, or anything like that.
  • There was no claim of advertiser complaints.
  • Google offers no customer support phone number, no "you might want to work on this" advice, doesn't list which of the sites in the account they felt could be improved, and RETROACTIVELY nuked past "earnings" ... depending on where it is in the schedule that can amount to anywhere from 30 to 50+ days (I remember Teeceo mentioned how they waited until the day before the AdSense payday to smoke his stuff way back in the day to have maximum impact!)

On Google's latest quarterly earnings call they highlighted how year on year Google's revenues were up 25% but the network revenues only grew at 15%. They also explained the slower network revenue growth as being associated with improved search quality & algorithm updates like Panda.

Left unsaid in such a statement was that until those algorithms rolled out, Google admitted they funded spam. ;) The whole AdSense & content farm problem was created through incentive structures with unintended consequences.

Is the Garbage Disappearing, or Just Moving to a New Landfill?

If you track what is going on with the Google+ over-promotion (long overdue post coming on that front shortly!) or how Google is still pre-paying Demand Media to upload video "content" to Youtube, Google still may be funding the same model, but doing so while gaining a tighter control of relevancy so they can better sort good stuff from crap (when you host content & track user response you have all the metrics in the world to determine how relatively good you think it is). If they over-promote these sites then in the short run they create the same skewed business model problem.

Sure hosting the user experience makes it easier to sort the wheat from the chaff, but the other big risk here is the impact on the rest of the publishing ecosystem. There will be lots of thin spam from popular people on Google+ (anyone launched a celebrity-focused Pay-Per-Plus site yet?) & in-depth editorial content might not be economically feasible in certain categories where there literally is no organic SERP above the fold.

I will complement them on their efforts to clean up some of the worst offenses (from the prior generation of "bad incentives"). If you were hit by it, Panda was every bit as big/brutal as the famous Florida update. If this update is anything near as significant as the Panda update (in how it impacts smaller independent webmasters) then it is going to force more of them/us to move up the value chain.

That may mean pain in the short run, but (for those who take it as a wake up call to develop brand & organic non-search traffic streams) far more rewards in the longrun for those who remain after the herd is thinned.

Working for "The Company"

Larry Page's view on working for the company:

My grandfather was an autoworker, and I have a weapon he manufactured to protect himself from the company that he would carry to work. It's a big iron pipe with a hunk of lead on the head. I think about how far we've come as companies from those days, where workers had to protect themselves from the company.

I think for many SEOs the idea of starting over is painful, but the best SEOs often enjoy the forced evolution & the game of it all. They don't roll over & play dead or forget SEO. And if Google didn't put hard resets in every once in a while, then the big hedge funds would be mopping up the SERPs and cleaning our clocks with the help of Helicopter Ben.

Areas For Improvement

Of course this could be taken as a positive post toward Google (and it mostly is), but I don't want to come across as a fanboi, so I thought I should do a shout out to a couple things they still need to fix in order to be consistent:

  • If Google is going to tell people that thick deep content is needed to gain sustainable exposure then they shouldn't be ranking thin + pages in the SERPs just because it is a Google product. Even people who have *always* given Google the benefit of the doubt (full on fanbois) found the Google+ placement in the SERPs distasteful.
  • Google's AdSense is still sending out some of those automated "you are leaving money on the table" styled emails reminding publishers to use 3 ad units. If such behavior may lead to a smoke job, then the recommendation shouldn't be offered in the first place. Right below the "use 3 ad units" there needs to be a "proceed with caution" styled link (in red) that links to the recent "too many ads" post.
  • Old case studies that are no longer in line with best practices in the current market should have some sort of notice/notification added to them so new webmasters don't get the wrong idea.
  • Some of the AdSense heatmaps are roadmaps to penalization. These should have been fixed before yesterday's announcement, but if they are still up there next week then Google is willfully & intentionally trying to destroy any small business owner that follows that "best practice" advice.

Your Feedback Needed

Since this update impacted far fewer sites than the Panda update, there are fewer sample/example sites. Did any of your websites get hit? If so, how would you describe ...

