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Dreaming of Pay Per Click Sausage

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The problem might have been that Jeffrey had heard the same set of questions once too often or it could just be the night noises one hears when traveling in strange cities. It could have been an undigested slice of deep-dish pizza from the evening before or a phantom blues-riff floating in his head. Whatever it was, it was 4AM on the morning of the last day of the Chicago Search Engine Strategies conference and Jeffrey K. Rohrs was wide awake.

At 9:00AM he was scheduled to moderate a panel titled In House: Big SEO. Two hours after that he was to moderate another panel, the one that was keeping him up at night, In House: Big PPC panel. Five hours before presiding over two long sessions, and Jeffrey wasn't able to sleep.

He wasn't nervous. Jeffrey is an SES veteran having appeared on or moderated large-attendance sessions for several years. The day before he had moderated for panels: Search Arbitrage, Dealing with Affiliates, Auditing Paid Listings and Click Fraud, and Search and Regulated Industries. So what could be running through his head at a time when he clearly should have been fast asleep?

Jeffrey was thinking about PPC, Von Bismarck, Garlinghouse and sausages in that lucid but dream like state that comes when you wake from your sleep with a start. Jeffrey had had a revelation that jolted him awake so he pulled up his laptop and started writing what would become known as The Sausage Manifesto.

As legend has it, nineteenth century German Chancellor Otto Von Bismarck once remarked, "Laws are like sausages. It is better not to see them being made."

That's the sentence that was running through Jeff's head. It reminded him of the way the pay per click market was going. Lower quality clicks, decreasing returns for some advertisers and increasing participation from bottom feeding garbatragors added irregular end-bits to the meat PPC advertising was producing. Even if you love the output, it's often not nice to witness the process.

Jeffrey spends a lot of time thinking about PPC, partially from an insider's point of view and partially from an agency point of view. Having been around the marketplace for so many years and having moderated countless SES and industry conferences Jeffrey knows the folks who work at the largest PPC vendors. He has heard their stories over dinner and drinks and played official referee/timekeeper when they speak on conference panels. Jeffrey is also the president of a fairly significant search marketing firm, Optiem LLC.

Having handled several sessions about PPC and search the day before and heading into another, Jeffrey was thinking about the apparent disconnect between advertisers and the PPC programs they participate in. Of the comments from the audience in his years moderating or sitting on panels about pay per click, questions relating to click fraud tend to come up most frequently.

The search engines themselves tend to downplay issues associated with click fraud at one point suggesting that outright fraud accounts for only one half of one percent of all click activity. If that estimate was in fact true, why would so many people think click fraud is a problem?

Every problem has a solution and, since most problems can be traced back to differing perceptions, perhaps the solution to the multiple issues presented by the current pay per click model could come from clearer communications.

Now, this is all coming to him in a rush of realization, a self-described Jerry Maguire kind of moment when absolutely everything makes sense with a stark clarity. What came out was an open letter from himself to "... Google, Yahoo, MSN, Ask, LookSmart, Miva, Kanoodle, and other paid search networks."

His open letter starts with fourteen questions of his own, including;

  • How do you define an invalid (i.e., non-billable) click?
  • What is the true size of the click fraud problem?
  • With all the publishers you have purportedly kicked-out of your publisher networks–and the click bots that you claim to stop at your gate–why hasn't there been ANY criminal prosecution of someone for activities related to click fraud?
  • Why is the burden on advertisers to prove clicks are invalid rather than you, as the advertising network, to prove that they are valid?
  • When you cut off a distribution partner for fraudulent activity, do you retroactively refund questionable ad revenue to all effected advertisers—not just the ones whose complaints generated the inquiry?
  • When you discover a new fraud technique, do you retroactively review your billing records and refund for all clicks generated by that technique?

These and the eight other questions he poses are very real. The problem is they can never be adequately answered because the PPC providers are unable to turn over the data they claim provides the proof without also giving away vital clues to how their ranking algorithms work. That knowledge is more critical to Google and the other engines than are the secret formulas for Coke and Kentucky Fried Chicken put together.

Advertisers with complaints about their accounts have a similar problem. They are not allowed to know exactly where all clicks billed to them originate from because to show them that data could literally spell suicide for the sanctity of their sorting codes.

With that classic Catch22 as a backdrop to the most successful advertising model online, Jeffrey tried to outline an 11 point plan of action, a manifesto to improve the quality of the clicks and the level of communication between PPC providers and their customers, the advertisers.

The manifesto opens with a simply stated request. Talk to us, don't lecture us.

"We are not children. We are professionals who spend billions of dollars on tiny text ads. To misquote Jefferson Starship, "We built this city on ten cent bids." If we think there's a problem, there is a problem."

Next, Jeffrey suggests the PPC providers appreciate that small advertisers don't have the budgets or expertise found at larger corporations. "We'll set up our conversion tracking and manage our bids, but we expect you to do the heavy data lifting when we raise a concern—not throw everything back at us with a giant to-do list. We pay you—not vice versa."

Perhaps his strongest suggestion is for PPC providers to invest in security in direct proportion to the problem. "Warranted or not, a lot of us have a sneaking suspicion that you pocket more money from invalid clicks (including third-party click fraud) than you invest in its prevention. Don't get us wrong, we appreciate that you have grown your click quality teams; however, we believe they need more resources. If your data shows that click fraud is actually in the single digits, then please invest at least that much in its prevention."

The manifesto goes on to mention improving click quality customer service, sharing data with other engines, helping organize a trusted third party auditor, the creation of a registry for captured click fraud artists, the actual prosecution of click fraudsters, and, most importantly, the provision of data proving what is and is not a billable click.

Jeffrey has close relationships with the people in charge of the largest PPC engines, Google and Yahoo. Shuman Ghosemajumder from Google and John Slade from Yahoo are regular panelists in his sessions and, in the course of his professional work, Jeffrey and his staff have close contact with Google AdWords and Yahoo Search Marketing representatives.

He recognizes that there is a great deal being done by search engineers to detect and prevent click fraud however he also acknowledges that many of his colleagues, clients and contacts believe there is a growing problem. Though he doesn't seriously believe his early morning revelation will cause a revolution in the practices of the PPC providers, he figures his goal of generating discussion in the search marketing industry has been more than accomplished. Not bad for some 4AM notes.

Hear Jeffrey K. Rohrs on the Alternative on WebmasterRadio.fm.

About The Author
Search marketing expert Jim Hedger is one of the most prolific writers in the search sector with articles appearing in numerous search related websites and newsletters, including SiteProNews, Search Engine Journal, ISEDB.com, and Search Engine Guide.

He is currently Senior Editor for the Jayde Online news sources SEO-News and SiteProNews. You can also find additional tips and news on webmaster and SEO topics by Jim at the SiteProNews blog.


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