Like many creatures of the web, I’ve been known to watch YouTube videos every now and then. For the last year or so, I’ve noticed something strange going on with Google’s advertising approach within YouTube. Initially, I just thought I was witnessing a mistake that their developers made, and I waited to see when they’d fix the issue. To my surprise, that day never came – so today, I’m going to describe the problem, as I perceive it. Let’s start with a screenshot:
Notice the message to the bottom right? It says “you can skip to video in,” and then has a countdown, in seconds. There’s nothing wrong with such an approach – in fact, it allows me to move my mouse to where I’ll have to click. When the countdown ends, here’s how the message box changes:
Do you notice anything different? The “Skip Ad” button is smaller, vertically. Why does this matter, you ask? Well, here’s the thing: sometimes, when I go to click the “Skip Ad” button, I find that I accidentally click the ad – not the button. How? Well, when the message changes to “you can skip to video,” I, as a user, usually move my mouse over the box, and eagerly await the moment it becomes clickable. The first few times I did this, I hovered my mouse pointer over it, and proceeded to click the box repeatedly, in anticipation. When it actually became clickable, it turned out that my mouse was hovering over the part that disappeared, and before I knew it, I had accidentally clicked the ad. If you’re doubting the significance of the box’s transformation, consider this comparison:
We’re not talking a minor difference here. A good ~40% of the “you can skip to video” box is lost, and instead the ad gains that territory. At first, I saw it as an attempt by Google to get more clicks – even though those clicks were most probably low in value. After all, if I click something accidentally, it’s extremely unlikely that I will be interested in the result of that click. And if it wasn’t about getting more clicks, then why did the box change size? As a company who (understandably) seems to put so much value into its advertisers, why would they do this? It was definitely an interesting question, to me, as it even had an impact on YouTube’s usability.
So I looked into it, and discovered that YouTube ads of that variety (Standard InStream Ads) were not being charged per click (CPC), and thus, the problem I noted above wasn’t as severe as it could have been. Still, I wondered why Google would make a design choice that would open the door to accidental clicks? After all, isn’t the amount of a clicks an important metric in the performance of an ad? Their documentation certainly brings attention to it (emphasis added):
- Video Impressions
- Video Click Through
- 50% Midpoint Plays
- 100% Complete Plays
But, in the end, I’m certainly not an expert in Google’s advertising practices – so I could be wrong about this being a negative thing. Still, I’ll continue to wonder … so if anyone out there knows the truth, do let me know – I’m really curious. Oh, and you know what’s particularly interesting about this? YouTube’s new iOS app doesn’t have this problem – see the screenshots below. Could it have something to do with a mouse being more precise than touch? Fascinating question, in my opinion.
Back when I was a 19 year-old college student and still living with my parents, I was really enthusiastic about video games. So much, in fact, that I felt the need to create a clan, website and all. At the time, we went by the name “Infamous Butchers”, also known as Team IB. Yeah, I was pretty serious about it… it all seems somewhat silly today.
After a while, I decided I would put advertisements on the website, in an effort to support the team. Naturally, I looked to the most recommended service, AdSense, as offered by Google. I signed up, and despite how small the site was, I received a confirmation e-mail a couple days later. Shortly thereafter, I had the advertisements working as expected, and for a while, all was well.
At a certain point, a teammate decided to start paying for a game server that the team could use to practice regularly, and was doing so out of his own pocket. In an effort to support him, I told my fellow teammates to click on the ads, as this would help generate revenue. Now, in case you’re not aware, this is known as click fraud, and is a very serious breach of the AdSense Terms and Conditions. When instructing my teammates to do this, I never really stopped to think about the legality or ethics of my request. My friends just went along and said they’d click every now and then, and none of them questioned my approach.
In addition to telling friends to click, I also violated another core AdSense rule - never click on your own ads. While I originally was in compliance of this rule, I did find myself in one specific situation where I reasoned that yes, the content being displayed in the ad was indeed relevant to me. I was looking for an alternate company to host our game server, and sure enough, the ad was talking about just that. I only did this once, as far as I can remember.
Approximately two weeks later, my earnings had reached a ludicrous sum of 100$, but still I failed to grasp that I was doing something very, very wrong. I remember at least two distinct moments where my friends told me they had been clicking, but I do not recall when, or how many times they clicked. It wasn’t long until I received an e-mail from Google, letting me know that I had been banned from AdSense. My initial feeling was that I let my team down, to a significant degree. As an extension of the shame I felt, I tried to reply to Google in an effort to salvage the account, and in turn, retain the possibility of earning legitimate clicks. I obviously wasn’t thinking clearly, because what I had done was a very serious offense… I was just blind to it at that moment, obsessed with my team, and how I failed to support them.
