Sep 01

2010

You Can’t Build a Business on Google AdSense

Posted by: Dan Fabulich | Comments (25)

This is the third blog post in a series of posts on Google AdSense. In the first post, I explained how Google has banned us from AdSense; in the second post, I wrote about our best guess as to why they banned us. In this blog post, I discuss my personal feelings about this turn of events.

On the face of it, you’d think I’d be more upset with Google.

Google’s AdSense appeals process seems completely ridiculous on its face, and it is. I’ve heard more than one Googler describe an AdSense appeal as a “kangaroo court.” Where else can you be required to testify in absentia, without access to the evidence against you? Where a single autocratic judge decides whether or not you’ll be banned for life?

But despite how ridiculous this appeals process is, I understand its purpose; if I were in Google’s position, I’d probably do the same thing.

AdSense has done a lot of good for a lot of writers and developers whom I very much respect. But AdSense’s value to writers and developers comes from the advertisers that pay for ads; those advertisers are paying for potential customers. When ordinary people click on ads to “support” webmasters, they undermine the value of AdSense to advertisers. If these supportive clicks went unchecked, AdSense would be basically worthless.

AdSense is a basically good program from which innocent webmasters must be banned, before their overenthusiastic supporters tear down the system. I know that I am innocent, but Google can’t really know that, and they certainly can’t be expected to believe that all of our fans are innocent, too.

Imagine if it were your job to ban suspicious activity, and someone with two AdSense accounts (ding!) with hundreds of supportive fans (ding!) who shares his AdSense revenue with strangers (ding! ding! ding!) says he has done nothing wrong. It doesn’t matter if he’s telling the truth; his story is inherently suspicious. If it were my job to ban suspicious activity, I’d ban Dan Fabulich, too!

So I’m not mad at Google; I’m just hurt. I feel like Google just broke up with me.

Perhaps that seems a little too personal, but Google’s policy is to ban human beings, not just business entities. Both of my AdSense accounts were shut down within 24 hours, and Google has made it clear that I can never participate in the program again.

That means I can never use Google ads on any website I own — for the rest of my life. Furthermore, I can never put Google Feedburner ads in my RSS feeds. I can never use Google DoubleClick for Publishers to install my own private ads on my own site. I can never install Google ads on my Google Android apps. I, Dan Fabulich, am persona non grata at Google.

That really hurts. I’m good friends with a number of people who work at Google (though not with anyone on the AdSense team); I’ve worked closely with Googlers over the years on projects big and small. Whenever I went to visit Google’s Mountain View campus, it felt like a warm, inviting place, brimming with potential. I don’t think it’ll feel like that the next time I visit.

Unfortunately for Google, they’ll never know what they missed out on by banning us, and others like us. For example, this weekend I was planning to speak on a mini-panel on Interactive Fiction at PAX, where I planned to argue that Google AdSense should be the future of interactive fiction.

Instead, I no longer believe that anyone can safely build a business around Google AdSense. AdSense is a fundamentally unsound business partner because Google is forced to ban innocent webmasters (false positives) to keep the project alive; if you depend on Google AdSense for your livelihood, you should be looking for the exits right now.

Like a good breakup, I have a hunch that being banned from AdSense might be the best thing that ever happened to me. We were making money with AdSense, but not a lot of money, and now we’ll have to figure out ways to make money without it. We’ll have to learn how to develop products that people are willing to pay for. We’ll discuss some of those ideas in our next blog post.

25 Comments

  1. […] I’ll give our best guess as to why Google banned us. In the third post, I’ll discuss my personal opinion of what happened, and in the fourth blog post, I’ll talk about what it means for the future of Choice of Games […]

  2. Simon says:

    I am convinced that FREE is the only price that can be truly successful on the internet. Letting people pay for your products will sink the Choice Script ship faster than anything else. Instead, I believe that you should look for alternative advertising opportunities. As I and others mentioned before, Project Wonderful seems like a decent alternative to Google Adsense. I have never used it myself, but a lot of sites, especially webcomics, are depending on it for their revenue and it seems to work.
    Please don’t make your users pay for your games, because you will loose the majority of your user base.

  3. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Alex Livingston, Posts Google. Posts Google said: Choice of Games Blog : You Can't Build a Business on Google AdSense: This is the third blog post in a series of po… http://bit.ly/9Dfta5 […]

  4. Adam says:

    Unlike Dan, I am mad at Google. I feel like we’ve been treated unfairly, in a way that makes me angry and makes me not like Google anymore. The contract was clear that they could do this, and they had every legal right to do so. But that doesn’t change the fact that I think that their behavior towards us and similar websites is wrong. Google makes a lot of the idea that they have a corporate culture of “Don’t Be Evil.” Their policy here represents a different iteration: “Don’t Be Evil, unless not being evil is too expensive, in which case be evil to the small guys because they don’t really cost much revenue.”

