Google is cracking down. Last month, Google filed a trademark infringement lawsuit against Pacific WebWorks and several others as part of an effort to stop fraudulent “Google Money” schemes. These are scammy offers that use Google’s brand to attract unsuspecting customers and then trap them into hard-to-break continuity programs, often via negative option contracts. In a move that many see as being related, Google has also moved “to remove scammy URLS from our index,” and to, “permanently disable AdWords accounts that have a poor or harmful user experience whether or not they use Google’s trademarks illegally.” Unfortunately, it’s not just scammers that are getting hit by these new measures.

Are Google-slaps Arbitrary?

Public forums and blogs are rife with complaints from affiliates whose businesses have been adversely affected by or obliterated by what has come to be known as a Google-slap. A common story is that a business may have existed for some time, with perhaps six or seven figures having been spent on AdWords, when suddenly with little or no warning Google disables the account. Often, there seems to be no way to identify what caused the problem and therefore no way to fix it. Even if the problem could be identified and fixed, the end result was the same with Google being unresponsive and the account remaining unusable.

The process seems random and has begun to have a chilling effect on affiliates and advertisers. If only Google’s guidelines weren’t so ambiguous, some say, and if there was some recourse, then perhaps honest affiliates could avoid the sanctions intended to deter scammers.

“Google-slaps are just Google trying to correct the market so consumers can have a better user experience,” said Michael Krongel, president of Intermark Media, Inc. “But the process is very arbitrary. People comply and still get slapped or their listing gets poor Quality Scores.”

Although most advertisers adhere to Google’s terms, policies, and guidelines, there are nevertheless some aggressive advertisers that try to take advantage of consumers, said a Google spokesperson.

MediaTrust CEO Peter Bordes feels that a lack of industry standards is driving Google’s actions in a situation in which it is trying to protect itself and consumers.

“We’re seeing a contraction of the CPA market which points to this as a root problem,” he said. “My fear is that things are moving so fast and so hard [remedial action] won’t be done in a manner that reflects fair play.”

The word, “fair” is at the heart of the debate. While Google does provides terms, conditions and exhaustive guidelines for advertisers, it is still often accused of not revealing all of the relevant factors.

“Many affiliates feel Google is acting in a way that is unfair by failing to disclose important, relevant information with regard to policies and decisions that affect their livelihoods,” said John Lemp, CEO and founder of IntegraClick, LLC. “The frustrating part about this is affiliate marketers have no idea why their account is being terminated. It’s unfortunate that many publishers and advertisers with no ill intentions have had to experience account terminations and worse, blacklisting within the Google network due to heightened security measures. These are Google’s core customers and [they] should be at least treated with some form of dignity.”

Potential Pitfalls

Google’s desire to eliminate “poor or harmful user experiences” makes sense from corporate risk and consumer protection standpoints, but the word, “poor” is a point of great debate because it is subjective and not necessarily tied to fraud or intentional misdeeds.

What factors may lead to a user experience being considered poor? Landing page quality, Quality Scores and thin or irrelevant content are the most obvious, but there seem to be several others that are undisclosed.

“If you’re running a PPC campaign your landing page will count toward your Quality Score,” said Jim Lillig, director of Networks at ClickFusion. “The real question is whether your organic Quality Score differs from a paid listing. And the biggest incongruence is you need good information but will you get slapped for a form on a page? Is it ambiguous? Yes, but not to Google.”

A common situation that has perplexed many advertisers is when they have found that their Quality Score has plummeted overnight. What has caused it? There is no simple way to know for sure and so one may have to keep guessing. According to Google’s spokesperson a number of factors are included in the measurement of a keyword’s relevance to ad text and a user’s search query. Quality Scores are updated frequently and are closely related to the performance of a keyword. Because there are a variety of factors involved in the calculation of a Quality Score, Google says it not possible to give a simple explanation for a Quality Score’s decline.

IntegraClick’s Lemp wonders how any affiliate can be confident about the future when their livelihoods may depend on Google’s subjective judgment on the meaning of three vague words: “Landing page quality.” Because there are so many different landing page types and search encompasses hundreds of thousands of different business types, he feels Google has a responsibility to understand the nuances and provide specific feedback.

“The only people that will learn the system if Google continues to do business this way are those that do business the wrong way,” he said. “In the end, Google may end up pushing partners towards using unethical tactics to diversify their risks, which is exactly what Google was trying to avoid in the first place.”

