AdSense leak controversy heats up as Google denies favoritism, theft allegations

AdSense leak controversy heats up as Google denies favoritism, theft allegations

Summary: Someone claiming to be a former employee of Google claims the internet giant has systematically robbed its AdSense clients -- an allegation Google has quickly denied.

TOPICS: Google, Security

Someone claiming to be an ex Google AdSense employee is accusing the internet giant of systematically robbing its AdSense clients — an allegation Google has quickly denied.

On Pastebin Tuesday, April 29, an individual published Google AdSense Leak, a detailed timeline of events alleging that Google knowingly shuts down AdSense accounts to pocket the money and plays favorites with its "VIPs."

The unsubstantiated screed spans 2009-2012 and accuses AdWords of maintaining a list of accounts that operate outside the AdSense ToS rules, another list of accounts that are treated discriminatorily, and that high-earning accounts are deliberately banned before payouts.

Google: This description is "a complete fiction"

Google quickly issued a denial, sending outlets such as TNW, TechCrunch the same statement, reading:

This description of our AdSense policy enforcement process is a complete fiction. The color-coding and ‘extreme quality control’ programs the author describes don’t exist.

Our teams and automated systems work around the clock to stop bad actors and protect our publishers, advertisers, and users.

The anonymous Pastebin poster claimed participation in a program where Google's Adsense team purposely red-flagged accounts for banning and shutdown when they reached earning marks of $5,000 or $10,000. The unknown accuser alleged that whether or not the account was in violation of any Terms, any such high-earner was to be considered abusive.

Like a negative conspiracy theory, the post's author also claims there was set aside a VIP "Green Group."

Sites in the Green Group were basically given "carte blanche" to do anything they wanted, even if they flagrantly went against the AdSense TOS and Policies. That is why you will encounter sites with AdSense, but yet have and do things completely against AdSense rules.

Whether it's true or not, the unsubstantiated anonymous post could be a PR mess for Google's AdSense unless they can staunch the bleeding.

Lack of transparency, atmosphere of mistrust

More importantly, it speaks volumes about the lack of transparency in Google's AdWords program and the atmosphere of mistrust in which publishers find themselves.

It echoes the lack of transparency in many other aspects of Google's services, which have become a black mark on the company of late.

In one section, the "AdSense Leak" states that when AdSense accounts are banned, any appeals are flatly ignored.

Other policy changes also included how to deal with appeals, which still to this day, the large majority are completely ignored, and why you will rarely get an actual answer as to why your account was banned and absolutely no way to resolve it.

Unfortunately, Google's users have heard this one before, and loudly, in another sector — Google Plus.

The post is being hotly debated on tech forums. Opposite sides are weighing in nearly equally.

One side — along with a Google employee or two —  accuse the "AdSense Leak" author of an elaborate fraud.

Others, many identifying as former AdSense publishers, say their AdSense experiences reflect treatment described in the accusations.

Matt Cutts, Google's longtime face of reason — willing to interact with public during times when Google itself erects its well-known wall of silence during accusations of misbehavior — told the divided community at Hacker News:

As a long-time employee with a close perspective on the post, I can tell you from personal experience that the terminology is incorrect and the allegations are completely at odds with my direct experience. I'm also hearing multiple, strong confirmations from the ads side that this post is completely fake.

Google's AdSense comprises almost a third of Google's revenue (in Q1 2011, Google earned US $2.43 billion or $9.71 billion annualized; or 28% of total revenue) and is widely considered the financial backbone of the company.

ZDNet will update this post with any relevant developments.

The entire anonymous "Leak" post is below.

I am a former Google employee and I am writing this to leak information to the public of what I witnessed and took part in while being an employee. My position was to deal with AdSense accounts, more specifically the accounts of publishers (not advertisers). I was employed at Google for a period of several years in this capacity.

Having signed many documents such as NDA’s and non-competes, there are many repercussions for me, especially in the form of legal retribution from Google. I have carefully planned this leak to coincide with certain factors in Google such as waiting for the appropriate employee turn around so that my identity could not be discovered.

