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December 11, 2006

Google in bed with terrorists; known to kick puppies.

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You’ve probably heard rumblings of this one already, but I think it’s worth noting, if only because the story just won’t die.

Basically, Webmaster Radio’s Jim Hedger went on record in SES Chicago claiming that Google was funding terrorism by serving ads on sites that are connected with known terrorists groups (including site properties within controversy-laden Orkut), and not being proactive enough about obliterating automated clickbot programs.

Hedger says he has a contact behind the lines in Fallujah working with the Iraqi insurgency that was reportedly setting up AdSense-supported blog networks, encouraging users to click on ads, and then using that revenue to fund terrorist groups. It’d be nice to know why Hedger is working with this guy instead of turning him over to the appropriate officials, but that’s neither here nor there.

The system is said to work like this:

  1. "Groups set up blogs and sites with Google AdSense ads
  2. Commit click fraud on those sites
  3. Collect revenue from Google
  4. Donate revenue to ‘charities’ which funnel to terrorist groups"

Obviously, this story has linkbait written all over it. But if you concentrate on the click fraud aspect and the clear lack of editorial control Google demonstrates within AdSense (thereby ignoring that whole silly terrorist angle), it’s suddenly a lot more newsworthy.

If what any of Hedger is saying is true (and it may be. Jim is a respected voice in the industry.), it’s the flaws in Google’s AdSense program that are technically funding terrorism.

So what does Google do about it? You fix the flaws.

If you want to increase the quality of AdSense sites out there, there needs to be an extensive editorial review process. Someone needs to look at every site that is created, decide whether it meets their guidelines, and then either approve it or reject it. You don’t have to look any further than all the crappy MFA sites to see something needs to be done. Obviously, this will likely never happen. I don’t suspect that Google will ever be okay with dedicating the amount of resources needed to accomplish this.

And truthfully, even if they did, it might not be enough to keep sensationalized headlines like this out of the press. People will always enjoy speculating that Google is engaging in nefarious behavior. And they probably are, completely unknowingly. There’s no way for Google to keep track of what advertisers do with the money they make through AdSense. I’m sure some of it used for unfriendly business, but that’s not Google’s responsibility to detect, nor should it be.

However, something really should be done to at least improve the quality of sites getting past Google’s filters. It’s irresponsible for them not to address a problem they know exists.

The other issue here is click fraud. If Hedger’s allegations are true and people are using clickbots programs to generate false clicks that needs to be stopped.

Or maybe it already has. If you haven’t read Andy Beal’s recent click fraud exclusive, you should. He reports that click fraud levels are less than 2 percent. Andy spoke to Google’s business manager for trust and safety, Shuman Ghosemajumder, and was privy to information that was previously only shared internally. Ghosemajumder went over Google’s four-stage process in identifying and filtering invalid clicks, and defined what Google considers to be an invalid click:

"Non-fraudulent clicks (such as a visitor genuinely clicking an AdWords ad more than once) and "click fraud" (those clicks that are obviously not legitimate)."

If that’s the case and Google is being proactive, then I think advertisers need to start seeing documentation of that. Give users an IP and referring domain for the clicks they’re charged for so both sites are working with the same data. Don’t just share information with the Andy Beals of the world. The rest of us deserve information too.

I think a lot of people were watching this story and hoping it would die down on its own, but if the talk on Matt Cutts blog, the comment train over at Search Engine Journal and the growing thread at Threadwatch are any example, this one’s got legs. I think we’re going to be hearing about this for awhile. And it’s worth talking about, as long as we’re focusing on the right story.

[And maybe this has no importance, but how in the world does Jim Hedger have contacts working behind the lines in Fallujah? Or am I the only one without contacts in third-world countries? I'm always the Jan, never the Marcia.]

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