Despite my replies, the Google AdSense team informed that they were sure of their decision, eventually leading me to accept the truth. Their words had shaken some sense into me, and I began to feel greater shame towards what I had done with my AdSense account. Not only was I extremely wrong in doing what I did, I also managed to destroy a potential business relationship with Google, very early on, and on my primary Google account no-less. As a long time fan and supporter of Google, I was left with a shame so poignant that it stuck with me through the years – a dark cloud, always reminding me of that time where I really screwed up.
Years later, after having worked as a software developer for three years, I tried signing up to Google AdSense using another one of my Google accounts. To my surprise, they accepted my application, regardless of the fact that I had the same name as before. I was able to successfully place Google AdSense ads on my page, but then started to doubt whether this was in respect of Google’s rules. Sure enough, after reading their documentation – it became clear that if I was banned before, I should never try to apply again. It wasn’t just my account that was banned, it was me – and anything associated to me – as brutal as that sounds. Creating another account might work – but as long as I’m the same publisher as before, they could ban the account if they figured that out. To respect their rules, I quickly removed all ads from my site, and decided it might be time to contact Google. After all, I made the mistakes in my youth, and hoped this would factor into my appeal. I explained the tale to the best of my recollection; however, I still could not bring myself to admit that I had, in fact, been the root cause of the whole disaster. It was my words that lead at least two of my friends to click on my ads, and though I regretted my part deeply, I felt too embarrassed to admit it. Despite my appeal, Google still stuck to their response that they needed to protect their advertisers, and I would be a threat.
Though disappointed, I agreed with the reasoning behind their refusal. Why would they take the risk of allowing a banned user when the potential for income is probably far less than the monitoring fees? I could relate to them, and despite all my self-directed anger, I was once more convinced that I would need to live without Google AdSense, as much as that bothered me. That was roughly two years ago, and today, with more than five years of software development experience, I still feel like I shot myself in the foot very early on. Google AdSense seems to be the best pay-per-click advertising solution, one which allows even the smallest independent publisher to earn some profit back from their content. While I managed to find decent alternatives for websites, I still have difficulty digesting that I can never work with Google.
The whole experience has left me paranoid about pay-per-click advertising. For example, with one provider, I once accidentally clicked an ad on my blog, while I was browsing on my phone. I immediately figured out what my IP was, sent it to their the support team, explaining that I accidentally clicked, and they should not include the click towards my profit. They thanked me for being proactive, but warned that if it happened too many times, they would not be able to serve ads on my site. It’s unfortunate that I had to get banned by Google to understand the severity of click fraud, which, it turns out, is quite clearly explained in Google’s documentation:
Invalid Clicks and Impressions
Publishers may not click their own ads or use any means to inflate impressions and/or clicks artificially, including manual methods.
Publishers may not ask others to click their ads or use deceptive implementation methods to obtain clicks. This includes, but is not limited to, offering compensation to users for viewing ads or performing searches, promising to raise money for third parties for such behaviour or placing images next to individual ads.
So, was I blind? Was my young mind so obsessed with games that it even failed to understand the importance of the legal agreement that had taken place? Yes, I believe so. Today, I still agree completely with the reasoning behind why Google banned me – I just have one question that I’d like to ask in the open, right here. How long must I pay for a mistake that I made in my youth? Youth, mind you, is not always as simple as above or below 18. When I was banned, I was 19, and though I was mature in many ways, my behavior towards AdSense was quite the opposite. Am I really so evil that I must never be allowed anywhere near Google AdSense, even when I’m 30, 40, or 50? Does additional life experience mean nothing once you’ve made such mistakes? It’s not like I shot a man and tried to get away with it – how could this ban truly be for life, when even a murderer might get to walk after enough years of jail time?
The way Google crafted their agreement, it is entirely possible that I will never be forgiven – they have reserved that possibility. I’ve come to a certain peace about this – I’ve had ads from another company for over a year, and I remain in good standing with them. Still, I can’t help but think back to how great Google AdSense was… and, at this point, all I want is to be put out of my misery. If I’m banned until the day of my death, with absolutely zero chance of getting my account back, fine. I’ll learn to live with that, I just really need it confirmed so I can move on. Otherwise, what can I do? Would Google be willing to grant me a probationary period, during which I could prove myself worthy of reinstatement? I would gladly cover any administrative fees related to monitoring my account, if that is a concern. In any case, with this last appeal, I hope to arrive at a conclusion: either the dark cloud is here to stay, or it will eventually give way to sunlight.
UPDATE 06/25/2012: Reading this today, I find myself tempted to make a few edits. I sound as though I’m apologizing for something much worse than clicking on ads, and I feel it could be toned down. Though my fraud was born out of youth, and associated stupidity, it was fraud nonetheless – and that is unacceptable according my own moral code – let alone Google’s terms. So to preserve the genuine guilt and frustration that went into writing the post, I’ve decided to leave it unaltered.
