Earlier today, a huge allegation was made regarding AdSense and Google’s practices surrounding the program: “a former Google employee” claimed the company was and still is stealing money from publishers. Google has denied the whole posting, which has resulted in a heated discussion on many sites including Hacker News.
The supposed Google scheme involved shutting down AdSense accounts without explanation, as well as banning sites that were earning $1,000, $5,000, and $10,000 per month. The whistleblower says the whole scandal started in 2009, but he or she chose to wait until it was possible to come forward without being identified.
Google has provided the following statement to TNW:
This description of our AdSense policy enforcement process is a complete fiction,. The color-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.
For those who don’t know, Google AdSense allows publishers in the Google Network of content sites to serve targeted and automatic text, image, video, or interactive media advertisements. These ads are administered, sorted, and maintained by Google, generating revenue on either a per-click or per-impression basis.
Google works with more than 2 million publishers, over a million of which have been using the program for at least five years, and it paid more than $9 billion to its publisher partners last year. The company notes its policies prohibit invalid clicks. Furthermore, when a publisher is disabled for policy violation, payment for the 60 days prior to the disabling is withheld and the money is returned to impacted advertisers.
original post is pasted below for reference:
I am a former Google employee and I am writing this to leak information to the public of what I witnessed and took part in while being an employee. My position was to deal with AdSense accounts, more specifically the accounts of publishers (not advertisers). I was employed at Google for a period of several years in this capacity.
Having signed many documents such as NDA’s and non-competes, there are many repercussions for me, especially in the form of legal retribution from Google. I have carefully planned this leak to coincide with certain factors in Google such as waiting for the appropriate employee turn around so that my identity could not be discovered.
To sum it up for everyone, I took part in what I (and many others) would consider theft of money from the publishers by Google, and from direct orders of management. There were many AdSense employees involved, and it spanned many years, and I hear it still is happening today except on a much wider scale. No one on the outside knows it, if they did, the FBI and possibly IRS would immediately launch an investigation, because what they are doing is so inherently illegal and they are flying completely under the radar.
It began in 2009. Everything was perfectly fine prior to 2009, and in fact it couldn’t be more perfect from an AdSense employees perspective, but something changed.
Google Bans and Ban Criteria
Before December 2012:
In the first quarter of 2009 there was a “sit-down” from the AdSense division higher ups to talk about new emerging issues and the role we (the employees in the AdSense division needed to play. It was a very long meeting, and it was very detailed and intense. What it boiled down to was that Google had suffered some very serious losses in the financial department several months earlier. They kept saying how we “needed to tighten the belts” and they didn’t want it to come from Google employees pockets. So they were going to (in their words) “carry out extreme quality control on AdSense publishers”. When one of my fellow co-workers asked what they meant by that. Their response was that AdSense itself hands out too many checks each month to publishers, and that the checks were too large and that needed to end right away. Many of the employees were not pleased about this (like myself). But they were successful in scaring the rest into thinking it would be their jobs and their money that would be on the line if they didn’t participate. The meeting left many confused as to how this was going to happen. What did they mean by extreme quality control? A few other smaller meetings occur with certain key people in the AdSense division that furthered the idea and procedure they planned on implementing. There were lots of rumors and quiet talking amongst the employees, there was lots of speculations, some came true and some didn’t. But the word was that they were planning to cut off a large portion of publisher’s payments.
After that point there was a running gag amongst fellow co-workers where we would walk by each other and whisper “Don’t be evil, pft!” and roll our eyes.
What happened afterwards became much worse. Their “quality control” came into full effect. Managers pushed for wide scale account bans, and the first big batch of bans happened in March of 2009. The main reason, the publishers made too much money. But something quite devious happened. We were told to begin banning accounts that were close to their payout period (which is why account bans never occur immediately after a payout). The purpose was to get that money owed to publishers back to Google AdSense, while having already served up the ads to the public.
This way the advertiser’s couldn’t claim we did not do our part in delivering their ads and ask for money back. So in a sense, we had thousands upon thousands of publishers deliver ads we knew they were never going to get paid for.
Google reaped both sides of the coin, got money from the advertisers, used the publishers, and didn’t have to pay them a single penny. We were told to go and look into the publishers accounts, and if any publisher had accumulated earnings exceeding $5000 and was near a payout or in the process of a payout, we were to ban the account right away and reverse the earnings back. They kept saying it was needed for the company, and that most of these publishers were ripping Google off anyways, and that their gravy train needed to end. Many employees were not happy about this. A few resigned over it. I did not. I stayed because I had a family to support, and secondly I wanted to see how far they would go.
