Harvard professor Ben Edelman calls it conversion-inflation syndication fraud. We call it typical Google.
In early February, at a net-conscious conference in San Francisco, Edelman exposed one of those online boondoggles that shows you just how much Google overplays the efficiency of its web-dominating ad system.
Using a PC loaded with WhenU - a sly piece of adware along the lines of Gator or Zango - he had recently visited the website run by RCN, a US cable outfit. As he surfed RCN.com, WhenU would all but fill his display with Google ads, including one for RCN.com.
In other words, Google may be charging RCN for traffic it's already getting.
"RCN has already paid to get a user to its site - perhaps via a postcard, TV advertisement, display ad, or other paid search activity," Edelman writes in a blog post. "But then WhenU intercedes and puts a roadblock in front of that user...A typical user presented with that popup will click the RCN entry to get back to RCN and continue the signup process. But then RCN pays twice to reach a single user."
And, he argues, this false traffic may actually encourage RCN to spend more on its Google ads. "If RCN is tracking conversion rates, it will notice that this WhenU/Google placement seems to have a high conversion rate - reflecting that this ad was shown to users already on the verge of signing up with RCN," he writes. "So in all likelihood, RCN will increase its Google bid to attempt to obtain more traffic of similar (apparent) quality.
"But the supposed high conversion rate is misleading at best: Since these are users who were already at the RCN site, without any intervention by Google or WhenU, it is nonsense to credit Google or WhenU for resulting sales."
When Edelman unveiled this RCN quagmire back in February, a senior Google trademark lawyer was in the audience, and according to Edelman she promised to investigate. But three months on, the situation persists.
Google did not respond to our multiple requests for comment.
Apparently, several intermediaries sit between the Mountain View ads giant and WhenU's adware pop-up. Edelman's network monitor shows traffic passing from WhenU to LocalPages to Nbcsearch and on to InfoSpace before reaching Google. In addition to serving ads onto Google's search engine and other Google-owned sites, the company's AdWords platform syndicates ads to third-party search and content sites, and so many advertisers are unaware of where their ads might turn up.
As Edelman pointed out, this is just one example where Google ads may force sites to pay for redundant traffic. In turning a blind eye to typo-squatting, Google allows all sorts of parasitic web middlemen to siphon traffic away from legitimate sites. The middlemen may return the traffic - but at a price.
If an unsuspecting web surfer attempts to visit Comcast.com but leaves out an "o" when typing in the url, Edelman points out, they'll be taken to cmcast.com. And, yes, cmcast.com includes a Google ad that links back to Comcast.
But in some cases Google may create redundant ad traffic without a middleman. When you type stuff into the main address bar on Google's Chrome browser - the so-called Omnibox - it likes to suggest Google searches. You may be typing a url, trying to visit a site directly, but Google will still suggest a Google search. As Edelman shows, if you begin to type "Expedia.com," the first suggestion is "Search Google for expedia." And if you search Google for expedia, you get an ad for Expedia.com.
"Omnibox makes it so easy to run a search and it makes it somewhat harder to run a direct navigation," Edelman tells The Reg. "Chrome is encouraging you to search. That's in Google's interest. But is that in your interest? Is it in the advertiser's interest?
"All these examples stand for the same proposition: Google is taking something that advertisers should be getting for free for all rights, and they're bundling it up, packaging it, being a little bit sneaky about the whole thing, and telling advertisers they have to pay for it."
The point here is that the realities of Google's ad platform don't match the company's pitch - as we've pointed out before. The way Google tells it, its "advertisers pay what a click is worth to them." But advertisers don't really know what a Google click is worth. And in some cases, they're paying for nothing. ®