I’ve been playing All Points Bulletin as of late, and have had a good time doing so. Despite numerous flaws, it has by far the best customization tools I have ever seen. The company that created the game is called Realtime Worlds, which was founded by David Jones, who is most commonly known for creating the Grand Theft Auto franchise. Below is a video on the GameSpot YouTube channel, in which Jones describes some of the customization tools available in the game.
The video does a decent job at giving you a quick overview, but you really have to use the tools to fully understand. You can make stuff that looks like it was made in Photoshop, that’s how advanced the customization options are. Layers, transparency, gradients, masks, custom symbols, all of these modifications/effects are possible in the APB editors.
So, given the flexibility, I decided to make use of the customization tools to design a sleeveless shirt for my character. My goal was to make something close to the Awesome smiley. Here’s what I came up with:
While definitely not perfect, I found it was a decent homage to the smiley, seen below:
I got the image from this Wikipedia page.
I’ll likely work on a better version in the next couple days; however, after making such customizations – I realized something else. I could very easily use my in-game shirt to advertise for my website. APB already contains in-game advertisements, both visual and audio. I never had anything against this, given that they are trying to depict a modern urban environment, which does feature advertisements in real life. The idea of adding my own advertising intrigued me. As a quick test, I tried just stamping my domain on the back of my newly created shirt:
Pretty simple to make, and fairly easy to read – even when the player is running with low texture quality. Still, it brings up some interesting questions. First of all, did Realtime Worlds cover this possibility in the APB license agreement? Second, if my full name is visible in the game, should my behavior change?
To answer the first question, I checked the APB End User License Agreement, and I found what I was looking for. See the bold text below:
Rules of Conduct9.4 You shall not (and you agree to not) generate any User Generated Content, or use the Game in a way, that:9.4.1 infringes the rights of any other person or entity (including, without limitation, their Intellectual Property Rights) (and references to “any other person or entity” shall include RTW);9.4.2 breaches any Applicable Laws;9.4.3 in RTW’s absolute discretion, RTW considers:(a) is defamatory, vulgar, obscene, libellous, harmful, abusive, harassing, hateful, invasive of another’s privacy, sexually explicit, or offensive (whether in relation to race, sex, religion or otherwise) or denigrating to anyone’s reputation or general standing (whether or not actionable);(b) is seeking to promote or encourage illegal activity;(c) is false or misleading to others;(d) is seeking to access another person’s personal information or information relating to another APB Account;(e) is seeking to interrupt, destroy or limit the functionality of the Game or any servers or networks connected to the Game or another’s computer; or(f) amounts to unwanted or unauthorised advertising or solicitation.(g) is stalking or harassing of another person.
The wording there offers a lot of flexibility for Realtime Worlds. Is my advertising unauthorized, or unwanted? I’m not advertising for a commercial company here, just a personal domain, with a blog. Sure, one day, there may be a commercial component associated to my domain, but that’s not currently the case. Either way, they specifically say it is at their absolute discretion… so it could very well be seen as both unauthorized and unwanted, since it is entirely up to them.
The argument gets more complicated when you consider that APB creations can be manufactured. Once you come up with a design, for example, my Awesome homage shirt, you can sell copies of the shirt for in-game credit, or even credit towards APB playtime. To play APB, you have to buy hours of play, or subscribe to a monthly pay-to-play plan. Selling customizations for playtime credit is therefore an attractive option for people that want to play the game long-term. Now, if you sell something you create, it is forever related to your in-game character name – the person who owns it will always be able to see who manufactured it. This makes it possible for people to behave as fashion designers in game. Yet, in real life, what do we typically see on clothes when they’re part of a particular line? Logos. A reference to the line of clothing you are wearing, the manufacturer. So, if you’re manufacturing clothes in APB, is it wrong to put your domain on there? I’m not sure it is, but, of course, I feel it must be respectfully placed, and very small to not grab too much attention. I’m sure some people would do the opposite, though – so the argument still stands… though Realtime Worlds would ultimately decide.
Advertising also comes with a cost on the privacy side; consider this: my character’s name is actually “MattRefghi”, and his shirt, as you’ve now seen, sports my domain in a very visible fashion. When playing, I feel like I have to be careful with what I do or say, because it is pretty obvious who I am in real life. I was never a guy who was negative with other players, but sometimes I did utilize strategies that weren’t particularly pleasant for my targets. I’ll probably visit some of these strategies in a future post. In APB, like real-life, I must consider my actions before I execute them, because they’re ultimately bound to me. As scary as that might seem to some, I think this is a good thing… people would be forced to behave with a certain amount of class if their online interactions were always bound to their real life identity. In multi-player games, Griefers would likely be greatly reduced, and everyone should have a better time online.
A griefer is a player in a multiplayer video game that purposely irritates and harasses other players.
