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Google AdSense For Domains Program Overdue For Reform -- And Yahoo & Microsoft Should Also Take Note

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MS Research: Typo-Squatters Are Gaming Google from eWeek covers Microsoft researchers discovering Google's long-standing DomainPark program (AKA AdSense For Domains), where if you have a popular domain name with lots of traffic but no content, Google will kindly hand you some AdSense ads to turn it into an earner. While it is long-standing, I'd say it's also generally little known and definitely upsetting to people who come across it for various reasons. C'mon along, and we'll explore the situation plus some changes that all the search engines need to be considering.

Google Buys Applied Semantics from Search Engine Watch covers how Google inherited the DomainPark program when it purchased Applied Semantics back in 2003. Even back then, the idea of populating content-less domains with paid links had iffy issues, in particular whether better paid link disclosure was needed.

DomainPark was lucrative. When Google acquired it, the program helped Applied Semantics become one of Overture's top 10 partners. Obviously after the Google purchase, Overture paid links were eventually replaced by Google paid links. As some point after the Applied Semantics acquisition, Google changed the name of DomainPark to Google AdSense For Domains, the name it goes under today.

Tapping into typo traffic was a natural for domain owners wanting to make money through DomainPark. Way back when I first wrote (SEW members article) about DomainPark in 2003, I used as an example the IRS.org site which almost certainly gets plenty of traffic from those seeking the US government's IRS.gov site and guessing at the wrong domain name. Checking on the site today, it's still running -- still carrying paid links, though these are provided by Yahoo though a program similar to DomainPark.

In 2004, we noted how there were more than 400 domain names registered with the word Google in them to companies not related to Google. It's something Google's sometimes acted against. Yet ironically, as also noted, some of these sites were making money by populating themselves with content from Google's own DomainPark program.

Some advertisers question how relevant traffic can be from sites that where someone never intended to go to in the first place. Complaint On Yahoo PPC On Placeholder Sites is one example, this one where criticism in this Search Engine Watch Forums thread was aimed at Yahoo's program. NonConverting Traffic Coming From Google's DomainPark Program is a similar thread at WebmasterWorld aimed at Google.

The eWeek article is pretty strong, saying the Microsoft researchers have "blown the lid off" a "scheme" designed to "game" Google and "steal" traffic from other sites. Whether a site is typo squatting and stealing traffic really remains a legal issue to be determined in each and every case.

But perhaps more important, rather than game Google, these are all sites that Google should have reviewed and approved to be in the AdSense For Domains program. After all, unlike AdSense For Search or AdSense For Content, Adsense For Domains is NOT a self-serve product. It's only open to sites with 750,000 page views per month and requires filling out inquiry form to get started.

The Microsoft research itself, Strider Typo-Patrol: Systematic Discovery and Analysis of Potential Large-Scale, Systematic Typo-Squatters, doesn't really get as strident as eWeek. It doesn't specifically call out Google, though it does link to Google's policies about proper domain parking behavior. It also warns that the research is preliminary, so finding that all of the domains seem to be run by one company that in turn taps into the Google program could change.

Indeed, I have no doubt that further research will bring up sites like IRS.org that are making use of Yahoo's program. Unlike Google's program, Yahoo's program has no particular name that I know of. It's existed for years and seems to be something arranged as a custom solution.

Legalities aside, the idea of someone making money off a typo-based domain leaves many cold, especially if you are the brand owner impacted. F-Secure gives one example of this on its blog today, looking at how a typo domain works to tap into those who may think they are using the correct address for the anti-virus site.

To make matters worse, the typo site is carrying some of F-Secure's own Google AdWords ads. So people who are almost certainly trying to reach F-Secure are getting to the wrong site, which stays in business because Google pays it through the AdSense For Domains/DomainPark program, which in turn gets supported by F-Secure itself.

Well, certainly F-Secure could use the still relatively new feature to exclude certain Google sites, right? Nope. That's because AdSense For Domains -- where you'll see many links without ever doing a keyword search -- are oddly considered part of the AdSense For Search program.

Huh? What? OK, advertisers can choose not to show their ads on other people's web sites when they are contextually placed through the AdSense For Content program. As an advertiser, you can decide contextual placement is not for you and opt-out entirely, or you can use the AdWords site exclusion feature to individually exclude sites.

AdWords has no corresponding exclusion feature for AdSense For Search. That's the program where if you end up on someone's web site and do an actual search, the search results that come back have some or all paid listings from Google.

