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August 14, 2006

Grokking Google and Click Fraud

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While I was away, Google published a paper on click fraud entitled “How Fictitious Clicks Occur in Third-Party Click Fraud Audit Reports“. With a title like that, who needs to read the actual 17-page report? Fine, I guess I do.

In the report, Google states there are “pervasive reproducible problems in the way third-party click fraud auditing firms gather and report their data", which in turn make the click fraud problem seem larger than it really is.
Basically, Google blames the misrepresentation of click fraud on something the engineers refer to as “fictitious clicks.” These are clicks identified by third-party auditors that Google says never happened.

An example of this would be when a webpage reloads on an advertiser’s site. Each time the page reloads, the auditors rule it a fresh click (or so says Google), which isn’t actually the case. The reason behind these reloads is more likely a user hitting the back (or reload) button while navigating through a site, or if they open up a new browser window.

Google says fictitious clicks can also be a result of “conflation across advertisers and ad networks”, which refers to the counting of one advertiser’s traffic in another advertiser’s report, even if they span different ad networks.
The tone of the document is somewhat surprising. I believe John Battelle called it “combative” and that seems to fit. In the report, Google lashes out at OutSell, saying estimating click fraud rates by using advertiser opinion is analogous to estimating crime rates by asking residents how much crime they think there is. Then, in Appendix B, Google calls out three auditing firms by name and accuses them of purposely hyping up the click-fraud-is-rampant rumor.

I understand Google’s feeling that they have to be on defensive here, but I disagree with their crime analogy. I don’t think asking advertisers, who will base their answers on their own experiences, to estimate the level of click fraud is so crazy. If you live in a town where the police won’t release crime reports, without a hand count, how else are you supposed to judge the problem? And who is more likely to give you an accurate count: the victims or the muggers?

Bad analogies aside, Click Forensic’s CEO Tom Cuthbert, whose firm was among those named by Google, sums up the situation pretty well:

“It’s hard to argue with [Google] when they’re looking at one pebble on a sea shore…The fact that it’s all grown to this point and that Click Forensics continues to grow, indicates to me that advertisers are not satisfied with what Google calls its ‘reasonable approach.'”

That for me is the clincher. At this point, I don’t think it’s a numbers game anymore. As I’ve said before, whether or not Google thinks they have a problem is irrelevant. Their advertisers think they do, and in the end that’s their problem. Enough defending yourself for past offenses, it’s time to fix the problem at the source.

I can understand Google’s frustration. They don’t want advertisers to hear “hyped up” click fraud statistics and then and react by pulling money away from their campaigns. No one wins in that situation. But if you’re not willing to give anyone any information regarding your system, you can’t turn around and cry when the statistics aren’t accurate. Especially when you don’t have any real data to show us they’re not accurate.

If we’re being told not to believe the stats we’re getting from third-party auditors, why should we believe Google’s? The only way this will be resolved is through transparency, and whether Google will start releasing information remains to be seen.

What will Google do next? Google says they will work with third-party click fraud auditing firms to address their issues, provide feedback to advertisers regarding flawed reports, work with third-parties to establish industry standards for click fraud, continue their heavy investment in invalid click detection technology and continue to keep the industry informed about issues related to click fraud.

I won’t even debate their use of the word “continue” for that last one. Let’s just hope they really will start releasing information regarding click fraud. Otherwise we’re going to start seeing a lot more of these “combative” reports.





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