To sum it up for everyone, I took part in what I (and many others) would consider theft of money from the publishers by Google, and from direct orders of management. There were many AdSense employees involved, and it spanned many years, and I hear it still is happening today except on a much wider scale. No one on the outside knows it, if they did, the FBI and possibly IRS would immediately launch an investigation, because what they are doing is so inherently illegal and they are flying completely under the radar.

It began in 2009. Everything was perfectly fine prior to 2009, and in fact it couldn’t be more perfect from an AdSense employees perspective, but something changed.

Google Bans and Ban Criteria

Before December 2012:

In the first quarter of 2009 there was a “sit-down” from the AdSense division higher ups to talk about new emerging issues and the role we (the employees in the AdSense division needed to play. It was a very long meeting, and it was very detailed and intense. What it boiled down to was that Google had suffered some very serious losses in the financial department several months earlier. They kept saying how we “needed to tighten the belts” and they didn’t want it to come from Google employees pockets. So they were going to (in their words) “carry out extreme quality control on AdSense publishers”. When one of my fellow co-workers asked what they meant by that. Their response was that AdSense itself hands out too many checks each month to publishers, and that the checks were too large and that needed to end right away. Many of the employees were not pleased about this (like myself). But they were successful in scaring the rest into thinking it would be their jobs and their money that would be on the line if they didn’t participate. The meeting left many confused as to how this was going to happen. What did they mean by extreme quality control? A few other smaller meetings occur with certain key people in the AdSense division that furthered the idea and procedure they planned on implementing. There were lots of rumors and quiet talking amongst the employees, there was lots of speculations, some came true and some didn’t. But the word was that they were planning to cut off a large portion of publisher’s payments.

After that point there was a running gag amongst fellow co-workers where we would walk by each other and whisper “Don’t be evil, pft!” and roll our eyes.

What happened afterwards became much worse. Their “quality control” came into full effect. Managers pushed for wide scale account bans, and the first big batch of bans happened in March of 2009. The main reason, the publishers made too much money. But something quite devious happened. We were told to begin banning accounts that were close to their payout period (which is why account bans never occur immediately after a payout). The purpose was to get that money owed to publishers back to Google AdSense, while having already served up the ads to the public.

This way the advertiser’s couldn’t claim we did not do our part in delivering their ads and ask for money back. So in a sense, we had thousands upon thousands of publishers deliver ads we knew they were never going to get paid for.

Google reaped both sides of the coin, got money from the advertisers, used the publishers, and didn’t have to pay them a single penny. We were told to go and look into the publishers accounts, and if any publisher had accumulated earnings exceeding $5000 and was near a payout or in the process of a payout, we were to ban the account right away and reverse the earnings back. They kept saying it was needed for the company, and that most of these publishers were ripping Google off anyways, and that their gravy train needed to end. Many employees were not happy about this. A few resigned over it. I did not. I stayed because I had a family to support, and secondly I wanted to see how far they would go.

From 2009 to 2012 there were many more big batches of bans. The biggest of all the banning sessions occurred in April of 2012. The AdSense division had enormous pressure from the company to make up for financial losses, and for Google’s lack of reaching certain internal financial goals for the quarter prior. So the push was on. The employees felt really uneasy about the whole thing, but we were threatened
with job losses if we didn’t enforce the company’s wishes. Those who voiced concerned or issue were basically ridiculed with “not having the company’s best interest in mind” and not being “team players”. Morale in the division was at an all-time low. The mood of the whole place changed quite rapidly. It no longer was a fun place to work.

The bans of April 2012 came fast and furious. Absolutely none of them were investigated, nor were they justified in any way. We were told to get rid of as many of the accounts with the largest checks/payouts/earnings waiting to happen. No reason, just do it, and don’t question it. It was heart wrenching seeing all that money people had earned all get stolen from them. And that’s what I saw it as, it was a robbery of the AdSense publishers. Many launched appeals, complaints, but it was futile because absolutely no one actually took the time to review the appeals or complaints. Most were simply erased without even being opened, the rest were deposited into the database, never to be touched again.

