NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Google has a new, harsh penalty for advertisers placing scam and malware ads: a lifetime ban.
The drastic move shows how important it is that Google protect its brand of search from what has become an increasing threat: ads that link to sites that download damaging malware on computers, offer sneaky, get-rich-quick schemes or trick users.
It's also another sign that advertising itself -- both search and display -- remains an inviting target for online crime.
Mini-economy of fraud
The search engine started disabling AdWords accounts of perpetrators earlier this fall, and is now stepping up those efforts to try to eliminate the mini-economy of fraudsters that continue to plague text advertising. In such a scenario, a Google user might search for the phrase "anti-virus software." A paid search ad might show up that links not to a page that offers solutions but to one that downloads malware on the user's machine. Or a user might see a similar ad on a publisher site that accepts Google's text ads; a scam ad on that site damages that publisher's connection with its readers.
Previously, Google counted on technology to try to stay ahead of the small cadre of advertisers that make it their business to defeat whatever protections Google puts in place. It started policing the landing pages of ads five years ago with sophisticated crawlers it developed to identify pages that harmed computers and users. But even when they discovered a scam, it might be hours before it was disabled, and by then many ads had done their damage. Further, Google found itself spending increasing resources in a cat-and-mouse game with fraudsters who repeatedly attempted to game the system.
It's now guilty until proven innocent, a fundamental shift for "Don't be evil" Google. The lofty goal of AdWords is, after all, to open advertising to the largest number of potential users and businesses, but that has collided with reality.
Accounts disabled immediately
"In a system like that, there are likely to be bad actors that take advantage of that," Mr. Fox said. "We're trying to make sure that those bad actors don't spoil it for everyone else."
Now, when Google finds an ad that it deems dishonest or a scam, it disables that account immediately and any similar accounts that it can connect to the perpetrator. Mr. Fox said the company has technology to determine who is connected to what account, which will make it very hard for a banned user to create another account.
So what to do if you're falsely accused of scamming searchers? There is an opportunity to appeal. Users will get an e-mail when their account is closed that allows them to argue their case. Google is staffing a group to handle disputes, which will be looked at on a case-by-case basis.
"Initially we wanted to give these users the benefit of the doubt; maybe they made a mistake?" said Nick Fox, business product director for AdWords. "What we're seeing is that's not really the case. When an advertiser creates one scam, it is likely they did it intentionally, and it's also likely the next site they create is going to be a scam."