It’s Time to See What’s In the PPC Sausage

In a “Jerry Maguire moment” during Search Engine Strategies Chicago last month, Jeffrey Rohrs, long-time SES moderator on legal and click fraud issues and president of Optiem, got up at 4 a.m. on Day 4 of the show to pen “The Sausage Manifesto,” which he says is an attempt to move the click fraud conversation forward.

The manifesto got its name from a quote from Otto Von Bismarck, “People who enjoy eating sausage and obeying the law shouldn’t watch either being made.” Rohrs modified his version of the quote to fit what he sees as the messiness of the current PPC ad situation: “Advertisers who enjoy leads from pay-per-click ads shouldn’t ask how the clicks are made.”

Rohrs, a self-styled “recovering attorney,” has been participating in legal issues panels at Search Engine Strategies since 2001, and has been moderating the “Auditing Paid Listings” click fraud panel for the past two years. After hearing many of the same concerns being voiced in Chicago that have been raised again and again, he felt compelled to do something to try to move the click fraud discussion forward. The result is an 8-page document, billed by Rohrs as “an open letter to paid search networks on behalf of PPC advertisers.”

“There continue to be core assumptions and core concerns from advertisers, some of them very passionately held. It felt like a lot of these advertisers’ concerns were motivated by issues that could be solved by better disclosure and better customer service,” Rohrs told Search Engine Watch. ‘It seems like a different way to approach this was to give voice to these common concerns, and translate them into specific requests of the engines.”

Rohrs distilled those advertiser concerns into 11 specific requests to paid search networks, which we’ve included here with an excerpt from the “manifesto” on the topic:

  1. Talk, Don’t Lecture
    “We are not children. We are professionals who spend billions of dollars on tiny text ads. … If we think there’s a problem, there is a problem.”
  2. Appreciate Our Unique Circumstances
    “To some of us, $1,000 is a lot of money. … So please, recognize that we’re not all sitting on $1M/month budgets with the time to root out granular evidence of invalid clicks — be they fraudulent or not.”
  3. Invest in Proportion to the Problem
    “Warranted or not, a lot of us have a sneaking suspicion that you pocket more money from invalid clicks (including third-party click fraud) than you invest in its prevention. … If your data shows that click fraud is actually in the single digits, then please invest at least that much in its prevention.”
  4. Acknowledge that Tracking Alone Is Not the Answer
    “We understand that conversion tracking is our responsibility to implement and monitor. However, even if we’re watching our conversion rates, please understand that we may not be able to identify fraudulent clicks due to market realities.”
  5. Improve Click Quality Customer Service
    “In the offline world, the old adage is that ‘the customer is always right.’ So why do we feel like the paid search equivalent is that ‘the customer is always wrong, until they produce enough evidence to the contrary.’?”
  6. Build a Click Quality Education Resource Center
    “We understand that billing for clicks is a complicated business. You can’t divine intent from a click, and even a well-intentioned user may click multiple times on the same ad within a single session. The problem is that YOU SHARE VERY LITTLE as to what your policies are in this regard.”
  7. Light a Fire Under the IAB
    “We commend you for joining the IAB’s Click Measurement Working Group. The problem is that we’re hearing that it could take years before anything emerges from that group. If true, to maintain credibility and have a material impact on this issue, the Group must move faster than the projections.”
  8. Play Nice with Others
    “We know you’re not fond of third-party click fraud detection companies and their “inflated” click fraud claims. … Third-party auditing is here to stay whether you like it or not. It doesn’t mean we don’tlike you. It just means we don’t always trust your systems to act in our best interests.”
  9. Put Somebody in Jail
    “You know what really doesn’t sit right with us? This click fraud problem has been on the radar since the dawn of PPC; and yet, not one click fraudster is sitting behind bars.”
  10. Create a Cllck Fraud Perp Registry
    “The click fraud and search garbatrage problems are industry-wide problems. As such, we need to see all of you collaborate more on industry-wide solutions. Case in point, we would like you to create a ‘Click Fraud Perp Registry’ so that new and established click fraud tactics, dubious publishers, and generally bad actors can be identified and rooted out of every PPC network.”
  11. Put Your Data Where Your PR Is
    “It’s no secret that you are irritated by the broad-brush proclamations of click fraud’s pervasiveness. …. However, the current effort to downplay the click fraud problem with empty charts and statistics — empty because you fail to disclose the underlying data upon which your numbers are based — strikes us as spin, not customer-driven concern.”

One resounding message that Rohrs has picked up from advertisers is the belief that changes in the way customer service is handled by the search providers would go a long way toward improving the situation almost immediately.

“It’s not sufficient for the networks to say ‘we’re concerned about it, and this isn’t as big a problem as you think it is.’ The way to address it is through more dynamic customer service that works collaboratively with advertisers and third parties to find legitimate solutions,” Rohrs said.

Google and Yahoo, in particular, have stepped up their education efforts in recent years. Each search engine had developed a team of engineers to address click fraud and invalid clicks — the Click Quality team at Google, led by Shuman Ghosemajumder, and the Click-Through Protection team at Yahoo, led by John Slade.

Rohrs said he is encouraged by the increasing efforts of the paid search networks in recent years, both in technology and information-sharing initiatives. That all the major networks joined the IAB Click Measurement Working Group this summer was “huge,” he said, and the increased transparency offered by Google in particular with its reporting tools is heartening.

But those efforts are still not enough, Rohrs said. “I definitely believe they’ve made strides in the past year or so, but I’m fearful that it’s too slow, and that they’re missing the whole customer service frustration concept.”

“We realize the importance of getting the technology, education, and customer service issues right,” Ghosemajumder told SEW. “There’s definitely a need for more education, and we’re glad to see this discussion taking place. The more people understand these issues, the better it will be for everyone overall.”

Several of the 11 requests in the document are based on an underlying distrust between advertisers and paid search networks, Rohrs said. He takes that distrust as a sign that the paid search marketplace is maturing.

“The distrust is not about pay-per-click advertisers vs. the engines, it’s advertisers vs. media sellers. It’s been that way since the beginning of marketing, and it’s inherent in the nature of the model to require some form of third-party auditing system to provide a safety net,” Rohrs said.

Ghosemajumder insists that Google is not putting the burden of proof on advertisers, but said they should be able to provide a reason why they think there’s a problem so Google can investigate it properly. Google will investigate every claim that comes to them, regardless of the advertiser’s documentation, he said, but those who have specific ROI data to back up their assertions are more likely to have their claim resolved favorably.

Rohrs admits that some of the common advertiser concerns are based on misinformation, or just plain wrong. And many of the issues are already being talked about internally by search providers. However, the concerns are still a problem because they have not been adequately addressed, and still exist in the marketplace, he said.

According to Ghosemajumder, many of the requests are for things that Google is already doing. he cites participation in click fraud panels at SES and other events, it’s increased communications in several areas of its Web site, moves toward industry collaboration with the IAB working group, and efforts at increasing transparency, like its invalid clicks reporting tools , as examples of Google’s commitment to the problem.

“We’ve been pushing the boundaries with how much information we’re sharing with the industry,” Ghosemajumder said.

Editor’s note: Some point-by-point responses from Shuman Ghosemajumder can be found on the SEW blog. Please share your thoughts on the Sausage Manifesto, and Google’s responses, in the SEW Forums.

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