Several publishers launched legal actions which were settled, but Google had come up with a new policy to deal with situations such as that because it was perceived as a serious problem to be avoided.
So they came up with a new policy.

After December 2012: The New Policy

The new policy; “shelter the possible problem makers, and fuck the rest” (those words were actually said by a Google AdSense exec) when he spoke about the new procedure and policy for “Account Quality Control”.

The new policy was officially called AdSense Quality Control Color Codes (commonly called AQ3C by employees). What it basically was a categorization of publisher accounts. Those publisher’s that could do the most damage by having their account banned were placed in a VIP group that was to be left alone. The rest of the publishers would be placed into other groupings accordingly. The new AQ3C also implemented “quality control” quotas for the account auditors, so if you didn’t meet the “quality control” target (aka account bans) you would be called in for a performance review. There were four “groups” publishers could fall into if they reached certain milestones.

They were:

Red Group: Urgent Attention Required
Any AdSense account that reaches the $10,000/month mark is immediately flagged (unless they are part of the Green Group).
- In the beginning there were many in this category, and most were seen as problematic and were seen as abusing the system by Google. So every effort was taken to bring their numbers down.
- They are placed in what employees termed “The Eagle Eye”, where the “AdSense Eagle Eye Team” would actively and constantly audit their accounts and look for any absolute reason for a ban. Even if the reason was far-fetched, or unsubstantiated, and unprovable, the ban would occur. The “Eagle Eye Team” referred to a group of internal account auditors whose main role was to constantly monitor
publisher’s accounts and sites.
- A reason has to be internally attached to the account ban. The problem was that notifying the publisher for the reason is not a requirement, even if the publisher asks. The exception: The exact reason must be provided if a legal representative contacts Google on behalf of the account holder.
- But again, if a ban is to occur, it must occur as close to a payout period as possible with the most amount of money accrued/earned.

Yellow Group: Serious Attention Required
Any AdSense account that reaches the $5,000/month mark is flagged for review (unless they are part of the Green Group).
- All of the publisher’s site(s)/account will be placed in queue for an audit.
- Most of the time the queue is quite full so most are delayed their audit in a timely fashion.
- The second highest amount of bans occur at this level.
- A reason has to be internally attached to the account ban. Notifiying the publisher for the reason is not a requirement, even if the publisher asks. The exception: The exact reason must be provided if a legal representative contacts Google on behalf of the account holder.
- But again, if a ban is to occur, it must occur as close to a payout period as possible with the most amount of money accrued/earned.

Blue Group: Moderate Attention Required
Any AdSense account that reaches the $1,000/month mark is flagged for possible review (unless they are part of the Green Group).
- Only the main site and account will be place in queue for what is called a quick audit.
- Most bans that occur happen at this level. Main reason is that a reason doesn’t have to be attached to the ban, so the employees use these bans to fill their monthly quotas. So many are simply a random pick and click.
- A reason does not have to be internally attached to the account ban. Notifying the publisher for the reason is not a requirement, even if the publisher asks.
- But again, if a ban is to occur, it must occur as close to a payout period as possible with the most amount of money accrued.

Green Group: VIP Status (what employees refer to as the “untouchables”)
Any AdSense account associated with an incorporated entity or individual that can inflict serious damage onto Google by negative media information, rallying large amounts of anti-AdSense support, or cause mass loss of AdSense publisher support.
- Google employees wanting to use AdSense on their websites were automatically placed in the Green group. So the database contained many Google insiders and their family members. If you work or worked for Google and were placed in the category, you stayed in it, even if you left Google. So it included many former employees. Employees simply had to submit a form with site specific details and
their account info.
- Sites in the Green Group were basically given “carte blanche” to do anything they wanted, even if they flagrantly went against the AdSense TOS and Policies. That is why you will encounter sites with AdSense, but yet have and do things completely against AdSense rules.
- Extra care is taken not to interrupt or disrupt these accounts.
- If an employee makes a mistake with a Green Level account they can lose their job. Since it seen as very grievous mistake.