  • your ad layout
  • your ad CTR
  • you mode of monetization (AdSense, other, both)
  • the level of impact on your site from the update
Published: January 20, 2012

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Comments

January 20, 2012 - 9:32pm

Such a great article. With the risk of being boring let me explain my vision/experience with Adsense on a non-us "developing" market. Unofficially 32 million people are speaking my language as their 1st language. 24 of them live in the country, 8 abroad. I own in this language about 50 domains such as lawyers.net, insurance.net, jobs.com, cars.tld, cars.com, travel.net, tourism.net, accommodation.net, and many many others. All of them are 1 word, super generic. Each has about 1000 unique visitors a day, super targeted. Content is added weekly on each. Some of them have adsense, and for some of them i used to get EU money for advertising via Adwords.

Now i do know what is the official revshare of Google (from the GoogleBlog). However i think it has to be a blatant lie for my country. As an advertiser i pay for exact match on KW "A", 1.86 Euros. As a publisher i get 0.2 Euros per click. 1000 visitors, CTR 2%, 20 clicks, So i make like 4E/day, 120E month. That's exactly what i pay for quality and original content (5 articles per month) + hosting + renewal.

After this experience, i decided to say...you know what? F* it. In the first month i decided to sell directly. No adsense or junk. Then i called hundreds of lawyers, car dealers and others to advertise directly.

First month? 5 times better than Adsense.

January 21, 2012 - 3:12pm

...between CPC on search ads and content ads is quite common in smaller markets and/or developing markets. In some cases advertisers may turn off advertising on contextual placements & where there are a limited number of players in the market a few dropping out causes a huge drop in revenue.

A more cynical view might suggest that Google is underpricing content ads to subsidize higher aggregate performance on search ads. Certainly from a branding standpoint this is true (as the default in analytics is to place credit on the last click) but Google is trying to become a huge player in display as well, so I think they have been trying to get better at giving contextual & display ads more credit.

Congrats on the direct sales producing such a huge lift. In a lot of cases the only tool between a thin arbitrage site & a long-lasting enterprise might be picking up the phone...and if you are at 5x on the first month one has to imagine you easily have another 3x to 5x growth ahead from there!

January 20, 2012 - 9:44pm

and you know what? that thing in Analytics with "you want to share your data" is like big time BS. I don't wanna share my data, that's obvious. If I would, then I would have to be an absolute moron. I worked for YEARS for my data. It's mine....i don't wanna share it. Data is like a good buddy in a high place, an asset. I can still make lots of money with it my data alone. Because I and only I know what works and what doesn't. And if I ever fail, i still have my data. That's why i shifted away from Analytics and went for a self hosted solution.

In my oppinion the big G looks like a piss poor and deficient organization. It needs a fast growth rate to sustain itself. But that can work only for a limited period of time. Until it will eventually burn itself. Look at the scandal between G vs. Expedia, or vs. Priceline. Sure Google will eventually try to monetize 100% of the traffic on commercial queries like Amazon. But it will piss off everybody else. And G makes money on everybody else.

From G: If I opt in then opt back out, will my data be removed?
The data collected while you were opted in will not be removed when you opt out.

January 21, 2012 - 3:23pm

What self-hosted analytics tool did you end up using?

January 20, 2012 - 9:48pm

I can't complain about Google torching crappy ad filled sites, being honest they are damn annoying.

As I pointed out to Danny Sulliven, my issue is with Google yet again penelizing sites for doing exactly what they are doing! It seems, according to Danny's Google+ page that Google made a point of telling us that they only show ads above the fold on some and not all their serps. That is beside the point, just because they target high traffic pages doesn't make it any less of a "bad experience" for visitors to those pages.

You can't do it but they have made millions from it and continue to do so.

Same old story, just a repeat of Google's dup content penalty, they can scrape the hell out of the web and wrap it up in ads but if you do the same, *poof* goes your traffic.

January 21, 2012 - 3:16pm

... to me the real definition of a "spam" site is a site where Google can provide a similar user experience without you.

With adversarial information retrieval it cuts both ways...in some cases the publisher is a parasite & in some cases it is the search engine. But the more the relationship looks like you are doing something Google could easily be doing the more likely you are to get slapped with the spam label.

