Hey Ask.com: Yes, That’s Google Arbitrage

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Earlier this week, Susan Waldes caused quite a stir with her Search Engine Land post, Will Ask.com Google Arbitrage Ever Stop? Google arbitrage is the practice of advertisers buying Google Adwords ads for the sole purpose of driving traffic to their made-for-Adsense or other site where the primary goal is to generate ad revenue. Susan called out Ask.com for arbitrage practices, giving examples of how Ask.com buys traffic via PPC, and then sends it to their own search results pages – which are full of ads and links to other sites owned by the same entity that owns Ask.com.

Susan garnered the attention of Ask.com’s CEO Doug Leeds with her post. In fact, he wrote a rebuttal to Search Engine Land that was published yesterday.

Leeds claims that Ask.com is not engaging in arbitrage, but rather is “(providing) information from our own network of sites, or from around the web, that can answer (searcher’s) questions.”

Bullcrap.

I’ve long been tired of seeing Ask.com results clogging the PPC landscape. Instead of giving searchers the information they asked for, Ask ads take searchers to yet another search page – a terrible user experience that I can’t imagine Google is excited about if they really care about ad quality. (And that’s a topic for another post.)

So, I ran a couple searches. I decided to sidestep Google and try Bing instead. Here is the same search that Leeds performed in his rebuttal, on Bing:

bing SERP

 

You’ll notice that the ONLY ad at the top of the page is an Ask.com ad. And it’s a terrible ad. The whole premise of both the ad copy and sitelinks is, “Hey searcher, come to Ask.com to get answers to your questions!” Hey Ask.com, guess what? The searcher ALREADY ASKED A QUESTION! They want INFORMATION, not your crappy ads taking them to your crappy SERPs that do anything but answer the searcher’s questions.

(Not to mention the fact that the first ad on the right is an About.com ad – and About.com is owned by the same parent company as Ask.com, as Susan Waldes pointed out.)

Here’s the Ask.com landing page for that ad:

ask serp

I added the red box. What’s at the top of the page? Arbitrage ads! Ads that Ask.com is profiting from!

Let’s recap this process:

  • Ask.com buys ads on Bing
  • Ask’s ads take users to their crappy search engine results page
  • Users click on their ads
  • Ask makes money

What other possible goal could their Bing ads have but to drive profit from their own ads? Isn’t that the definition of search arbitrage?

In fact, look at the organic results on that Ask.com “landing page.” And look at the “ads” on the top right. All that stuff is driving traffic to Ask.com pages! Ask is taking their poor unsuspecting site visitors on a virtual wild goose chase through their various SERPs!

It’s kind of like voice mail hell – every option you choose just takes you to something else that still doesn’t answer your question. That’s the antithesis of a quality landing page, in my book.

What do you think? Is Ask.com the king of PPC arbitrage? Or are they justified in their actions? Is Doug Leeds admitting guilt with his rebuttal, or does he have a point? Share in the comments!

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Comments

  1. Fave part of post: “It’s kind of like voice mail hell…” 🙂

    I read all the articles you mentioned and I’m surprised Leeds didn’t have a better response. The content on Ask.com, the experience, and especially their irrelevant ads are POOR. Rather than take the defensive stance I think it would have served him better to acknowledge they have areas to improve on rather than try to force us into thinking everything is perfect about their system.

    Their system currently IS arbitrage, but if they tweak it (maybe not have several ads as the first links) they could be back in line.

    • Melissa Mackey says:

      True. I don’t have a problem with Ask’s site per se – the problem I have is all the ads, and their awful PPC arbitrage ads. I have no idea why he wrote that rebuttal – it just made them look worse. In fact I wouldn’t have written this if he hadn’t done that – I would have read Susan’s post, thought “yeah, agreed” and moved on. He’s drawn attention to their crappy system by trying to defend it.

  2. I have nothing against ask or even arbitrage. In fact, way back in the day, before it was against T&C’s I used to do Google arbitrage myself. *wince* – This is why I was way more critical of Google than ask.com as ask (I was thinking at first) is just making a buck and you can’t blame them, it’s Google that is unfairly enforcing the policies.

    However, the ask.com CEO trying to defend what they are doing as a wanted or quality user experience (and not just what it is – making a buck) now makes me want to blame them too.

    The thing is, everybody knows arbitrage when they see it – it is a bit hard to define where the line is as some quality aggregators (for instance in travel) don’t set off the arbitrage alarm. While ask.com and about.com clearly do. Still, humans just *know* when they see it.

    The speculation in my article about collecting 1st party data was purely speculation. If Mr Leeds had just rebutted that, no, I was incorrect about that fact, I’d have been like, “Oh, cool, i was incorrect” but all the defensiveness on other points kind of discredited him overall for me. I’m not entirely sure that I’m incorrect about the data issue either now.

    It is definitely arbitrage. And it’s pretty close, if not definitely, double serving too. I’ve certainly had sites/clients dinged for double serving that had way less similar landing page experiences…

    • Melissa Mackey says:

      Susan, thank you for your comment! I saw your post as an interesting angle and food for thought. The rebuttal was what made me start doing some searches and looking closely at the results. Totally agree that the speculation about first party data was interesting, but was just that – speculation. If he had tackled just that issue I think we’d all say it was fair. And I didn’t have time to cover the double serving in detail, but that’s ridiculous too.

      The thing that gets me is, if you or I did this for our clients, we’d get smacked down so fast our heads would spin. But Ask has gotten away with it for years now. Frustrating.

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