From 2009 to 2012 there were many more big batches of bans. The biggest of all the banning sessions occurred in April of 2012. The AdSense division had enormous pressure from the company to make up for financial losses, and for Google’s lack of reaching certain internal financial goals for the quarter prior. So the push was on. The employees felt really uneasy about the whole thing, but we were threatened
with job losses if we didn’t enforce the company’s wishes. Those who voiced concerned or issue were basically ridiculed with “not having the company’s best interest in mind” and not being “team players”. Morale in the division was at an all-time low. The mood of the whole place changed quite rapidly. It no longer was a fun place to work.
The bans of April 2012 came fast and furious. Absolutely none of them were investigated, nor were they justified in any way. We were told to get rid of as many of the accounts with the largest checks/payouts/earnings waiting to happen. No reason, just do it, and don’t question it. It was heart wrenching seeing all that money people had earned all get stolen from them. And that’s what I saw it as, it was a robbery of the AdSense publishers. Many launched appeals, complaints, but it was futile because absolutely no one actually took the time to review the appeals or complaints. Most were simply erased without even being opened, the rest were deposited into the database, never to be touched again.
Several publishers launched legal actions which were settled, but Google had come up with a new policy to deal with situations such as that because it was perceived as a serious problem to be avoided.
So they came up with a new policy.
After December 2012: The New Policy
The new policy; “shelter the possible problem makers, and fuck the rest” (those words were actually said by a Google AdSense exec) when he spoke about the new procedure and policy for “Account Quality Control”.
The new policy was officially called AdSense Quality Control Color Codes (commonly called AQ3C by employees). What it basically was a categorization of publisher accounts. Those publisher’s that could do the most damage by having their account banned were placed in a VIP group that was to be left alone. The rest of the publishers would be placed into other groupings accordingly. The new AQ3C also implemented “quality control” quotas for the account auditors, so if you didn’t meet the “quality control” target (aka account bans) you would be called in for a performance review. There were four “groups” publishers could fall into if they reached certain milestones.
Red Group: Urgent Attention Required
Any AdSense account that reaches the $10,000/month mark is immediately flagged (unless they are part of the Green Group).
- In the beginning there were many in this category, and most were seen as problematic and were seen as abusing the system by Google. So every effort was taken to bring their numbers down.
- They are placed in what employees termed “The Eagle Eye”, where the “AdSense Eagle Eye Team” would actively and constantly audit their accounts and look for any absolute reason for a ban. Even if the reason was far-fetched, or unsubstantiated, and unprovable, the ban would occur. The “Eagle Eye Team” referred to a group of internal account auditors whose main role was to constantly monitor
publisher’s accounts and sites.
- A reason has to be internally attached to the account ban. The problem was that notifying the publisher for the reason is not a requirement, even if the publisher asks. The exception: The exact reason must be provided if a legal representative contacts Google on behalf of the account holder.
- But again, if a ban is to occur, it must occur as close to a payout period as possible with the most amount of money accrued/earned.
Yellow Group: Serious Attention Required
Any AdSense account that reaches the $5,000/month mark is flagged for review (unless they are part of the Green Group).
- All of the publisher’s site(s)/account will be placed in queue for an audit.
- Most of the time the queue is quite full so most are delayed their audit in a timely fashion.
- The second highest amount of bans occur at this level.
- A reason has to be internally attached to the account ban. Notifiying the publisher for the reason is not a requirement, even if the publisher asks. The exception: The exact reason must be provided if a legal representative contacts Google on behalf of the account holder.
- But again, if a ban is to occur, it must occur as close to a payout period as possible with the most amount of money accrued/earned.
Blue Group: Moderate Attention Required
Any AdSense account that reaches the $1,000/month mark is flagged for possible review (unless they are part of the Green Group).
- Only the main site and account will be place in queue for what is called a quick audit.
- Most bans that occur happen at this level. Main reason is that a reason doesn’t have to be attached to the ban, so the employees use these bans to fill their monthly quotas. So many are simply a random pick and click.
- A reason does not have to be internally attached to the account ban. Notifying the publisher for the reason is not a requirement, even if the publisher asks.
- But again, if a ban is to occur, it must occur as close to a payout period as possible with the most amount of money accrued.