If you choose to opt-out of contextual, safe to say many will probably assume that means you are opting out of what seems to be a largely contextually-based AdSense For Domains program. Not so.

Kalena Jordan found recently that Google considers AdSense For Domains to be part of AdSense For Search. Strange Log Referrer - Advice Please? over at the HighRankings Forum has her explaining more about how she discovered this. When she asked why she was being billed for AdSense For Domain contextual clicks when she had opted out of contextual, she was told:

I understand that your campaigns are only opted in to our search network. Some parked domain partners are a part of our search network. These partners are classified as AdSense for domains. The way it works, is our system uses powerful semantic technology to dynamically analyze a domain name and match its meaning with ads and related searches that are related to the domain name subject. This provides users with highly relevant information in a user-friendly format, encouraging them to click.

How about another issue, the one that both eWeek and the Microsoft researchers raise, about whether ads on typo-based domains violate Google's own rules that state:

Domain names submitted to may not contain or link to any of the following content: Any illegal activity; site promotion of incentive or fraudulent clicking; violation of trademark (and related rights), copyright, trade secret, patent or other intellectual property right of any third party; software which contains a virus, worm or other code that could be damaging or harmful to a user's computer system or stored information; libelous, defamatory, obscene or hateful content; or any subject matter not in line with Google policy.

I'd say apparently not. Certainly Google didn't seem to care when I flagged this back in June. I came across serachenginewatch.com, a misspelling of our own searchenginewatch.com domain. I sent this message to Google:

This site is running Google ads that come up when someone enters a misspelling of the searchenginewatch.com domain. It would appear to violate your rules against "parked domains" carrying Google ads.

The rule I was talking about is here:

No Google ad or Google search box may be displayed on any domain parking websites, pop-ups, pop-unders, or in any email.

I got this response:

Thank you very much for taking the time to report your concern about serachenginewatch.com. We appreciate your help in maintaining the quality of the AdSense program.

I've reviewed the site in question and found that the Google ads on display are being served through our AdSense for Domains program (http://www.google.com/domainpark/), which is distinct from AdSense for Content. Consequently, the site is not currently in violation of our program policies.

In the future, to allow us to investigate any issues more efficiently, you can email our specialists directly at [email protected]

Well, so much for concern. As with Kalena, Google dodged the policy by saying that ads on parked domains weren't a violation of AdSense policies since this was an AdSense For Domain site.

As for whether the typo was a possible trademark violation, it was clearly noted this involved the misspelling of the name of another site. If there were trademark concerns on the part of Google, you'd think they would have investigated more. Rather, I suspect they will only do this when an actual trademark complaint is formally made to them.

In the end, I've got no particular beef with domain owners trying to make money off of traffic for sites through these programs where a surfer or another site owner really isn't being hurt. For example, I own ichthyosaur.com, which I think is a pretty cool name. I've always wanted to do something neat with it, to add content about these dolphin-like swimming reptiles from dinosaur times. I just don't have the time.

Now if I had a lot of traffic coming to the domain, making use of one of these domain park programs from Google or Yahoo would be an easy way to tap into some extra revenue. In addition, I'm not interfering or trying to benefit off another site, nor is the person typing that domain in necessarily expecting anything in particular.

In contrast, for the person who is running a misspelling of our searchenginewatch.com site -- or the same for the person doing the misspelling of the F-Secure site, there's little doubt they're hoping to benefit off the brand traffic these two sites have helped. Navigation is a big part of search, and you'd think the search engines would want to ensure people were navigating to the right site. Instead, Google and Yahoo both seem happy to benefit by making money off these misspellings. That should change. Forget whether there's a trademark violation. Just outright ban the use of domains where it's obvious the site owner is hoping to tap into typo traffic.

At the very least, Google should make AdSense For Domains a program that really is independent of AdSense For Search and allow people to opt-out. It certainly should be pondering the mixed message of telling AdSense For Content people that they can't put ads on parked domains on the one hand yet running a massive program that does exactly that on the other.

And lest the Microsoft researchers feel to happy, they'd better understand that Microsoft fully intends to have its own contextual program in the future. That program almost certainly will face a decision on whether to provide paid links to parked domains. If Microsoft's not careful, its own researcher might end up reporting on typo domains that make Microsoft money.

FYI, I am following up with Google and Yahoo on the issues raised in the story and will post a follow up article in the near future.


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