Readers reacted strongly to yesterday’s column about how to use Google AdWords/AdSense to punish BP through its web advertising effort aimed at influencing public opinion. Rather than respond through the comments I think this subject warrants a column of its own because I’d rather address the AdWords/AdSense click fraud aspect of the subject and leave BP and oil spills out of it for now.

The crux of reader concerns come down to the idea that a publisher asking readers to click on ads violates Google’s terms of service and risks that site being banned from AdSense. It probably does violate Google’s terms of service, but then so do many things that happen on the web and frankly I don’t particularly care.

Look at the ads on this page, for example. I have no idea what ads you are seeing or even who the advertisers are. The ads on this page are served by IDG Technet. But your clicking on those ads pays private school tuition for my three sons so I hope you will click on any ads you find interesting.

Hey, did I just violate Google’s terms of service?

Yes I did, just like tens of thousands of other sites do that dare to refer to the ad content of their pages.

I doubt that Google will punish me, though. And I frankly don’t care that much if they do because Google isn’t the only game in town when it comes to Internet advertising, though we all act as though they are.

Google’s AdSense policy of Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell is hypocritical, but then so too are most of Google’s other opaque policies. Everything with Google is algorithmic yet the algorithm is never defined. Enforcement, too, follows yet another unpublished algorithm. Google seems open to the idea of its partners being a little bad while never defining exactly how much bad is too much bad. Presumably we’re deemed not smart enough to understand.

Google benefits from click fraud so it tolerates it to some degree, with that degree never being fully defined, either.

My kids play free game sites that require clicking on an ad before the game will play. Is that click fraud? Given that it is the modus operandi of the entire site, I think it can’t be. Certainly the must-click policy isn’t hidden from advertisers.  But by some definitions — and even some laws — it is click fraud.

What model counts in what situation? Nobody knows.

All of this works to Google’s advantage. They control the game in part by refusing to openly define it. We accept without question their de facto regulator role. And pages like this one that question what the heck is really happening behind the scenes are viewed as arguing over how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

If we are going to have rules then define them clearly and enforce them firmly.

But that will never happen with Google running the show because firm rules can’t be optimized and Google is all about optimization.

If the rule changes day-to-day or hour-to-hour then defining it clearly and enforcing it is too hard. And Google, seeing itself as playing in a dynamic competitive market, doesn’t want to do anything hard.

It’s easy to blame Google and easier still to blame Google for its lame algorithmic defense which wouldn’t fly with your Mom or mine. But what I have realized just recently is that there is a particular basis inside Google for this behavior: not enough normal people work there.

I was tempted to write “not enough dumb people work at Google,” but that’s not the real point. The point is that if you have too many geniuses things get skewed and distorted and here we stand as a result with Big Brother Google. They just need a little bit of normal thrown-in but can’t bring themselves to do that because it isn’t like Google.

“Don’t be evil” is a glib corporate tagline for Google but it doesn’t get to the heart of the company’s problem in dealing with its billions of customers. There simply isn’t anyone working at Google who can effectively relate to those customers — to you and me — because we fail to share any common frame of reference, which Google as an organization sees as being beneath it.

Here is an example of what I mean. I wrote a couple years ago about problems I was having with Google Sites, which was previously called JotSpot. JotSpot was far easier to use than Google Sites, which was supposed to be the improved version. Because I influence a lot of thinking Google reached out to me and offered assistance in using Sites. Surely with a little instruction I’d see the beauty of the new architecture.


The improvements to JotSpot helped Google but didn’t help me. The developers and testers at Google didn’t share my difficulties because they were too close to their work. What seemed obvious to them wasn’t at all obvious to me and I’m not stupid, just busy.

I know this is a long way from click fraud or BP, but it speaks to the essential nature of what’s click fraud and what’s not in the context of today’s Internet. As a publisher I can refer to ads on my site, pointing out that they produce income for Mrs. Cringely. If that’s click fraud then I am guilty.