Green Group: VIP Status (what employees refer to as the “untouchables”)
Any AdSense account associated with an incorporated entity or individual that can inflict serious damage onto Google by negative media information, rallying large amounts of anti-AdSense support, or cause mass loss of AdSense publisher support.
- Google employees wanting to use AdSense on their websites were automatically placed in the Green group. So the database contained many Google insiders and their family members. If you work or worked for Google and were placed in the category, you stayed in it, even if you left Google. So it included many former employees. Employees simply had to submit a form with site specific details and
their account info.
- Sites in the Green Group were basically given “carte blanche” to do anything they wanted, even if they flagrantly went against the AdSense TOS and Policies. That is why you will encounter sites with AdSense, but yet have and do things completely against AdSense rules.
- Extra care is taken not to interrupt or disrupt these accounts.
- If an employee makes a mistake with a Green Level account they can lose their job. Since it seen as very grievous mistake.
New Policy 2012 Part 2:
Internal changes to the policy were constant. They wanted to make it more efficient and streamlined. They saw its current process as having too much human involvement and oversight. They wanted it more automated and less involved.
So the other part of the new policy change was to incorporate other Google services into assisting the “quality control” program. What they came up with will anger many users when they find out. It involved skewing data in Google Analytics. They decided it was a good idea to alter the statistical data shown for websites. It first began with just altering data reports for Analytics account holders that also
had an AdSense account, but they ran into too many issues and decided it would be simpler just to skew the report data across the board to remain consistent and implement features globally. So what this means is that the statistical data for a website using Google Analytics is not even close to being accurate. The numbers are incredibly deflated. The reasoning behind their decision is that if an individual links their AdSense account and their Analytics account, the Analytics account can be used to deflate the earnings automatically without any human intervention. They discovered that if an individual had an AdSense account then they were also likely to use Google Analytics. So Google used it to their advantage.
This led to many publishers to actively display ads, without earning any money at all (even to this day). Even if their actual website traffic was high, and had high click-throughs the data would be automatically skewed in favor of Google, and at a total loss of publishers. This successfully made it almost impossible for anyone to earn amounts even remotely close what individuals with similar sites were earning prior to 2012, and most definitely nowhere near pre-2009 earnings. Other policy changes also included how to deal with appeals, which still to this day, the large majority are completely ignored, and why you will rarely get an actual answer as to why your account was banned and absolutely no way to resolve it.
The BIG Problem (which Google is aware of)
There is an enormous problem that existed for a long time in Google’s AdSense accounts. Many of the upper management are aware of this problem but do not want to acknowledge or attempt to come up with a solution to the problem.
It is regarding false clicks on ads. Many accounts get banned for “invalid clicks” on ads. In the past this was caused by a publisher trying to self inflate click-throughs by clicking on the ads featured on their website. The servers automatically detect self-clicking with comparison to IP addresses and other such information, and the persons account would get banned for invalid clicking.
But there was something forming under the surface. A competitor or malicious person would actively go to their competitor’s website(s) or pick a random website running AdSense and begin multiple-clicking and overclicking ads, which they would do over and over again. Of course this would trigger an invalid clicking related ban, mainly because it could not be proven if the publisher was actually behind the clicking. This was internally referred to as “Click-Bombing”. Many innocent publishers would get caught up in bans for invalid clicks which they were not involved in and were never told about.
This issue has been in the awareness of Google for a very long time but nothing was done to rectify the issue and probably never will be. Thus if someone wants to ruin a Google AdSense publishers account, all you would have to do is go to their website, and start click-bombing their Google Ads over and over again, it will lead the servers to detect invalid clicks and poof, they get banned. The publisher would be completely innocent and unaware of the occurrence but be blamed for it anyways.
Their BIG Fear
The biggest fear that Google has about these AdSense procedures and policies is that it will be publicly discovered by their former publishers who were banned, and that those publishers unite together and launch an class-action lawsuit.
They also fear those whose primary monthly earnings are from AdSense, because in many countries if a person claims the monthly amount to their tax agency and they state the monthly amount and that they are earning money from Google on a monthly basis, in certain nations technically Google can be seen as an employer. Thus, an employer who withholds payment of earnings, can be heavily fined by government bodies dealing with labor and employment. And if these government bodies dealing with labor and employment decide to go after Google, then it would get very ugly, very quickly ….. that is on top of a class-action lawsuit.
Google is investigating the source of this alleged leak and will likely follow up based on what it finds.
Top Image Credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images