Con­trib­u­tor Andrew Good­man sug­gests we may not like the way Google man­ages the AdWords pro­gram, but any­thing less and the SERPs and adver­tis­ing ecosys­tem would have implod­ed long ago.

Around the pay-per-click (PPC) water cool­er, it’s been whis­pered that Google just might be out for its own finan­cial self-inter­est. (Shhh! Don’t tell!)

That Google search is an utter­ly dom­i­nant and indis­pens­able source of high-qual­i­ty, high-intent paid search traf­fic makes it impos­si­ble to do any­thing but max­i­mize our spend in this chan­nel, of course. But many of us rou­tine­ly do so with a sus­pi­cious mind. We wor­ry, among oth­er things, that the inter­face and the ter­mi­nol­o­gy asso­ci­at­ed with Google AdWords is “tricky,” all part of a dron­ing nar­ra­tive bent on dri­ving up cost-per-click (CPC).

Frankly, that’s a giv­en. But if we move past that, what insights might we gain?

Google Guvernment

Over the years, I’ve nick­named Google “The Guvern­ment” (which was the name of a pop­u­lar for­mer night­club in Toronto’s East Water­front area) and dubbed them the “Sher­iff” — for what some­times appear to be quite detailed and heavy-hand­ed poli­cies impact­ing pay­ing adver­tis­ers.

This may strike you as sar­cas­tic (Sar­casm gets us through the day no less effec­tive­ly than it did for Flo on Mel’s Din­er), but if you lean in a bit, you’ll also detect a note of admi­ra­tion.

Google is self-inter­est­ed, but they’ve got the goods. And they’re unique­ly con­sci­en­tious in many ways. One hol­i­day sea­son, a Christ­mas gift from one of those “alter­na­tive” sources of PPC arrived ear­ly in the New Year at my home, sent from an address in upstate New York. Why was the pack­age so slow? Well, for starters, it was tick­ing. You guessed it: a clock. My long-suf­fer­ing col­league (we’ll call him D) didn’t miss a beat:

Every tick rep­re­sents a fraud­u­lent click.

Google’s nothing like that

Maybe it’s time to dial up the admi­ra­tion lev­el, or at least focus on under­stand­ing what makes Google so unusu­al and spe­cial as a self-imposed reg­u­la­tor of mat­ters that it could eas­i­ly remain agnos­tic about. In what appears to be a mas­sive para­dox, Google has made a busi­ness of not glibly tak­ing mon­ey from bor­der­line busi­ness mod­els that car­ry too much bag­gage or threat of ille­gal­i­ty.

That being said, Google has also had laps­es in this area, includ­ing some high-pro­file cas­es in the phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals field. To get into specifics, here’s a sum­ma­ry of some of the many ways Google reg­u­lates adver­tis­ers and the over­all adver­tis­ing envi­ron­ment.

