Solving Google and Yahoo Eternal Click Fraud Problem

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A few hours ago, I stumbled upon an article in DM News that stated that the issue of click fraud is no closer to being resolved today than it was years ago. That got me thinking whether or not that is really the case.

The whole issue certainly does appear in the media on a regular basis. It’s a popular topic which is of great concern to me personally, as I am the Director of Operations at a click fraud detection and prevention firm – AdWatcher (I feel that this disclaimer is needed in order to better understand my point of view). But the question is whether or not there is really no progress when it comes down to fraudulent clicks? And whether that it the case or not, what can and should be done next?

In order to better understand the battle against this problem, it’s important to realize that it’s not the type of issue that can simply disappear overnight. In fact, it’s unlikely that it will ever fully disappear or will be completely resolved. Rather, measures need to be developed in order to gain better control over fraud and minimize the damage that it causes.

Let’s just take a brief look at the history of click fraud across our industry and see what type of progress has been accomplished… and you may be pleasantly surprised:

Source: The Lane’s Gifts v. Google Report by Alexander Tuzhilin

Prior to 2003: Google was just getting started with their AdWords platform and had pretty limited knowledge about click fraud in general. They had about 3 basic filters to monitor for fraudulent activity, but primarily they were just learning about it. At this point, they didn’t really have any solid plan in place to deal with the problem.

Spring 2003: Google launched a Click Quality team to try to develop a better infrastructure for addressing the problem. The team would be responsible for developing solutions for detecting click fraud, investigating advertisers’ claims, and monitoring suspicious traffic.

Fall 2005: While way overdue, Google has finally revised their policy regarding “double click.” Prior to that, if a second click was made within a few seconds of the first one, each click would be counted and billed for. It’s very odd that Google took so long to revise this policy, as in retrospect it seems absurd to charge for multiple clicks taking place one after the other. However, we do need to acknowledge that the policy was ultimately changed.

Summer 2006: Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and a few other search engines teamed up with IAB (Interactive Advertising Bureau) to try to establish guidelines for what constitutes valid and invalid clicks on ads. A year has passed and, unfortunately, nothing solid really came out of it. However, it is a process that will take time. It took the group over 14 months to come up with guidelines for “impressions”, so it can take just as much or more to come together on a “click standard.”

Spring 2007: Yahoo appointed Reggie Davis, the attorney who was previously managing their litigation, as the VP of Marketplace Quality. Definitely a good move on their behalf as he will be responsible for managing efforts concerning click fraud, traffic quality, network placement, and so on. And most importantly, he’ll be responsible for establishing a dialogue between Yahoo!’s advertisers and publishers regarding quality related matters.

Summer 2007: Yahoo launches Quality-Based Pricing where they claim to automatically discount bid prices for low-quality partners. Our regular contributor, Kevin Gold, expressed some concerns regarding this and there is still a lot of ambiguity regarding how this will actually work. But it’s certainly a step in the right direction.

It is just a small roundup of latest actions taken by the search engines to continuously address the click fraud issue. It does appear that over the years constant pressure by the media and other forces made the search engines take a closer look at the problem and try to figure out some solutions.

What could be the next step? In my opinion – more transparency, as I believe that transparency between the search engines and the advertisers is the key. I’m not advocating for search engines to disclose their click fraud detection techniques. I understand the reasons why they keep them under wraps and the potential for abuse if they make it public.

However, how about simply offering a detailed breakdown of the clicks they bill the advertiser for? Just like you have a breakdown of every call you make on your phone bill (and a local call usually costs a lot less than a popular keyword), they could offer their advertisers a statement broken down by click, IP address, keyword, cost, and so on.

A simple move like that would let the advertiser know exactly what they are being billed for. It would give them, and third party click fraud monitoring tools, the ability to compare their own data with the search engines’ and find any discrepancies. Once we can do that, detecting fraudulent clicks and wrong charges would become a whole lot easier and would remove a lot of the suspicions that the advertisers currently have against Google, Yahoo and others.

One thing is clear, though – “just trust us” approach may not cut it much longer.

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3 Comments

  1. We completely agree and "just trust us" is no longer cutting it. Advertisers need to demand a "phone bill" type of log which enables them to reconcile their ad click activity - for many different click quality reasons. Search engines are not moving fast enough to eliminate obvious click fraud and click quality issues (e.g. bots, competitor clicks, non-converting MFA sites, no referrer ad traffic) negatively impacting the ROI of advertiser campaigns. Advertisers need to audit their ad click activity on a regular basis, consider the use of 3rd party auditing tools and services to mitigate click fraud and click quality issues, and present their reports and findings to the engines during regular account review meetings. Kevin Embree SVP, Product Strategy Click Forensics

  2. Kevin, Thanks for your input. I know that ClickForensics is definitely working well towards that goal. Boris

  3. Over and above what you say, I would like to see the search engines independantly audited on a regular basis and reports produced for the advertisers on the quality of their controls. There seems to have been very little auditing of click fraud techniques at the search engines, Alexander Tuzhilin's report is the exception. I think a big step forward would be for the search engines to engage the services of independant auditors, the big four accountacy firms spring to mind. Their task on an annual basis would be to prove that their controls are adequate.