Influencing Google’s AdSense

The New York Times today has an article on its web site entitled "Google’s Shadow Payroll Is Not Such a Secret Anymore".

This is an interesting article because it does discuss AdSense and how people have used the system as a profit resource on forums. The article also speaks more widely to the success of the AdSense program and how that program has grown with the introduction of more fine-grained target advertising.

One area of concern, Mr. Hogan said, was whether the forum’s participants would skew their postings to earn more money. For instance, since advertisers in certain categories, like sexual-performance drugs, pay much more to place their ads on Google and its affiliated sites, you might expect technology discussions to randomly veer in that direction.

“But that hasn’t happened, thankfully,” Mr. Hogan said. “Probably because there isn’t that much revenue in it for them.”

This raises a very interesting point, in my opinion – AdSense is marketed to be somewhat inconspicuous so as not to detract from the content on the site (and, I would say, achieves this fairly well). Certainly, the success of AdSense is driven by pure numbers – like most ad programs, they likely count only unique hits to site rather than total hits. But what happens when (or if) someone attempts to influence the direction that advertising goes by creating content so specific that AdSense can’t help but pick up on it?

This is a philosophical as well as an ethical question. Philosophically, it would make some sense to create this sort of targeting, since you would be drawing keywords from the AdSense network that you might not otherwise see on the site – whether this equates to higher revenue or not remains to be seen, especially since the commenter in the article seems to indicate that this is unlikely. You might also end up recreating your audience for the site entirely as an unintended side effect. But is this ethical? Strictly speaking, this could be construed as a violation of Google’s AdSense Terms of Service. Candidates for such infractions could include subsection 2, under “General”:

You agree not to display on the same Web page in connection with which any Ad Unit, Ad, Link, Search Box, or Referral Button is displayed (a “Serviced Page”) any advertisement(s) that an end user of Your Site(s) would reasonably confuse with a Google advertisement or otherwise associate with Google. If You have elected to receive content or Site-based Ads, You further agree not to display on any Serviced Page any non-Google content-targeted advertisement(s).

This is where it gets a little iffy – it could be said that, by attempting to influence the results of an AdSense advertisement by creating your own content, you are in fact creating something that could be “reasonably confuse[d] with a Google advertisement or otherwise associate[d] with Google”. More than likely, there are other sections of that Terms of Service that might directly be relevant to such an issue.

There is a social stigma, however, that is attached to trying to bypass or subjugate computing systems, so the social norm of most bloggers and forum posters on the Web would heavily steer the group away from this through the power of group dynamics. But the question remains, whether academic or otherwise. Whether there is a final answer to this has yet to be seen.