    No doubt, Google has to protect its advertisers–that’s key to their business models. And processes that make unfairness less likely cost resources–mostly personnel time, which costs money. But they’ve responded to that problem by deciding that they’ll just be unfair and arbitrary and screw over innocent websites, because that’s cheaper than actually being fair. Oh, and while they’re at it, they’ll take money that we had already earned and make it disappear. (They probably refund it to the advertisers, thus continuing the ad buys a little longer, so they still get the money eventually–but we don’t get the money we earned after their last payment and before they pulled the plug on us.) Again, they have a legal right to do that… but it’s pretty crappy.

    Google wants you to think that AdSense is a great way to monetize your web traffic. And so they want you to rely on the availability of AdSense in building your business strategy. They tell you up front that they might cancel with no notice or real opportunity to appeal, but they imply that that’s unlikely. You, yes you, can make money from AdSense right now! But if you build your business on that, they might turn around and destroy your business, because they’d rather destroy your innocent business and five other innocent businesses than to let one wrong-doer slip through.

    So Dan may be sad but not really angry. I’m pissed off, and to the extent I’m sad, it’s because I’ve had to reevaluate my opinion of a company I used to respect and like.

  5. The Meerkat says:

    I second Simon’s thoughts. Choice-your-own-adventure games are not really lucrative, and you’d have a really hard time getting people to pay for them. $1 a game would be acceptable, if a bit of a stretch; a monthly-subscription plan (the blood of most serious online start-ups) would be nearly worthless. Even if you don’t go for Project Wonderful (which I have used in the past and can attest to personally), I think a pay-by-the-day in-house advertising scheme might work quite well, so there’s no chance of click fraud. You could set up your own OpenX ad server and have the advertisers come to you.

  6. Adam says:

    @Simon: We’ll probably check out Project Wonderful and other potential ad vendors. My concern is that my impression is that Project Wonderful doesn’t produce much revenue. I’m used to seeing Project Wonderful ads on webcomics sites that get most of their revenue from other sources (merchandising, selling anthologies, donations); I’ve always assumed that Project Wonderful amounts to something more like a link exchange than an actual source of meaningful revenue. I’m happy to be proved wrong, but…

  7. CPFace says:

    Well, I can tell you about my experience with the website as a customer.

    I came here because I was linked to Choice of the Dragon, and I played through it for free. I was really impressed with it and downloaded the iPod version for free. (I know a hypothetical doesn’t have much value, but if it was less than $2, I think I still would have bit. That seems to be the “impulse purchase” range for iPod apps for me.) After that, I decided to give Choice of Broadsides a try, and I was even more impressed with it. Again, downloaded the app. (Again, thought it would be worth $1 or so.)

    I wasn’t as interested in Choice of Romance for whatever reason, and haven’t bought the app. But I liked Choice of the Vampire, so I did.

    I think the initial impression of multiple choice interactive fiction is remembering Choose Your Own Adventure books, which were generally pretty awful as gaming devices. But the quality of your work speaks for itself; I played two games, and I was hooked. They’re complex enough that they’re worth buying to replay — there’s a lot more to them than just getting the best ending.

    I’m not saying that the ideal business model is to put the whole game up for free on the web and hope that people will care enough to buy the app afterwards, but clearly some sort of free sample is going to be necessary to get people over that preconceived notion of CYOA as disposable junk.

  8. Dave says:

    I’m really sorry to hear that.. especially as someone intrigued by the possibility of making a ChoiceScript game, this had seemed like a great plan for getting interesting content out there easily.

    There are gamebook/CYOA style games being sold on iTunes (eg http://biobreak.wordpress.com/2010/02/11/iphone-fantasy-gamebooks-and-the-quest-for-nostalgia/). Your best bet may be to press on in developing full length content-rich games people will pay up for, or package multiple games into a single paid iPhone app, perhaps using micropayments for downloadable content within the app to release additional games.

    The main barrier to significant sales for this genre of games is going to be replayability. To be honest, the games are currently only different enough on each playthrough to be truly replayable about 2 to 5 times. Clearly quite a lot of effort has gone into making responses seem nuanced on replays; but the linear sequence of events in the plot unavoidably becomes too familiar. People are going to be reluctant to pay very much for an experience they can’t revisit more often than that. To feel more truly replayable, I think scenes need to be made more modular and less linear to avoid the feeling of being led along a predetermined sequence of events where only the dialogue is different.

    Though this is a big step from pure multiple choice IF, one innovation I’ve always thought would be ideal is to incorporate some brief simple minigames which taken together with your stats can determine outcome of a given action. Having to succeed in a mental task to help their character prevail would strengthen the sense of investment, and perhaps help join the commercial success of casual games to the rewarding plot and content of interactive fiction.

