Friday, February 16, 2007

Google Hijacking Unresolved Domains & 404 Error Pages?

As recently announced in the New York Times, Google will start reporting sites sending traffic to Adwords customers utilizing the Google content network (Adsense).

"In the next few months, Google’s advertiser reports will begin listing the sites where each ad runs, Ms. Malone said. She added that advertisers on the Google networks would soon be able to bid on contextual ads on particular Web sites rather than simply buying keywords that appeared across Google’s entire network."

This is an important step for Google because advertisers can easily identify sites which either don't convert well or convert very well. This allows for a much more targeted approach to CPC bidding. These reports will come in very handy in combination with Google's recently announced support for CPC in site targeted campaigns.

Now, I have already seen the reports for my content campaign, and I noticed something very strange. My own domains (not running Adsense) were appearing in the reports. So why is Google charging me for clicks from a site which was not running Adsense?

Basically what's happening is that on certain Dell and Gateway computers where there are pre-installed Google Toolbars, unresolved domains and possibly 404 pages are redirected to an Adsense ads page.

This is also happening with AOL customers, but I'm not clear as to whether this is tied to the Google Toolbar or if this is some DNS based redirect in place by AOL.

If the domain that the user received the error on is your domain (possibly through a 404 message) or "close" to your domain (via an unresolved domain) then your domain will show in your content network logs if the user clicked on your ad via the Adsense page served in its place.

Since a good number of people bid for their own brand through the content network it is probably safe to say that many advertisers will start seeing their own domain in their Google Content Network site reports regardless of whether they run Adsense or not.

Now I have some problems....

Problem 1 - 404 Hijacks:

I have no direct evidence that 404 pages are being replaced with Adsense pages, but the fact that my own domain is showing in my logs makes me think that this a 404 hijack situation. If it was simply a misspelled domain (unresolved domain) why wouldn't the misspelling be represented as a non-resolving domain in the reports? Furthermore, I do see misspelled domains in the report which are only one letter off from my primary domain. Why wouldn't that show up as coming from my primary domain?

I'm curious to see if evidence will surface that Google, Gateway, Dell, and AOL replace 404 pages from a domain with Adsense pages. 404 pages are designed to show the user that they have made a mistake and to offer them additional navigational options. Replacing 404 pages with Adsense ad pages borders on low brow adware techniques and would be a big black eye for everyone involved.

Problem 2 - Unresolved Domain Hijacks:

At the very least Google, AOL, Dell, and Gateway are inserting ads on unresolved domains. Sometimes domain owners want to purchase a domain and leave it unresolved. Now this isn't the greatest approach from an SEO / Internet Marketing point of view, but that's the domain owner's prerogative. This is a good strategy to lock in valuable domains (or misspellings) so your competition can't utilize them.

Now, in some situations your unresolved domain is being served Adsense ad pages without your permission. Of course, your competitors can bid on your brand name through contextual advertising; so in effect your competitors can show ads on your domain without your permission and without you even electing to have Adsense hosted on your domain.

Furthermore, if you advertise through contextual advertising on your own brand you are paying for clicks being generated by someone who entered a domain you own to begin with!

If Google is showing ads on domains without permission (either through 404 hijacking or unresolved domains) will you be able to target that domain through a site targeted campaign? Is it time to start buying site targeted campaigns for misspelled unresolved domains?

I do not think that any ISP, toolbar, or search engine should replace the content on a domain with ads. In the era of net neutrality I'm surprised that Google would participate in prioritizing and inserting content onto properties they don't own. At the very least I think it's time to take a second look at what you're doing with your unresolved domains.

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