Many agree that Google’s approach may actually encourage the kind of practices it is designed to stop because gaming Google’s rules can provide big increases in traffic volume and ROI, with the result that honest affiliates are either forced to follow suit or become the victims of higher bid prices and lower margins.

Who Decides?

Google says it uses both automated and manual processes to measure site quality and to distinguish scammers from legitimate advertisers. The company disables the accounts of offenders that repeatedly breach its advertising policies and landing page quality guidelines, or that place ads that promote sites considered to be egregiously harmful to users. Given the ease with which new accounts can be set up and the sheer number of accounts that exist, some sort of automated review is accepted as necessary by everyone. Where it comes in for criticism is when it appears arbitrary and overreaching.

“When you talk about destroying someone’s business, Google needs to do so in a sniper-based fashion,” said IntegraClick’s Lemp. “It’s easy to say ‘some people will be affected for the greater good’, but it’s different once it’s you and your livelihood that is axed.”

Part of the problem is that it seems to many that Google takes no account of a history of good behavior by the affiliate. Having an account that has existed for years without problems but with great Quality Scores and big ad spends appears to carry little weight with Google. One advertiser’s big ad spend may just be regarded as a tiny drop in the Google bucket. It is a sensitive issue for victims of the Google-slap that consider themselves to be some of Google’s best customers.

“A million dollars is not that big a deal to a company Google’s size,” said ClickFusion’s Lillig. “Their strategy is to weed out bad people but even our court system convicts innocent people. The problem is there’s no recourse with Google.”

What Happens If an Account is Disabled?

The lack of recourse is a common complaint among those who have had their accounts disabled.

“Think about the guy who has spent his career building a reputation with Google as far as Quality Scores and bid pricing go. All of a sudden he is shut down and has no way to appeal the process,” said IntegraClick’s Lemp. “The legitimate affiliate who has worked his whole life in search and has built his reputation the right way faces disaster. I know more and more people every single day that have faced this with Google and it’s a shame.”

According to the Google spokesperson, an escalation process does exist. Advertisers can reply directly to the notification email they’ve received to ask further questions or request appeals. Google then conducts a re-review and make judgments on a case-by-case basis.

But that doesn’t satisfy most who have been affected and there are increasing calls for a different approach. Lemp and others say Google’s unilateral actions underscore the need for some sort of industry self-regulation or arbitration that has a clear set of checks and balances.

Should You Be Worried?

It depends. Opinions differ greatly about who should be worried and why. Theoretically, if you follow the Google’s guidelines and make a point of conducting business ethically then you should not have to worry about a Google-slap. In practice, “results may vary.”

Google’s sheer size and market share put the company in a position of defining rules that continually shape and reshape the industry, especially in the absence of a selfregulated industry forum. And even if such an industry body was established and new guidelines published, Google would still have significant influence on them by sheer force of market presence. That will remain the situation unless and until Google’s market share is eroded at some point in the future.

What to do in the meantime? In addition to adhering to Google’s published guidelines and following sound business practices, the best advice seems to be that the push towards quality of user experience will continue and so publishers and advertisers need to take responsibility for providing that experience and being careful about what they choose to promote.

“Your standard online marketer is trying to figure out what is or isn’t OK,” said ClickFusion’s Lillig. “If you’re just going to follow a get-rich-quick formula and provide no value then expect the worst. Although the guidelines may be vague, content is still king.”

Who Should Define the Guidelines?

Google’s power over its advertising customers is creating great concern among publishers, advertisers, and networks. Some have decided that the industry as a whole needs to take action to self-regulate before the government decides to step in or Google’s rules become even more onerous.

John Lemp, CEO and founder of IntegraClick, LLC says he and the CEOs of some of the largest affiliate networks are talking about creating a not-for-profit entity that protects advertisers, affiliates, and consumers.

Peter Bordes, CEO of Media Trust hopes that perhaps something might be accomplished through the Performance Marketing Alliance (PMA) although at the present time the group is busy handling Internet tax issues. In the meantime his network has launched a compliance directory so people can educate themselves about issues like blogging policies.

Jim Lillig, director of networks at ClickFusion is talking with some of his colleagues about potentially launching a certification authority. His company is currently working on technology that will monitor the quality of traffic sent by publishers to advertisers.

“Affiliates have done a poor job of policing themselves,” said Lillig. “I’m for anything that will help legitimize affiliate marketing.”