Google has been sued over allegations that it suddenly and without explanation withholds ad money from web site publishers once their sites become successful. The lawsuit — filed by Hagens Berman, a big plaintiffs’ law firm that specialises in filing class actions — cites an anonymous conspiracy theory posted by someone claiming to be a Google employee on the Pastebin site several days ago.
Most people regard the “Adsense leaker” as a fake. But as Business Insider noted previously, Google often behaves so mysteriously that many advertisers and publishers will actually welcome to suit: It may finally shed some light on exactly how and why Google kicks websites out of its vast, $US60 billion-a-year advertising system.
For its part, Google is constrained in explaining publicly how it detects bad behaviour and click fraud on the web because doing so would help those creating the fraud. So its bans often feel secretive or arbitrary to publishers. Publishers may not even know that their sites are being used as pivot points for fake traffic.
Google declined comment. Google has previously vehemently denied that it spikes payments to publishers simply to save money. Indeed, as Google merely takes a cut of ads placed on its system, it actually reduces Google’s own revenue when it cancels publishers’ accounts and reverses ad payments back to the advertisers.
The suit, which claims breach of contract and unjust enrichment, was filed on behalf of Free Range Content Inc., a company that runs the content licensing site Repost.us. In February 2014, Repost noticed a traffic spike on its web sites, and notified Google, according to the suit. Repost says it was on track to earn $US40,000 that month from Adsense — it usually booked only $US8,000 to $US11,000. The company claims it asked Google if there was a problem, because the payment looked as if it was going to be unusually large.
On March 4, Google banned Repost account, the lawsuit alleges. Google has banned 250,000 web sites this way, the suit claims:
Google, by its own tally, has disabled a massive number of publisher accounts. For example, in a January 17, 2014 post entitled “Inside AdWords, Google’s official blog for news tips and information on AdWords” — a publication directed to the advertiser side of Google’s advertising ecosystem — Google states that “by the end of 2013” it had “[r]emoved more than 250,000 ad-funded publishers’ accounts for various policy reasons.”
The suit also cites a bulletin board run by YCombinator, a site favoured by software developers and other tech types, on which Adsense users have complained about being kicked out of Google’s system:
This practice has sparked numerous bitter complaints detailed at various places on the web. For example, one self-described AdSense publisher stated the following: “It’s common knowledge among SEOs that AdSense tends to be disabled a few days before the supposed payout. I haven’t lost any big sum — only $US2000 but I know one person that lost $US40,000. It was all legitimate traffic coming straight from Google themselves, no click fraud no bought traffic etc. PS: I was using AdSense from 2008 to 2013 — over 5 years so it’s not like only new users got banned.”
But the part that might infuriate Google the most is the section of the suit that quotes from the notorious Google Adsense Leak. The “leak” came in two parts, and is detailed enough that it sounds true, although insiders such as Google anti-spam chief Matt Cutts say it gets a number of things wrong — and thus is unlikely to have been written by a real Google employee. Indeed, the suit admits it has no evidence to back the theory:
As of the date of this complaint, plaintiff cannot confirm the veracity of the allegations made by the individual or individuals in these two posts. If true, the posts could help to illuminate why Google took such harsh and unfair action against the plaintiff, notwithstanding its good faith efforts to comply with Google’s policies. They also could help to explain why so many publishers have complained of similar actions on the part of Google.
Google denied the theory at the time with this statement:
This description of our AdSense policy enforcement process is a complete fiction. The colour-coding and ‘extreme quality control’ programs the author describes don’t exist. Our teams and automated systems work around the clock to stop bad actors and protect our publishers, advertisers and users.
All publishers that sign up for AdSense agree to the Terms and Conditions of the service and a set of policies designed to ensure the quality of the network for users, advertisers and other publishers. When we discover violations of these policies, we take quick action, which in some cases includes disabling the publisher’s account and refunding affected advertisers.
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