Sunday, September 2, 2007

Time to reign in Google?

Dave “Smith” (name changed upon request) used to run a profitable and popular web site that offers stories about expatriate life and gives visitors insights into Thai nightlife. Risque nightlife, to be sure, but nothing that would be out of place in a popular “lad’s magazine” like Maxim or FHM. He still runs the site – – only now it’s becoming increasingly hard to make it pay its way. That’s because, like many other small web publishers, he’s somehow gotten on the wrong side of the mighty Google.

It’s fair to say that Google has revolutionised small-scale publishing with its AdSense advertising system that allows web sites to at least recover their costs, and in some cases earn some decent money. It’s also fair to say that Google can, at a whim, turn off the revenue stream that made the site feasible in the first place – often with little explanation or a chance to argue the situation.

In the case of Dave Smith versus Google, that happened via email through a junior Google team member identifying himself only as “Scott”. But once the decision was made, that was the end of AdSense ads on MangoSauce – no appeals allowed. For Smith, the decision is nothing short of blatant censorship. “Google’s role as an Internet censor is merely a consequence of the company’s dominant position in the Internet advertising marketplace. He who pays the piper calls the tune and Google currently restricts its playlist to easy listening,” he told BroadBand Communities.

Somewhat ironically, Smith points out, Google itself has been known to display paid advertising for hardcore pornography on its own site, with Smith having captured an example of this in an explanation to readers. As he notes, MangoSauce is tame in comparison.

“The site is completely work-safe. There’s no nudity, no porno stories, no excessive profanity, no racism and no homophobia. Whether you’re black, white, straight or gay, there’s nothing in Mango Sauce that will offend you or make the day of that poisonous little creep in the computer department who’s right now snooping through your browser cache, hoping to get you fired.”

Despite the blacklisting – which does not expire, although as an AdSense approved publisher he is free to use ads on any other web site – Mango Sauce continued to operate. Then another Google-inspired disaster struck, again with no explanation. This time many parts of the site were removed from the top search listings on Google, severely disrupting the traffic to the site and again making it financially unviable.

Being suddenly removed from the top search rankings is something many other bloggers and small web publishers have also experienced, with many also noting the power Google wields and what amounts to defacto censorship. The case of the disappearing web sites happened last year to a bunch of bloggers covering topics related to human sexuality, as reported by popular news blog Boing Boing.

Blogs such as Tiny Nibbles, Comstock Films, ErosBlog, and others vanished somewhere down the rankings, which as many noted is just as bad as being shut out entirely because of the effect it has on traffic generation. While the sites eventually in most cases got restored to their higher rankings, the problem many point to is that Google is not transparent enough when it comes explaining how it ranks sites.

As with its AdSense program, the problem seems to be that Google is a virtual monopoly, with Yahoo and MSN not wielding anywhere near the same power. So while problems are often corrected, the underlying situation is not, as Boing Boing commented. “The bloggers’ concerns still remain: we don’t know exactly what happened or how or why, or who or what “fixed” it, or how or why. When all of us rely on one single service to access so much of the information we need each day, and the company behind that service doesn’t have to be transparent to its users, problems like this are inevitable,” it wrote.

Danny Sullivan, Editor in Chief at Search Engine Land, was one who defended Google, pointing out that the search giant at least provides more tools for web masters than others, such as its Google Webmaster Central area ( Yet as San Francisco Chronicle columnist Violet Blue, also the author of the affected site Tiny Nibbles, noted, in this case the tools were of no help. “When someone (or something) has so much power over individuals and no transparency about their process… you live in constant fear that you’re going to do something (you have no idea what) or that something will change (you never know when, or what), to make you disappear,” she wrote.

As it turns out, Google did not reply to a request for comment on this story. And in the case of Mango Sauce, webmaster Dave did eventually find out what was causing his site to lose its ranking position, although not from Google. It was being caused by a web site that sold links,, which it turns out Google does penalise. The source of the information was a local search engine optimisation (SEO) specialist that happened to like Mango Sauce, rather than anything from Google.

“My personal experience of Google is coloured by their secrecy and high-handedness, so I prefer to obtain my information from independent sources,” Dave said.

In the meantime, he has also found an alternative web advertising program in the form of AdBrite, a new player that is backed with money from Sequoia Capital – one of the early backers of Google. Another “new” entrant in the web advertising marketplace is Yahoo, which has been revamping its Overture service. The AdSense equivalent, Yahoo Publisher Network, is still in beta and not open to publishers outside of the US.

And even if Yahoo does finally go international with its Yahoo Publisher Network, it’s debatable whether it will be any more transparent or less censorious. Some of the reports coming from participants in the beta program suggest that it has some of the same traits as Google – web sites being blacklisted or hobbled for less than transparent reasons.

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