In 2007 the Inside AdWords blog had a post about business models that may be associated with a low landing page quality score. If you look at the business models highlighted there (shopping search, travel aggregators, ebooks) it seemed Google intended to rush head first into all those markets in the coming years after making that post.

January 21, 2012 - 4:27pm

Gotta agree with rentacar here. Adsense has paid out less and less over the years, that now, when Google virtually tell you to remove them, I'll take their advice. Why bother making pennies on sites? Seriously. I suppose it's a good thing in the long run - I mean, there IS so much crap on the internet that's just ads with thin content wrapped around the ads - it's probably a good thing that Google are killing off Adsense (whether intentional or not, whether they REALISE it or not) through lower and lower payouts, and for penalising sites for showing ads "aggressively" above the fold.

Can't help but feel Google are truly now in a crucial period. Their costs are going up faster than their revenues, Google+ is not taking off despite all the hype and aggressive selling of it by Google - and at the same time, their over-selling of Google+ is hurting their credibility and even quality of search results. Their SERPs are chock-full of ads and Google products - they've squeezing every drop out of what they have without offering anything new. Like I say, a crucial time for Google.

January 22, 2012 - 5:38pm

...their revenues increased 25% year over year & they were beat by the stock market for it.

In spite of their dominance online, their stock price is far below its 2007 peak. Your point about them sacrificing quality for self-promotion is well understood by tech savvy individuals, but I don't think it has any impact yet on the average user. The average user pays far more attention to the story of how Google protects them placed front & center in the media than they do about Google's gaffes. I think part of what lets Google get away with sacrificing quality is lack of serious competition. DuckDuckGo doesn't sound like a mainstream brand (and Google owns Duck.com), Blekko sounds to tech-focused, Yahoo! gutted themselves, Baidu & Yandex are regional plays, and Bing is owned by Microsoft (wich has a lot of bad brand karma in the media...even when Google gets ripped on the ultimate slag is calling them "the next Microsoft.")

Meanwhile Google squeezes water out of the rock by turning their logout pages into a rich media ad. (At least they are not as desperate as Yahoo! is, turning the login page into one as well!)

I think if Apple entered search in a serious way Google would be in a world of hurt. But outside of them I don't know who could do general web search & keep gaining solid marketshare against the marketshare momentum Google already has & buys with additional advertising + bundling.

January 21, 2012 - 5:44pm

Aaron, since i'm running clusters of different sites, with different hosting, privacy, C Class IPs & so (no crosslinks), i tryied different variations to ensure that it's impossible to reverse engineer it, so: piwik/crazy egg/firestats/owa. OWA is the nicest, Crazy Egg the best IMHO.

Let me give you another example. I have an italian car rental site. Ultra high quality content (i mean really cool stuff like advanced statistics, infographs, market reports, company reviews manually accepted and so on).
And this is what happened in less than 6 month.

1. Expedia comes pushing multiple ads in Adwords. From 3 different sites.
2. Priceline, and others come ranking organically with stuff like: wanna rent a car in {insert city name}. Our agency from {county name} provides...whatever..... so basically a word template, with different city names.
3. All my competitors start spamming (like 100 images in a page with the same alt "car rental {city name}".
And guess what. First 2 websites in organic SERPs are blatant spam. One dude has 100 websites like rentacar1.com, rentacar2.com, rentacar99.com let's say, and links to rentacar{cityname}.com. The other just hundreds of images with keyword on ALT, in-page links, and junk repeated content. And then you hear how Google wants to remove the Spam and the evil spammers. I mean...that's just BS.

I'm going from a scenario where:
1. I get no orders for my business from G.
2. I am cornered to get my orders to run the cars in cities like Torino (example) from Expedia, being a car provider to them for a 15% comission (that's what they get).
3. Expedia pays Google for Adwords

So basically i'm the one getting screwed. Google indirectly allows the spam, so i am forced to "buy" the bookings, so that Google can sell adwords. Oh...and maybe you wanna ask why not using Adwords directly. Used to...but the fraud rate was SF. Some of my competitors hired (still have the advertisement from a jobboard) students as "clickers". Just a nice VPN, some Greasemonkey scripts, and voila. Manual clicks until they dry my budget.

