Microsoft AdCenter: Hear My Plea

Pre-emptive warning: today’s column is mainly a rant.

If you want fluffy bunnies and feel-good news, then you should stop reading right now. I’m tired and I’m cranky, and Microsoft AdCenter, their policies and customer service are to blame. And as I’m writing this column, I’m realizing that I don’t have enough space to air out ALL of my complaints.

Let’s start with the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back. On April 30th, we received an e-mail from the folks at Microsoft AdCenter informing us of some changes to their terms of service. Included in the changes were:

  • Microsoft may use matching criteria other than keyword searches to display your advertisements.
  • Microsoft may display your advertisements on its network of advertising channels operated by the Microsoft network of participating Web sites and other distribution outlets.

And the kicker:
If you do not consent to these revised Terms and Conditions, you may cancel your AdCenter program relationship with Microsoft at any time through our Microsoft AdCenter support team. Your continued use of the Microsoft AdCenter program will be deemed your consent to the new Microsoft AdCenter Terms and Conditions. These changes apparently took place on April 30, 2007 – the same day I received the letter. These are the only details that were provided.

Ummm. Ok, let’s recap. Now AdCenter will be serving my ads based upon some mysterious criteria that is most likely top secret and designed to increase revenue for Microsoft – and most likely decrease revenue for my clients. I have no idea when an ad is going to be served in AdCenter’s contextual network, and I have no control over the bids in this contextual network, nor the ability to track the effectiveness of the contextual ads. And I was notified of these changes on the day that the changes took place, leaving me with no time to consult with clients and make budget adjustments accordingly. And if I don’t like it, I should take my ball and go home.

If I hadn’t had so many problems in the past with AdCenter, its interface and the customer service provided by AdCenter, I probably would have let this slide with a disgusted shrug. I definitely wouldn’t have written a column about it. I probably would have waited to pull budgets from AdCenter until I saw how it performed.

Let me pull back the curtain a little for you and talk about some recent history with AdCenter. My agency has several clients that spend a fairly significant amount of money with AdCenter. The folks at AdCenter aggressively pursued us trying to persuade us to “get these clients on board.” The idea of another viable PPC network was obviously very appealing to our agency and our clients. So we signed up. However, we offer our clients the ability to pay their PPC spend on their own credit card, or we can put the charges on our company card and receive airline miles for traveling to conferences, etc. We prefer to do this rather than be invoiced.

Because of the sizable spend by our clients, we were told that we could not pay via credit card unless we were willing to do a very large pre-payment (read more than 20% of the monthly spend). The question came up – what if the program didn’t work? Would we be able to get that money back in a timely manner to re-allocate it to somewhere that did work? Why was Microsoft requiring a pre-payment for using a credit card when NONE of the other engines did? Wouldn’t it be more prudent to ask for pre-payment of invoiced clients that those that are guaranteeing payment with a credit card?

We finally agreed to pay the pre-payment, much to our chagrin. The next day, a Friday, the campaign went live. That wouldn’t have been a big deal, except that we hadn’t selected any keywords or done any creative. The AdCenter folks took the liberty of creating the campaign for us and sending all of the traffic to our client’s home page. We didn’t know the campaign was live until the following Monday. Thousands of dollars had been spent on worthless, non-targeted traffic. We asked for that money back, but were not offered a refund.

Oh, and then there was the time they uploaded a campaign with more than 10,000 keywords and “accidentally” deleted all tracking variables from the destination URLs. We had spent a huge sum of money and couldn’t figure out why we were getting no traffic and no conversions for almost three days. We didn’t get that money back either.

And every time we complain to an AdCenter rep, they say that they hate the policies as much as everyone else. They can’t do anything about it. They have no power to make things right. Personally, there are a few AdCenter reps I really like, but they can never do anything for me.

But we continue to use AdCenter as it is a necessary evil, and in some cases, it converts well. Now, I’m pondering the recommendation that all of my clients pull out of MSN. It’s just too unpredictable and hard to deal with.

And we aren’t the only ones who have very poor experiences with AdCenter. Earlier this week, in anticipation of this column, I sent out a note to more than 200 interactive marketers in my LinkedINnetwork asking for both positive and negative experiences with Microsoft AdCenter. The responses I received were overwhelmingly negative. Here are just a few responses I received.

  • “I currently used MSN AdCenter for a few accounts, but am trying to migrate everyone away from MSN. The obvious reason is very poor traffic, but the truly aggravating part is their interface. I have voiced my opinion through their feedback (black hole) link, but have seen no changes over the past year.”
  • All MSN had to do was ape the best parts of YAHOO! and GOOGLE. They did neither. I spend a TON…six figures on Google a month. I spend $100 on msn because I get very little return. I have talked to their support people on the phone a number of times….not much help.”
  • “For several months we had a ‘situation’ where our PPA campaign was getting disabled (read “banned”) about once every other week. The reason we were given? It seems that we were selling weapons. As we are a necktie company, this seemed a bit odd. Several hours worth of customer service calls later the problem was discovered… we had “bullet points” listed on some of our product pages. “Bullet” = weapons to the automated system in use by MSN search. It took roughly 5 days to get reactivated (we had to pass a MANUAL review process), we had about a week of being live, and then we’d get banned again… We’d spend an hour on the phone, they’d resubmit us for the manual review… You get the idea.”

And last but not least, let’s not forget the time that AdCenter decided to start upping people’s bidsrandomly. Luckily, we saw the problem immediately and pulled all of our advertising down until the bug was fixed – but let’s just say that’s one of hell of bug.

The folks at AdCenter are well aware of the continued bugs and customer service issues. Let’s just hope Microsoft can take care of these problems once and for all. In the meantime, I recommend that everyone look very closely before advertising in AdCenter.

I welcome any and all correspondence from Microsoft to this column, as they are typically pretty active in the SEW forums. Hopefully this column will make you take a second look at your procedures and spur positive change. In the meantime, my client’s money will be going elsewhere.

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