Google Spam Heresy: The AdSense Paradox

There’s been much ado about the problem of spam and Google of late. Being something of a search weenie, as my eyelids were feeling heavy today I found myself mulling over the problem, “How would one detect Google spamming?”

The answer turns out to be surprisingly easy. Who has an incentive to spam Google? People living from advertising. Who owns the largest online display ad network? Google.

Unlike with email, where there are heuristics at work to guess the intentions of the sender based on the content, Google has that data right in front of them.

So, here’s the heresy: the spamminess of a web site is inversely proportional to its ad click-through.

Think about it — in a typical internet search, a navigation path terminating at that page is the best result. If they click on an ad, it probably means you missed serving up the right page in the first place. As a corollary, the pages best optimized to pull you in via a search term and send you back out via a related ad are among the worst results.

So if you’re Google which value do you optimize for? More ad clicks or better search results? I’m a big enough Google fan that I believe that they’d mostly want to optimize for good search results since that’s what made them the company that they are. But what do you do if there’s an inverse correlation between the two? Bite the hand that feeds you?

Thinking about things this way in my opinion makes the issue even more interesting, because it seems to hint at something systemic — i.e. that there there might be something deeper problematic in financing search through display advertising.

Obviously this is a massive oversimplification of the problem of spam, but the paradox intrigued me.


  1. Brian Shaffer:

    I predict that we’re going to see a rise of niche search engines – search engines that only go for one industry and are human reviewed by experts in that industry. There’s already for human reviewed results, and there’s plenty of high quality news aggregators for certain industries like Hacker News.

    Google did acquire boat loads of startups that go after a specific niche in 2010. I’m always up for a good conspiracy theory of Google stretching it’s net over more of the web, but I don’t think the foresight stretches this far. Google is becoming more and more like a traditional business and the finances often push heavily towards short term and quarterly profits. AdSense performance to them is becoming more important than quality of organic results.

  2. Paul Houle:

    Myself, I’d turn it around. People make pages junky because they want to increase the clickthrough rate.

    For instance, take domain parking pages. Most people look at these and think they’re looking at a piece of junk made by an amateur.

    Nothing could be further from the truth.

    Domain parking pages are scientifically designed to confuse and dazzle viewers. If you look for the content, it gradually dawns on you that there’s nothing there… The ads look more relevant than the content, so you click and the owners of the page hear ca-ching.

    Major domainers continuously tweak their pages to improve their advertising rates, so you’d better believe that this works.

    One of my pet peeves are pages that have no content above the fold… Just some big ads, and if you’re lucky, a promise that you’ll find some content if you scroll down. I’d really like to see ~those~ go away.

    Now, as someone who develops legitimate web sites, I want to get real organic links and not damage my brand with offensive advertising. That said, I still find it’s profitable to place ads in such a way that users sometimes experience a moment of confusion that breaks through banner blindness. In my case, however, there’s more like 80% content and 20% ads on the page and I think that’s fair.

  3. Ben Atlas:

    Scott, you are on the right, in addition Google, by the virtue of their ad supported business model, encourages quantity over quality. They are more interested in the pennies per clicks pages inventory, it adds up. The spam is the extension of this philosophy, not necessarily as stated goal.

    Also the internet evolved as a giant aggregation machine. Ads seek display opportunities, content seeks direct monetization. Now you cans see how this core game is rigged and what incredible damage it does to our culture.

  4. David:

    I’ve often imagined that a company as large as Google would eventually reach a point where it might have a few “financial tuneables” it could apply in times of deflated growth, as a result of failed products or revenues from existing products failing to materialize.

    In a machine as complex and driven by algorithmic automation as Google, its ad networks, and its anti-spam systems, it’s not hard to imagine there are some constants (in the programming sense) that can be tuned up to affect a greater quality in search results (but with less Adsense units being shown), or down to affect a greater increase in “spam” (but with more Adsense units being shown, and thus improved revenue).

    Of course such tuneables could not be used lightly, as they’d negatively effect the quality of clicks advertisers were receiving from Adsense, but as a short term fix to a revenue loss, or simply for “financial padding”, it seems obvious to me that such a mechanism could exist.

    This comes to my mind every time I see a deluge of Adsense spam sites in the search results for content that originated on Stack Overflow, etc.

  5. Nomnom:

    So the fact that google powers both adsense and adwords in of it self in any other time period would lead to googles painful decline into regulatory purgatory.

    I think you’re pointing the conundrum that google is in but why are they the only ones who know it? In this case, where’s the Feds?

  6. Luke:

    Everyone is asking why Google are allowing the quality of their search results to get worse, whilst their competitors are making improvements?

    Should we expect a big update soon at Google, is this the reason?

    Or do they have such a market share and greed that they just want to earn more from adsense spam at the expense of providing quality search results?

    Many techies are switching to Bing already, Google’s increasingly spammy serps and Instant are just too frustrating!

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