I may contact Realtime Worlds for more information – I think it would be interesting to see what they have to say on the matter. In the meantime, however, I’ll keep thinking of amusing customization ideas.
Update: A few days after posting this, here’s what Blizzard Entertainment announced:
The first and most significant change is that in the near future, anyone posting or replying to a post on official Blizzard forums will be doing so using their Real ID — that is, their real-life first and last name — with the option to also display the name of their primary in-game character alongside it.
The official forums have always been a great place to discuss the latest info on our games, offer ideas and suggestions, and share experiences with other players — however, the forums have also earned a reputation as a place where flame wars, trolling, and other unpleasantness run wild. Removing the veil of anonymity typical to online dialogue will contribute to a more positive forum environment, promote constructive conversations, and connect the Blizzard community in ways they haven’t been connected before. With this change, you’ll see blue posters (i.e. Blizzard employees) posting by their real first and last names on our forums as well.
I like it… but we’ll soon see whether the idea can float, or not.
Mozilla Firefox has always been one of my favorite browsers. The only contender that was able to knock it from its #1 position was Google Chrome. Even though Chrome is still lacking in a few departments (extensions, bookmark management), I swear by it because of the overall performance. Plus, whenever they release a major version, I know they’ll have further performance enhancements – that’s just what they do. I also prefer the minimalistic nature of their user interface – which, as it turns out, also integrates beautifully with my operating system, Windows 7.
Despite Firefox dropping to #2 in my list, I still use it regularly for web development. They have plenty of extensions to keep me coming back: Firebug, Web Developer, ColorZilla, HTML Validator, and… well, NoScript. All of those extensions are excellent; however, NoScript sometimes irritates me.
NoScript’s unique whitelist based pre-emptive script blocking approach prevents exploitation of security vulnerabilities (known and even not known yet!) with no loss of functionality…
Certainly sounds great – and it works very well too. I really get a sense of safety in knowing I can selectively enable specific elements on webpages, blocking everything else by default. The functionality they offer is great. The problem I have is more with the developers, not the extension. You see, here’s the problem: NoScript is regularly updated, so you’re very likely to see this on a regular basis:
Kind of annoying, but by itself, not a deal breaker. After an restarting Firefox due to the update, I’m immediately greeted by the following page:
Let me state this very clearly: Every time I update NoScript, I’m thrown to that page. Ugh. Sure, they show me the change log, news, and more – but they also show me ads… a lot of them. Let’s start by looking at how much of the site is devoted to ads. I’ll highlight pure advertisements in red, affiliations in pink, and donation controls in orange:
That’s quite a lot of advertising on the main page… and it is above the fold of the page. It’s not the worst I’ve ever seen, but it is still a significant assault on my eyes. I won’t show you screenshots of what the rest of the page looks like, but trust me – it follows the same trend. If you’d like to see it all, you can visit it here. That said, I get the whole “we’re starving programmers and we need the money” thing, but I expect a certain amount of elegance in pursuing revenue. Considering their previous shady practices, though, I’m not entirely surprised.
Another aspect of their advertising that particularly bothers me is how they claim to be “your friendly web cop”, keeping you safe, and yet, they are suggesting software that they probably never even tried. I’m particularly referring to the “PC slowing you down? Free scan” and “Top tip! Click here to check if your drivers are up-to-date!” ads. I would never click on those things… but I know some people that might, especially if they are shown on a security-related site. At first glance, even I have to ask myself if it is an ad – it almost looks like it could be another software offering from the same company. Things like that really make me want to start using AdBlock Plus again… and that’s not cool, since I am a web developer myself.
Overall, if their site was more tastefully presented, and the ads were more respectful in number and placement, I’d have less of a problem with them showing me their page every time I update. In its current state, it is just so obvious to me that they are money-hungry – to the point where they put little thought behind the resulting user experience. Even with that aspect improved, a pretty page could still be an annoyance if you are automatically thrown to it once a week. Thankfully, the NoScript guys have a way for you to disable the feature. Hurrah!
With the latest version of NoScript installed (In my case, 22.214.171.124):
1) Right-click the NoScript icon, and select Options.
2) Click the “Notifications” tab.
3) Find the checkbox titled “Display the release notes on updates”, and uncheck it.
4) Click “OK”.
That’s it! The NoScript page should no longer be force-fed to you after every update. Take a moment to truly enjoy that fact.
If you’re ever wondering about what they added in a particular update, you can check the update-specific release notes from within Firefox itself. In the Add-ons Manager, click the “Updates” tab, select the NoScript update, and click the “Show Information” button at the bottom of the dialog. Once clicked, you’ll see additional information about the update:
Now… remind me, NoScript developers, why I need to see your homepage every time you release a new minor version? For the sake of your advertising revenue, perhaps?