New Policy 2012 Part 2:

Internal changes to the policy were constant. They wanted to make it more efficient and streamlined. They saw its current process as having too much human involvement and oversight. They wanted it more automated and less involved.

So the other part of the new policy change was to incorporate other Google services into assisting the “quality control” program. What they came up with will anger many users when they find out. It involved skewing data in Google Analytics. They decided it was a good idea to alter the statistical data shown for websites. It first began with just altering data reports for Analytics account holders that also
had an AdSense account, but they ran into too many issues and decided it would be simpler just to skew the report data across the board to remain consistent and implement features globally. So what this means is that the statistical data for a website using Google Analytics is not even close to being accurate. The numbers are incredibly deflated. The reasoning behind their decision is that if an individual links their AdSense account and their Analytics account, the Analytics account can be used to deflate the earnings automatically without any human intervention. They discovered that if an individual had an AdSense account then they were also likely to use Google Analytics. So Google used it to their advantage.

This led to many publishers to actively display ads, without earning any money at all (even to this day). Even if their actual website traffic was high, and had high click-throughs the data would be automatically skewed in favor of Google, and at a total loss of publishers. This successfully made it almost impossible for anyone to earn amounts even remotely close what individuals with similar sites were earning prior to 2012, and most definitely nowhere near pre-2009 earnings. Other policy changes also included how to deal with appeals, which still to this day, the large majority are completely ignored, and why you will rarely get an actual answer as to why your account was banned and absolutely no way to resolve it.


The BIG Problem (which Google is aware of)
There is an enormous problem that existed for a long time in Google’s AdSense accounts. Many of the upper management are aware of this problem but do not want to acknowledge or attempt to come up with a solution to the problem.

It is regarding false clicks on ads. Many accounts get banned for “invalid clicks” on ads. In the past this was caused by a publisher trying to self inflate click-throughs by clicking on the ads featured on their website. The servers automatically detect self-clicking with comparison to IP addresses and other such information, and the persons account would get banned for invalid clicking.

But there was something forming under the surface. A competitor or malicious person would actively go to their competitor’s website(s) or pick a random website running AdSense and begin multiple-clicking and overclicking ads, which they would do over and over again. Of course this would trigger an invalid clicking related ban, mainly because it could not be proven if the publisher was actually behind the clicking. This was internally referred to as “Click-Bombing”. Many innocent publishers would get caught up in bans for invalid clicks which they were not involved in and were never told about.

This issue has been in the awareness of Google for a very long time but nothing was done to rectify the issue and probably never will be. Thus if someone wants to ruin a Google AdSense publishers account, all you would have to do is go to their website, and start click-bombing their Google Ads over and over again, it will lead the servers to detect invalid clicks and poof, they get banned. The publisher would be completely innocent and unaware of the occurrence but be blamed for it anyways.


Their BIG Fear
The biggest fear that Google has about these AdSense procedures and policies is that it will be publicly discovered by their former publishers who were banned, and that those publishers unite together and launch an class-action lawsuit.

They also fear those whose primary monthly earnings are from AdSense, because in many countries if a person claims the monthly amount to their tax agency and they state the monthly amount and that they are earning money from Google on a monthly basis, in certain nations technically Google can be seen as an employer. Thus, an employer who withholds payment of earnings, can be heavily fined by government bodies dealing with labor and employment. And if these government bodies dealing with labor and employment decide to go after Google, then it would get very ugly, very quickly ….. that is on top of a class-action lawsuit.

Disclosure: My new book covers consumer privacy regarding Google, and reducing the privacy risks of using big data websites.

Topics: Google, Security

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  • Knowing several people who use AdSense

    They've all reported a sharp (50-80%) drop in their average earnings per month in 2010. It could well be a coincidence, and of course, anecdotes don't prove anything. But those numbers certainly haven't bounced back.

    Personally, I doubt Google would tell their employees to do something so... illegal-shaped, if only because the more people know, the greater the odds someone will grow a conscience and report it to some agency or another.

