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.
Thanks to: Elisa and Joe.
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.