  • Gen­er­al con­sumer pro­tec­tion. It’s for­tu­nate that most juris­dic­tions also have exten­sive legal frame­works for con­sumer pro­tec­tion. But if you’re in the adver­tis­ing pro­gram, Google may sim­ply ban you if it deter­mines your busi­ness mod­el is in a reg­u­lat­ed field, ille­gal or just at a high risk of mis­lead­ing or defraud­ing cus­tomers.
  • Feed qual­i­ty and feed con­tents. Google Shop­ping works best for con­sumers if Google has a well-main­tained and truth­ful feed to work with. If a feed con­tains cer­tain banned or restrict­ed prod­ucts or land­ing pages where, say, mis­lead­ing health claims are made, the items may be dis­al­lowed. But make no mis­take: The Sher­iff (Google) dis­likes some con­tro­ver­sial prod­ucts so strong­ly, even if they rep­re­sent 0.01 per­cent of a rep­utable merchant’s feed, the entire feed may be dis­abled if months go by with­out prob­lem areas being rec­ti­fied. That could rep­re­sent 40 per­cent of a large online retailer’s dai­ly sales.
  • User expe­ri­ence pet peeves. Google has nev­er liked things like pop-ups and aggres­sive data col­lec­tion (“squeeze pages”). These beliefs, arguably, are at once entire­ly sci­en­tif­ic but also sub­jec­tive. Google exer­cis­es its pre­rog­a­tive in terms of how much it will cen­sure a web­site or adver­tis­er for the pres­ence of annoy­ances or pri­va­cy intru­sions. And this spans the paid and organ­ic sides. Recent­ly, I heard from a very savvy cre­ator of large con­tent sites (with some mon­e­ti­za­tion attached in the form of sub­scrip­tion prod­ucts) that organ­ic rank for many of their pages was strong when they avoid­ed overt mon­e­ti­za­tion, such as email address col­lec­tion for the pur­pos­es of sign­ing inter­est­ed par­ties up for a free tri­al. Although the paid and organ­ic sides of Google work inde­pen­dent­ly in many ways, philoso­phies tend to con­verge around pro­tec­tion of user pri­va­cy and pre­vent­ing users from bounc­ing or com­plain­ing due to annoy­ing user expe­ri­ence (UX) prac­tices.
  • In Google’s eyes, noth­ing is less user-friend­ly than a slow-load­ing page — except, of course, for a slow-load­ing page on a site that isn’t par­tic­u­lar­ly mobile-friend­ly. Arguably, in the AdWords pro­gram, Google doesn’t just leave adver­tis­ers to fail on their own (say, by los­ing mon­ey), but they also com­pound the pain for that adver­tis­er by bak­ing some of these sig­nals into Qual­i­ty Score. Why? Because (1) they don’t want users to go to such pages at all, ide­al­ly; and (2) they want to effect change. In pop­u­lar pol­i­cy stud­ies par­lance, this acts as a “nudge” to give folks an incen­tive to sit up and take notice of their poor mobile UX, for instance, to put the resources into this now, rather than “next year, for sure.”
  • Of course, there is much more. Take ad copy alone. Google has long watched out for adver­tis­ers exploit­ing loop­holes in ad copy cre­ation. To pro­vide a lev­el play­ing field among adver­tis­ers, you can’t game the race for user atten­tion by using all caps or oth­er­wise cre­at­ing “shouty” ads that degrade the over­all expe­ri­ence of using a search engine. That’s a lit­tle like the con­do board that won’t let you put a bed­sheet (or even pol­ka-dot­ted roller blinds) on your win­dows. Google is try­ing to pre­vent a tragedy-of-the-com­mons degra­da­tion of the search engine results page (SERP).
  • Last-click attri­bu­tion is an inac­cu­rate way to mea­sure the effec­tive­ness of adver­tis­ing. Google is encour­ag­ing us to move to more effec­tive attri­bu­tion mod­els.
  • Although ad exten­sions are far from a per­fect land­scape, they present an inter­est­ing way to improve how much objec­tive infor­ma­tion is includ­ed on the SERP. Google doesn’t have to show any giv­en ad exten­sion. They can tweak the algo­rithm to qui­et­ly favor and boost trust lev­els in cer­tain types of adver­tis­ers, such as con­ven­tion­al, well-known com­pa­nies if they so choose. To be sure, they can come up with pre­cise ways of incen­tiviz­ing adver­tis­ers to bid high­er in order to trig­ger cov­et­ed ad exten­sions that just… won’t… show up… every… time. ( See above, under “sus­pi­cious minds.”)

Flaws, fits and fighting

Cer­tain­ly, there remain many flaws in Google’s process­es. Many of us are pained by ad dis­ap­provals for one or two ads in an ad group that refer not to these ads, but to the busi­ness mod­el of the entire site. If 99 per­cent of the ads in an account for an innocu­ous prod­uct line are approved and harm­less, it’s impos­si­ble that vir­tu­al­ly iden­ti­cal ads for the same com­pa­ny are ban-wor­thy.

Such all-too-com­mon glitch­es give us fits. Google’s many false pos­i­tives, one might be told, are the result of a “well, you can’t be too care­ful” atti­tude. But it appears that far too many pol­i­cy vio­la­tors and char­la­tans are per­mit­ted to open AdWords accounts in the first place. The sys­tem and the pro­to­cols are quite open (though far less so than with organ­ic search), so the men­tal­i­ty of “always fight­ing spam­mers” seems to do a dis­ser­vice to rep­utable adver­tis­ers and their sig­nif­i­cant non-laun­dered monies.

This is the key­word adver­tis­ing ecosys­tem today, but it feels unsta­ble and uncom­fort­able much of the time.

Do more they should

Yet I can’t think of any com­pa­ny oth­er than Google that would have had the fore­sight to stay so far ahead of what often appear to be debat­able issues of con­sumer pro­tec­tion and intra-adver­tis­er fair­ness. They could do even more; per­haps they should.

And they’ve done this while diver­si­fy­ing and grow­ing ad pro­grams in a com­plex envi­ron­ment with lit­er­al­ly mil­lions of adver­tis­ers. Think of where we might be had Google not pushed for high stan­dards of the types out­lined above.

  • Con­sumer trust in search engine results would be much low­er.
  • Con­sumer trust in adver­tis­ers would be much low­er.
  • The user’s dai­ly expe­ri­ence would be slow­er.
  • Adver­tis­ers would chase more per­verse incen­tives; the aver­age par­tic­i­pant in the AdWords pro­gram would be more inclined to lis­ten to snake-oil sales­men and tip­sters offer­ing insignif­i­cant ways to get an edge over more straight-arrow com­peti­tors. They would spend time and ener­gy lis­ten­ing to triv­ial trick­ery rather than div­ing deep into data and get­ting to know clients; they would be stunt­ing their mar­ket­ing careers.

If any­thing, we should be expect­ing more, not less, scruti­ny from Nan­ny Google. It may not always feel that it’s in our best inter­est, and some­times it’s more self-serv­ing than Google lets on.

But the alter­na­tive feels worse. Under a less firm hand, the SERPs and adver­tis­ing ecosys­tem may well have implod­ed long ago. Nan­ny Google may be tough, but she lets us live in her house. And it’s a big, sun­ny house indeed.