Google Backtracks on AdSense Changes

  |  August 8, 2003   |  Comments

UPDATE: Just a day after making changes it said would make AdSense ad space more valuable, the company withdraws the features due to publisher complaints.

In an abrupt about-face, Google late Thursday told small publishers in its contextual advertising program that it would not impose new features that, just earlier in the day, it contended would make their ad space more valuable.

After a brewing revolt among its small-publisher clientele, Google said it would no longer display "related searches" links on ads carried by publishers in its self-service contextual ad program or display blank ad spaces when its algorithm cannot determine what ads to serve. The changes were in place less than 24 hours.

In what it painted as a way to make sure contextual advertising kept reader attention, Google announced on Thursday morning a number of alterations to its AdSense program for small publishers. One of the changes was the addition of "related searches" links to the bottom of all contextual ad units. In addition, related searches would appear in ad space on pages where Google did not have sufficiently targeted ads to serve. If it had no information at all, on such pages as registration forms, Google would serve a blank ad unit with a message reading "This blank space brought to you by Google." In the past, Google would serve up public service announcements for groups such as the American Red Cross.

Google said the changes were part of Google's mission of serving the user by making the ad space more compelling and more relevant.

Many publishers disagreed, filling search message boards with complaints that Google was taking advantage of them and siphoning off traffic and revenue.

Last night, Google quickly backtracked, sending an email to AdSense publishers announcing that it had put a stop to the new feature after hearing negative feedback.

"When we released [the new feature] more broadly, we started receiving feedback we didn't fully anticipate," the email said. "Because we want this to work for everyone, we've decided to temporarily disable this feature until we can better address the concerns. We'll re-release this feature shortly with greater flexibility for Web publishers."

Now, the "related searches" links and white spaces are gone, and the public service ads are back. (Users of Google-owned Blogger, however, still have ads with the "related searches" links.)

A Google spokesman was unavailable for immediate comment on Friday morning.

Unlike the other major alteration to the AdSense program announced yesterday, the ability to change the look of the text listings, the "related searches" links were not optional. For example, an AdSense unit on publisher BBWExchange.com, the Web site of Broadband and Wireless Exchange magazine, carried a "related searches: broadband and wireless" link. That link would open a new window directed to a Google search for those terms.

Google said publishers would not share in any revenue generated from users clicking on paid listings from the "related searches" results page. Susan Wojcicki, Google's director of product management, said tracing the path would be too cumbersome.

"These people [complaining] aren't thinking, this is an advantage to us," said Danny Sullivan, editor of Search Engine Watch, which is owned by the parent company of this site. "They're thinking, Google's getting free advertising off us."

Sullivan said the misstep did not take the shine off the success of AdSense, which has given thousands of small publishers added revenue.

"They're going to have to come back and say if we're going to do these related searches we should come up with a mechanism where the publisher gets some kind of credit," he said. "Clearly they have to think through a way that it's going to please these site owners."

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