January 21, 2012 - 11:55pm

...and it is doing so far quicker than it is getting "better." It must be hard for Google to both insert really low quality fraternal junk AND try to police the quality of others at the same time, all while running an ad system that is both hard to police & lowers revenues when they police it properly.

Thanks for the web analytics list.

January 22, 2012 - 8:03pm

Heard from a small seller that he was nuked on 1/19/2012. 42% of Google's organic search gone is being nuked in that niche. Not an ad in his pages, just e-store stuff: badges, phone numbers, facebook /twitter buttons, logo etc.

It's possible that Google is going to use this to go on another small business ruining spree like Panda. They "need" the money for this year, until people have had enough. That 34% increase on clicks at Google for 2011 was felt by a lot of people.

January 22, 2012 - 8:13pm

Blekko cannot be a serious contender with their let's nuke 1 million domains tonight and curation comes at the expense of freshness and relevancy.

Like you said, Apple might do it for many legitimate reasons (and revenge). Amazon too, but they might fear the Google gods in ranking. Oh, never mind, Google search is total separate. :)

January 23, 2012 - 5:33am

Of late after the Panda Update I see sub standard sites ranking. Take an example of seobaba.com which is ranking 8th for keyword SEO in Google. What is the reason for this ?

January 23, 2012 - 7:15am

Hey Aaron,
Seems like there are some comment spammers on your blog some dude "domain2host" is spamming his domain links lol.

Back to your topic, Jan 19th one of my 8 years old website got nuked number #6. I didn't have adsense, I did have my banner on the sidebar for my own product which linked to a deep page on my site for that specific product. I was happily earning $6k a month with it. Now I have lost 90% of the revenue.

The sites that are ranking on top as of right now, some person from India who has three leaderboard adsense ads on the top then following by an affiliate product followed by 2 link units and then following by "affiliate generated text of product info with image and such" and followed by content written by someone who has no idea about the topic. Followed by images stolen from our site. Followed by 8 links in the footer that links to his other properties.

This same person has profile link spam and is ranking better than our site which has recommendations from webmd and other quality sites.

I have no idea what to do. Btw at the same time I get emails from Adsense team that I am missing opportunities sigh.

January 23, 2012 - 8:32am

Generally, they disable AdSense publisher accounts on the following two reasons:

INVALID CLICK ACTIVITY

If someone clickbombs an AdSense publisher’s site, they disable his/her account.

POLICY VIOLATION

If they found violation of their program policies on a publisher’s site, they disable his/her account.

In both cases, they withhold their previous/current payments and put a life-time ban on the disabled publishers so they can NEVER participate in their AdSense program. The withheld amount goes back to their AdWords advertisers as they claim.

I am sure there is something fishy about how this withheld amount goes back to their affected AdWords advertisers. This needs to be thoroughly investigated and made public.

Suppose I am an AdSense publisher and I have two sites.

1) abc.com
2) xyz.com

abc.com is compliant with their program policies, but xyz.com is NOT.

I earn $1000 in total. ($400 from abc.com and $600 from xyz.com.)

I get banned and they withhold $1000 saying they will return the earnings to the *affected* advertisers.

So, the money they have to return to the affected advertisers is $600 (earned through non-compliant site), but they withhold $1000 (including the earnings from the compliant site.)

They must tell us where that money goes. That's fishy how they keep all the earnings of a disabled publisher and provide no means of communication except an appeal form which is handled with in an extremely racist way.

IN ADDITION

If you use AdSense, you have an option to hold your payments. Every month your payments are processed, audited and accumulated in your account. You don't get paid until you remove the hold. Suddenly, they disable your account and withhold all your earnings, even the ones that were audited and processed.

This is like...

I work for a firm as a salesman and tell them to hold my salaries / commissions for 6 months and one day I make a mistake and get fired and they withhold all my salaries / commissions. Yikes!

PREFERENTIAL RANKINGS

Once you are out of their AdSense programs, your sites will go down the SERPs and the sites with Google ads will take your place. I am positive that they give preference to AdSense sites in the search results and disabled AdSense publishers’ sites will be treated with extreme bias.