  9. Dalton young says:

    Just like others I am a big fan of the games that CHOICE OF GAMES proudce and I would not like to see them have to shut down there site because of google. So I came came up with an idea to help them out it could work. Ok here it is they could just ask for donations. If some nice people came along and a few of them put in a dollar that could help little by little donations could fund CHOICE OF GAMES.

  10. Something you might want to consider that works reasonably well in the indie-RPG industry (assuming you want this to be a sideline that makes a small return, rather than something you can quit your job and do full time) is the Ransom Model.

    Broadly: You set an amount of money you want to make on a title, you take donations, if you make that amount of money, you put the content free on the internet, if you don’t you give everybody their money back.

    I have no idea if it’s applicable to this kind of game design, but then I have no idea how much you’re making out of AdSense at the moment, I just thought it was worth mentioning because I’ve seen it work before.

  11. Good on you for getting a rational conclusion from this. Advertising, especially on the Internet, is a stupendously overrated and toxic business model. Your livelihood should be coming from your fans, not from people who want to sell toilet paper.

    Speaking of which, where can I send you money? I don’t have an iPhone so I can’t buy your apps, and besides, you deserve more than $3.96 minus Apple’s cut from me.

  12. Marc says:

    I think your conclusion is, sadly, completely correct.

    In addition to everything you’ve mentioned above, it occurs to me that a malicious group of persons seeking to shut down your business (or blog) because they disagree with a political stance you’ve taken, don’t like you personally, or just feel like engaging in malicious mischief could easily abuse this to do so. We know such groups exist and routinely organize mass downmodding where available and mass TOS complaints to shut people down.

    Here, it seems all you’d need to do is organize a group (of bots, even) to commit click fraud on someone’s site and get them personally banned for life from AdSense.

    So, yeah, if there’s any chance somebody might decide to attack you, given the information you’ve provided in this series it’s quite clear that you can’t rely on AdSense income.

    One would think Google would try to come up with a technical solution to ignore clickfraud (maybe with a redirect so it doesn’t cost too much bandwidth for Google/the advertiser if it matters, maybe with a redirect to give people “trying to help” the information that they’re not helping) rather than whipping out the permanent banhammer on the first offense.

    • Adam says:

      @Marc: To be more fair to Google than I really feel like being, they do try to detect malicious click attacks. Apparently, your best chance of winning an appeal is if they conclude that you were attacked by someone trying to get you banned. Still, they’d rather ban you than risk being wrong, so I suspect that mischief clicking causes a fair number of bans. But how can we know without full data?

  13. Deviija says:

    This is really saddening to hear about. I am sure it has been a point of much frustration on CoG’s devs. πŸ™

  14. Danielle says:

    I had two thoughts reading this.

    The first is about Google. You live nearby, you know people that work there. have you thought of going to the campus and asking to speak with someone? Less about your particular case maybe, and more about, as Dan said, the fact that their business model is making them unfeasible for a certain type of customer? Maybe someone would listen, or at least you would feel like you got to make your point.

    The second. I agree with Simon that the free element of the games is something that draws customers, and I wanted to suggest a middle ground between $0.99 to DL the game and ad revenue.

    If I understand it, you got $.05 when someone clicks on an ad, which was probably not very often. Is there a way to set up micropayments where you ask people to give you 15 cents if they enjoyed the game? The percentage of people who do that after playing might be roughly equivalent to those who click an ad. I don’t know if there is a way to make donating 15cents a) easy for the person to do and b) affordable to process, but that’s my idea.

  15. Danielle says:

    @ Marc, It seems like it would pretty easy to have a policy where they only pay you for the first click from a given IP to your site in a calendar month.

  16. Dominic says:

    Danielle, while that might be possible, it wouldn’t be much more attractive if they have reason to believe that even that one click a month is illegitimate.

  17. Joseph says:

    I can see how you’d be in hot water if AdSense caught eye of your sites, though I am reasonably sure that there is more than one way of reigniting a profit again, but good luck in the meantime.

  18. Erana says:

    So, how IS CoG financially, dare I ask?
    While there are a lot of loyal fans, I fear that a mandatory charge would be a fatal move.

    Assuming that CoG isn’t emitting a death rattle at the hands of Google, I have a few suggestions on what I think CoG might need:
    1. There needs to be a program that automatically writes the Choicescript. It would cut down on both the development time for the writers, but also make production of Choicescript games more accessable. The programming would likely be a bit of a bit h, though.
    2. Choice of Games need frequent, periodic additional content. Start a game, and have it diverge early, each writer taking over a specific path. Stagger weekly update times so that you only have to write once a week, but still provide constant incentive to visit the site. Repeat traffic is what makes webcomics and other sites so successful. Again, this would take programming, so that people could easily pick up from where they left off. I don’t know if there’s recources for codework.