    It just seems too dangerous a thing for Google to risk.
    luke mayson
    • Facebook is no better

      They bill me for invoices never sent likely on clicks that never happened. I can do nothing about it but weigh whether what I am paying them is worth the legitimate traffic I get.
  • You should not doubt Google

    They are perfect and would never do anything the least bit shady.

    Never, ever...

    Except maybe this one time... :-)
  • Google Local Does The Same Thing

    Funny I just posted this to my G+ page ( an hour ago:

    Dear #google fix your Google+ please and quit F*****G with my Internet Marketing Biz or I will start a class action lawsuit that will be evil just like you. You will pay for f*****g over your small time competition and I know your ways and your means. Mark my words.
    I play by the rules you make and then you wipe my listing and my earned reviews. 4 Times you have F****D me. My 88 other business listings are doing well, however they are for other clients benefit. How can I just be wrong about MY OWN F*****G BIZ? YOU SUCK!!!

    Basically if you get 10K hits in a month for any Google+ related internet marketing biz that competes with adwords, you get a swift kick in the ass. Time and effort punished for success. (816) 337-7298 if anyone would like details.
  • My Experience With AdSense

    Once upon a time, I was the administrator of a small message board and thought AdSense might bring in a little pocket change. I hooked it up and started counting my pennies as users would occasionally click on the ads. I don't know how Google handles it now but at the time they wouldn't pay you until your proceeds reached $100.00.

    Somewhere around $99.00 I received an email from Google explaining that because of "click fraud", I would not be paid. If I wanted to challenge this I had to produce log files and point out why there was no click fraud. How would personally know what click fraud looked like? Why didn't they show me the IP addresses of those who were making excessive clicks so that I could block them? Google had the information or did they? Perhaps Google, billions and all and as the whistle blower suggests, will shortchange the little guy at every chance while leaving the VIPs alone. I was through with AdSense then and now. Let's just call it "NonSense" from now on.
    • You hit the nail on the head

      They put the onus on you to prove that you're innocent. Obviously nobody is able to do that.
    • Same experience

      What happened to you happened to me and a friend of mines. Upon reaching 90 dollars ($100 would allow a payout) we were banned. Never did I once click on my ads. They know my IP from logging in Google, they can clearly see the clicks weren't from me. For Google, doing this is small potatoes, but ban 1 million accounts with 90 dollars and it adds up nicely. They know small accounts like us will not pursue this.
      KillBot Project
  • Bunch of F* scammers

    I've been scammed for more than $50k and they would never reply to the email.
    All my methods were legit, had direct traffic from my facebook fanpage who were interested in the content i had on my website.

    FU adsense and f* your partial attitude.
  • So impossible!

    When a big enough lie is told, people will believe it. Hitler and Göring figured this out and now this joker is trying the same thing.

    Obviously, this was written by a disgruntled AdSense publisher who was disabled. If there was any truth to this bunk, my account would have been disabled in 2009 as I would have been in the "red" group.
    • The unsubstantiated screed

      It was probably LoveCrock or one of our other shills hoping to drive some ad traffic to Microsoft who after all have no history or privacy issues or those of questionably legal behavior.

      As an AdSense user myself, I can tell you about my experience... The checks keep coming and the system just works.. I had a bunch of loyal users clicking on ads at one point and Google let me know that there might be some click fraud going on... But I didn't get canned or anything.

      Companies that compete with Google in advertising and search (and phone OS's) would live it if you'd all be so kind as to think Google is evil.. In fact one company has spent millions trying to convince people google is evil. (Scroogled being one example). These such companies often have pretty black histories themselves that they'd much prefer you forgot.. One is even a twice convicted illegal predatory monopoly with a reputation of crushing smaller competitors and occasionally partners.
  • Dunno.

    Who knows?
  • Techcrunch defense so-so

    Techcrunch has a defense of Google, which is half ok. But the argument that the terms used are incorrect is a bad one. The writer is writing for non-Google readers who don't know what "be Googley" means, and who don't know Google's official name for their AdSense group.