WHAT’S MORE?

They are racist in that they require people from certain countries including China, India, Pakistan, Malaysia, and Indonesia etc. to wait until 6 months before they can apply and be accepted in the program while other countries can just apply and get approved within a few minutes. If a publisher from any of these countries is disabled, their appeals are handled in the same racist way.

In brief, I am of view that AdSense is a smartly-crafted scam by the trio (Eric, Page and Sergey). The US government (FTC, FBI, and Justice Department) should investigate their scammish business practices in the same way they are going after Megaupload people.

January 24, 2012 - 6:56am

I'm a 100% sure the concerned authorities in the U.S. have already started looking into Google’s *behind the scene* illegal business practices. Sooner than later, we will see something mind boggling all around the world. Take it as a prediction. Take it as an opinion. Your choice!

January 25, 2012 - 6:29pm

This is, beyond a doubt, giving more favoritism to big brands...who even has ads on their site? The answer is -- sites that are not big brands.

What's Google's definition of ad clutter? Or too many ads above the fold? What's their definition of the "fold," anyway? These are all vague elements that they never seem to define. It's sad how the creator of the world's most used search engine can keep editing their "ten commandments" as they see fit.

On an unrelated note, one of my largest sites got torched on Jan. 5th with what appears to be more backlash from Panda. For four years, I was ranking for 4 major long-tail, four keyword terms. I was promptly REMOVED FROM GOOGLE for these terms, and now a big brand nationwide company is enjoying my old spot (they also have a page 1, #1 position thanks to their inexhaustibly large Adwords budget), along with their competitors. I didn't deserve the position anymore because I'm not a big brand, although, I provided a far better user experience than the aforementioned retro 1997 website...

F*** Google

January 27, 2012 - 7:46pm

...Amazon.com has 3rd party ads on their site. I think this is ultimately where Google's brand bias will hurt them...they will consolidate verticals too aggressively & then create new vertical ad networks that end up competing against Google.

I agree with you though that I hate there being more gray area "two books of law" styled stuff going on in search. What is even more egregious is how Google keeps inserting its own thin spam layer in the SERPs (places scraper site, product search scraper site, youtube parasite video host, google+ scraper site, google books scraper site, etc.)

January 29, 2012 - 6:24am

Google is now promoting porno sites to compensate $500 million penalty for promoting illegal drugs.
http://img28.imageshack.us/img28/2480/fireshotscreencapture.png

January 29, 2012 - 6:53am

Google is now promoting porno sites to compensate $500 million penalty for promoting illegal drugs.
http://i39.tinypic.com/2ewd65h.png

Renee Pawlish
January 31, 2012 - 2:16am

Good lord, this is the worst way of trying to post a comment :) Sorry but every time I try to comment on the blog post I want to, it makes me sign in, and then it doesn't take me back to the page where I want to comment (that's terrible) - thought you should know (I'm sure you're losing people this way).
Anyway, my question is why should each blog post title be different? I have a blog about film noir and so far (about 5 posts) I've titled them "The Best of Film Noir" and then the movie title - is this bad to use a consistent title like that and if so, why?
Many thanks,
Renee

January 31, 2012 - 8:33pm

...feel free to ask in the member forums.

Renee Pawlish
February 1, 2012 - 1:01am

Sorry, this is the worst way to treat someone with a question. You lost a customer....

February 1, 2012 - 2:55am

...between a customer and a freetard.

Can you guess which camp you fit in?

February 14, 2012 - 6:37pm

Google put out an email today suggesting tips to increase AdSense performance. In it are some pretty outrageous AdSense "integration" examples, including ones where Google has no content on the page other than a couple sidebar images & AdSense ads front and center. ;)

February 19, 2014 - 10:21pm

I suddenly face drop in ranking. After doing many changes, i thought may be ad units could affect the raking. There was 3 ad units above the fold in my blog. So, i start digging and after reading your article, i removed 1 unit and now there are only 2 ad units above the fold. I hope this will improve my ranking. By the way thanks for sharing valuable knowledge with us.

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