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

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.”


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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Say Goodbye to Google Garbitrage

Google Adwords has long been blowing away their competition by rolling out with cool features requested by their advertisers. There have been so many innovations in the program since we started back in June 2002, I couldn’t begin to list them all, but some of them include Site Exclusion, AdWords Editor, and all the keyword research tools. Now, it appears that a significant number of sites involved in AdSense arbitrage have been given the boot from the AdSense program.

It’s about time. Many (not all, but many) of these sites have been a thorn in my side for a long time now. I’ve been forced to reduce content network bids to a few pennies in many cases, and have had to shut off content entirely for a few ad groups. Doing that basically amounts to throwing the baby out with the bathwater – but I didn’t have another option, since (until recently) I couldn’t see what sites were sending us content traffic, and I couldn’t afford to pay for the garbitrage. Legitimate, converting publishers were inevitably cut off in the process.

I was thrilled to be asked a couple of months ago to participate in the beta test of Google’s Placement Performance report (explanation and screen shots at Marketing Pilgrim). From this, I discovered that our ads were appearing on over 7,000 content sites. 95% of the sites are no problem at all – either they convert, or they don’t send us any measurable traffic (which is fine). However, there was a handful of sites that were performing extremely badly, and I was able to quickly eliminate them via Site Exclusion after reviewing the report. Better yet, I’ve been slowly increasing my content CPCs for better positioning. I can do this with confidence now, knowing I can find the deadbeats quickly and easily, and block them.

Giving the garbitrage sites the boot was a logical step for Google. They know which sites are being excluded by significant numbers of advertisers. And, as Brad Geddes at eWhisper surmises, the timing is interesting at a minimum. It appears Google decided to proactively remove the bad sites before releasing the Placement Performance report to the masses, saving us all a bunch of headaches (and probably greatly reducing the load on their Site Exclusion server).

Bravo, Google. Once again you have set the bar for the competition, and once again they are moving at a snail’s pace compared to your warp-speed rollout of new and useful features.

This news has been pretty well covered in the SEM blogs. Some good summaries are at Search Engine Watch, JenSense, Search Engine Roundtable, and of course Webmaster World (better grab a cup of coffee and some snacks if you want to read the entire thread, as it spans 16 pages at the time of this writing!).

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Garbitrage Meets “Office Space”

If you haven’t seen the movie Office Space, you must go and rent it tonight. It’s one of the funniest commentaries on corporate life out there.

The main characters in the film work for Initech, a fictional tech firm. Today, a coworker was doing some research on Yahoo, and searched on unique gift ideas. She especially noticed the first organic result: for Initeck.com. We all got a good laugh out of the creative misspelling, and that was that.

Being the curious sort that I am, though, I went back and clicked on that listing – only to discover it’s a GARBITRAGE site – running, of all things, Google AdSense ads! As these type of sites go, it’s a good one: it appears to be an affiliate site, too, so they’ve got product photos, links, and a little bit of copy on their pages. Which is probably how they’re ranking so well in the SERPs. But still, clearly the purpose of the site is to profit from Adsense and affiliate links, not provide useful content for visitors.

The site owner is brilliant, in my opinion (even though I hate garbitrage). They not only picked a great, clever name for their site, but they’ve figured out how to put one over on Yahoo. Yahoo, the joke’s on you — you’re sending free traffic to this site, while Google makes money from it!

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Cracking Down on Garbitrage

Internet giant Overstock.com has had enough of typosquatters profiting off misspellings of their URL. Via Internet Retailer, “Adept online shoppers aren’t all great typists. One slip of a finger can send a shopper to sites registered to others who want to use that accidental traffic for their own purposes, such as advertising or collecting keyword payments on the errant clicks. To clean up its affiliate program and reduce the negative effects of such “typosquatting” on URLs close to its own, Overstock.com has been using the beta release of a new hosted service called Typosquasher recently launched by technology vendor CitizenHawk Inc.”

What a great concept. I love this. Typosquatting makes up a large percentage of PPC garbitrage traffic. Not all such traffic is bad for advertisers, especially if you’re a reseller of the brand in question. However, typosquatting on trademarked domains is frustrating, and borders on deception, in my opinion. We’ve seen a few typosquatters on our domains, and it’s annoying to realize we just paid for those clicks via our PPC ads, instead of getting the traffic directly for free. And it definitely confuses visitors. My 10-year-old daughter recently was looking for a kids web site she’d seen advertised on TV. She didn’t remember the exact URL, so she tried typing a few into the address bar. She called me over to look at what she’d found, and there it was – a page full of garbitrage, and not all of it child-friendly. (For those of you who are wondering: yes, we had a repeat performance of the “internet safety” chat after this little escapade.)

I’m curious to see how things pan out with CitizenHawk. They have a tool on their site where you can test the service for free. It told me that there are 72 potential squatters on our MagazineLine.com domain, and at least some of them are monetizing the traffic. I think CitizenHawk has a great business idea. Let’s hope it pans out for them.

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