    The big deal is this is, true or not, fuel for the fire for those who feel they have been treated badly by Google.
  • Editing—a lost art?

    Missing word in first sentence. Misspelled word in second sentence.
  • Let the lawsuits begin!

    As a former AdSense publisher and running a blog where I do not make much as compared to others, I always wondered what I did wrong to get banned by Google. Usually, I made around $1,000 per payoff period. However, in one month I had a series of popular posts and was about to make $3,000 but was accused of clickjacking. Even though the clickthroughs could be identified from elsewhere by IP address (I don't have the time or patience to clickjack my own account), my account was still cancelled.

    If this is true and there is a class action lawsuit, I will join the class.

    And people want to know why I am looking to separate myself from Google as much as possible!
  • I wondered when something would come out about Google cheating

    I have been using Google adwords to promote my website for many years, at least 5 or 6. For the first 5 or so years the fee was very small, in fact it was so small I was always surprised they kept my account open, usually .50 or less a month. Then about 5 months ago the monthly fee started jumping up to 10, 20, 50 a month. Once it hit 50 I went on to adwords and made some adjustments to eliminate foreign clicks and that has brought it down sub 20 again, but still much higher than the last 4-5 years. It isn't enough that I have done any real investigation into why or how it jumped up so much in a short time but it made me wonder what was going on. Now hearing about this I wonder if Google has changed their moniker from "do no evil" to "do as much evil as you can without getting caught"?
  • $croogled!!

    Do no evil @ it again.
  • Hmmm...

    Does this remind anyone of OS2? :-P
  • Fraud in Adsense & Adwords

    Why not? Google's rigged the game for advertisers, too. A simple test:

    First, change all your carefully-picked search terms to "exact match" or "phrase match" in Adwords....your clickthroughs will drop to nothing overnight. Why? Because the default "broad match" brings back completely unrelated topics. It's the default because most search terms don't generate a ton of clicks per month, limiting revenue for Google.

    Second, take a look at the conversions of your "Google Display Network" clickthroughs. Unless you're VERY careful, you'll have TONS of click-fraud, notable by a next-to-nothing conversion rate. You can eliminate this by using only "Managed Placements" (you select only reputable websites to display ads on).

    We lost several thousand dollars to click-fraud before I found a blog-post online talking about managed placements - our account-rep has yet to respond about a refund. The symptom of click-fraud is hundreds of clicks starting in the early AM that exhaust your daily budget, usually by mid-morning, and no conversions coming from any of those clickthroughs.

    A logical test: Google themselves publish detailed stats of search volumes per month in a tool in AdSense. Keep in mind that online advertisements get 10x fewer clickthroughs than normal links - and display network adds get like 100x fewer clickthroughs. If your search term only has a few thousand searches per month, and you're getting dozens or hundreds of clickthroughs from your ads per day, odds are you're being used.

    Offhand, I'd say that Google probably makes at least 10x more from Adwords than it really offers in terms of value....and it does it by intentionally relying on user ignorance about the complexities of its advertising system.

    So in terms of what the poster said about Google's Adsense platform - sure, it sounds about right. In corporations, evil doesn't start obviously - it kind of creeps up on you as a serious of tough choices & bad decisions until you're in over your head.

    Google has a known policy of kicking out websites participating in click-fraud (when they catch them), and unless they're crazy they have a green-list for some of the larger managed placements in their network.

    How do you determine click-fraud? The easiest way is to look for obscure websites earning big dollars in their adsense accounts. So far, what the poster authored sounds like it originated there, and could possibly have grown out of control as Google realized that click-fraud is tied implicitly into their revenue stream.

    Remember, advertising is Google's actual product - what creates revenue. For them to expand revenue, they need to sell more advertising, but "online user attention" is limited. In other words, there's a cap on monthly clickthroughs, and a limits to how much advertisers will pay for each of those clicks.
  • Sounds interesting

    But there are alot of details left out. They couldn't just simply ban every site that makes alot of $ through adsense...