    Being ousted by google is quite a delimma, and makes me fear that the current state of CoG mightnot be enough… A forum wouldn’t hurt, either. You’ve seemed to amassed a fierce little fanbase here.

    Of course, this is all speculation. I don’t know what CoG is

  19. Erana says:

    Ack, I stopped mid-thought!
    I was pretty much intending to say that I have no idea if I’m being helpful, or if aim just some sort of Internet version of a yippy little dog. :V
    I hope yall’re getting my supportive sentiment, at least.

  20. Myth Thrazz says:

    @Erana Writing a program that automatically writes a ChoiceScrtipt is rather impossible, or at least very, very hard. Speaking as an independent writer/developer I have to say it’s rather pointless too, because in fact ChoiceScript writing doesn’t, in fact, need much writing. It could be easier, of course, but in my opinion it’s the filling the content that takes the most of the time. And the testing of course is a serious pain (at least for me). I suppose that a good team of ChoiceScript writers, content writers, and ChoiceScript devs should be able to achieve that periodic, frequent updates.

    However ChoiceOfGames is a pack of friends who design games together under the name of ChoiceOfGames + some independent developers like me, and not a full time company. I cannot be sure, but if it’s how I think it is, everybody has to do everything at some time, their free time. If you add to this that they suddenly lost the way of getting money for their job, you’re suddenly very far from what you’ve suggested.

    Anyway, it’s more than clear that, this ban from Google isn’t comfortable for any of us. But I hope ChoiceOfGames will solve this problem somehow.

  21. Erana says:

    I just don’t understand; CoG isn’t the largest business in the world, but isn’t the site big enough for them to put a bit of effort into figuring this out? Choice of Games doesn’t exactly seem like a group of questionable characters whom are out to cheat Google? How hard would it be for Google to have one real person discuss this case? There’s no need for them to stand by some umbrella policy.

    It’s all rhetorical, really. I guess I’ve inherieted my mother’s being flustered when things don’t make sense. There just has to be an answer here.

  22. Jen Hinton says:

    Hi Dan,

    I wanted to thank you for you thoughtful post. I too have felt the sting of being “let go” from the big G, but it has pushed me to learn an awful lot about what I really want to become online and that is not a fear-ridden affiliate who has to invest time in click-fraud monitoring software. I want to delight and interest my readers and earn money.

    The minute I got the nastygram “your account is inactive” bit, I had my little pity-party for a day, wrote my appeal, but starting removing my code a.s.a.p., because I checked-out emotionally. I am old enough and experienced enough to know that karma is alive and well and she has a wonderful sense of humor.

    The timing though, was a little stinky. I am an community college teacher and I’m just getting ready to teach the very first e-business class in DFW to help small business owner and infopreneurs get online. In my appeal, I added that for me this is about credibility, and not having the seal of approval from such a big fish is a kick in the teeth for sure. Not exactly in those words.

    My appeal was rejected and in a way I was relieved. I will not badmouth Google to my students, but I will present the facts, and when one of my students comes to me and needs a shoulder to cry on if they get banned, I’ll be able to tell them it really will be alright.

    So Dan…in a nutshell…here are my takeaways from research online:

    Have you looked into Prosperent? I like them – both my head and gut say they are ones to watch. They are very new and pay-per-action…nice graphics with ads, and their FB page has a post about their recent payouts…you can check their look and feel out on my site. http://www.great-gifts-for-women.com

    Click fraud is a mess and a headache and will likely get worse. Why not do things the old-fashioned way and just get paid when a sale is made? Compared to in person sales folks we have it easy with 30-day tracking cookies. My grandfather knew that the once the prospect left the store it was all over.

    Google is ultimately just a middleman. We are a little intimidated…but why? Doesn’t it make more sense for you to just sell your own adspace? There are some great options out there.

    Your e-books, e-books, e-books…Sell ’em, sell ’em, sell ’em.

    Final thought…

    We the people of the online community have made Google what it is today. We have given our power away to the big G and now, like a spoiled toddler that has grown into an arrogant adolescent, to an overzealous and unforgiving adult, this “child” of ours is coming back to bite us in the tookas. We can equally dismantle them, piece by piece, not out of spite, but common sense, by looking into our hearts and saying, “I am good enough just as I am, and advertisers think so too.” πŸ™‚

    A kindred spirit,
    Jen

  23. Dylan says:

    I have started my game design site, http://www.dtwgames.com, and I am using adsense. I am not trying to make a living on it or anything, but I’ve only had like one click. Can you give me any advice on how to get more people to your game design site? Thanks.

  24. hue wong says:

    So, did google also ban you from teh droid apps store? Or just ad sense? I see your droid store link is dead πŸ™

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