Ad Hijacking: Are Companies Being Scammed? You decide.

 

Take a look at this list  of great companies. What do they all have in common? I believe each of these companies (and yours too) is being swindled- and I’ll show you how. A lot of people don’t think there is anything wrong with the practice I will show you. That is, they don’t think it is a scam. You decide.

 

companies with ad problems

Here’s the downloadable list

..There are many more companies, but I have to stop somewhere. What these companies all have in common is that they do business over the internet, use ppc advertising, and are part of at least one affiliate network.

Though, perhaps that describes most companies.

 

Intro
The scam involves the display URL in your pay per click ads. I am arguing that this ad should direct traffic to Amazon.com.

 

Regular ppc ad. When you click it, what site do you expect to go to?

It doesn’t necessarily.

I can publish an ad right now that replaces it and sends the traffic to my site. I can “highjack”  Amazon’s traffic and send it to my site. That is happening to all of these companies, or at least it has happened to them in the past–I have proof, though I won’t publish it here.  I doubt all of these companies know about ad hijacking.

 

The Background
Every one of those companies is involved in e-commerce: they are companies that do business over the internet. These types of companies usually participate in affiliate marketing. It just so happens, each of these 170+ companies do.* Affiliates usually get paid a percentage of the total sale for each customer you refer to a site. For example, if I was an Amazon affiliate, you could click on this Amazon link, then go purchase something, and then I get 10% of the total.

So far no problems.
Most internet companies also use pay-per-click advertising to advertise their product. Google, Yahoo and Bing are the big ones. Every-time you search for a “blue t-shirt”, or “mobile phone”, etc, I can pay a couple bucks per click to show my ad in the search results for any keyword search. You can clearly see the company that is advertising…that is called the display URL. You can’t see is the destination URL- the page on the site that the ad is going to.

 

Regular PPC ad. Display Ad identified.

 

Everyone should recognize ads like this. You probably don’t know the vocabulary. Depending on your job title you probably don’t need to. However, to understand the scam you will.

 

The Scam- Ad High-jacking
In the ad above you expect to visit Amazon.com after you click the ad, right? Of course. The problem is, there is no certainty that this is an Amazon ad. Watch, I’ll “steal” Amazon’s traffic right now. Here is the Google Ad Editor interface:

 

Pic of Google Editor: Note different Diplay and Destination URL

 

 

Pretty easy, right? Mysite.com will now get Amazon.com traffic for whatever keyword I bid on. I just have to press “upload”. Note that my display URL is Amazon.com and the destination URL is Mysite.com. In other words, I am writing an ad saying that I am Amazon, but sending you to my site. The display URL amazon.com can only appear in the search results once, so there is a 50% chance that my ad will show- thus sending traffic to mysite.com, and a 50% chance that Amazon’s ad will show sending traffic to Amazon.com.*

In other words, anyone can write an ad in the search engines saying that they are your company.

It troubles me that I can do this. Only Amazon should be able to decide who writes an ad for them. I am the type of person that likes to control what my ads say. That is why I hire someone qualified to write ads rather than allowing my 13-year-old neighbor to write ads for my company. That alone, should allow me to have control over my company’s display URL.

Google does not agree with me. I have talked to them about it. They consider this a feature! Their argument is that they are protecting the affiliates. Something about the searcher’s experience. (Which I think is made worse.) In any case, Google has known about this hack for years and has no intention of changing it. If you feel it things should change, call your account exec. I’ll discuss what specifically should change in the conclusion. (Interestingly, it is hurting Google’s bottom line—which might not be apparent to them– so it is even a more bizarre policy.)*

I encourage the reader to stop here if you can foresee the implications of having your traffic diverted to another site—even an affiliate. Traffic can be diverted from your site, and it can be monetized, and you will make less money. But there is a lot of minutiae involved.
And I am very thorough! :)

 

How To Monetize Ad High-jacking
Thus far in the scam, I am just diverting traffic. I suppose I have to prove to you that it is possible for me to monetize this traffic to the detriment of Amazon’s bottom line.
Right now I am paying for Amazon’s traffic. They have a bigger wallet then me. Good thing I signed up Mysite.com to be an Amazon.com affiliate! Now on Mysite.com, I’ll put a link to Amazon. When people click-through to shop on Amazon, I get 10% of their sales. Now I will make money. If I bid on the right keywords, I’ll make more than I spend.

 

FAQ
Surely, customers will feel something is fishy when they don’t go to Amazon right?
I think so, but enough people will purchase to make this scam worthwhile. There are even ways around this. I will redirect customers instantly from Google.com to Mysite.com to Amazon.com…the customers won’t even see that they were ever on my site.  It will take a millisecond longer for the customer to go from Google to Amazon.com, and I get 10% of all sales for 30 days. Regardless, once someone is on my site, I can put an affiliate cookie on their computer.
Why don’t I just look at the affiliate ID, and just kick those affiliates out of the program?
You should. But it is a hassle to monitor.  My company has thousands of affiliates. Also, there are ways for the affiliates to hide their IDs.

 

How can I tell if I am being scammed?
First, if you don’t participate in an affiliate program, there is nothing to look for. Secondly, do a search for your company name in Google and see if you recognize the ad. Click the ad, and see if there is a redirect*.  Make sure you recognize all your referrel traffic in your analytic package!
What keywords do the affiliates bid on?
Always your company name. E.g, I would do “Amazon”, “Amazon.com”, “Amazon coupons”, “Amazns jewelry”, etc. Never “buy books”. Too expensive.

 

I don’t see any fake ads. You’re wrong. It didn’t happen to me.
Just because you don’t see an ad doesn’t mean you are safe. In order to hide my scam from Amazon, I just need to make sure no one at corporate sees these shenanigans. So, I will not put up my suspicious ads in Washington…that is where Amazon corporate is. To be super safe, I could always just run my ads only at night, or only on mobile devices.

 

Aren’t I just attributing traffic/revenue to the affiliate channel rather than the ppc channel? Does that really matter? I am still making a sale.
Yes, it really matters. The primary reason this is a “scam” and not an “inconvenience” is that you end up paying your affiliates a greater commission than you normally pay for PPC costs. If the amount you are paying to your affiliates from these ads is greater than the amount you spend on clicks from that traffic, you are losing money. And of course it is! If it wasn’t, the affiliates would not have the money to do it. There are other financial implications I don’t have space for.

 

How do you know that those specific companies were targeted?
I won’t say that here. Obviously, you could just do a search for their company name and see if there are redirects and phony ads.

 

You’re making a big deal out of this. This isn’t a big deal.
Perhaps.

 

So you’re admitting you’re stealing from Amazon? Why is it okay for you to do it?
It was a literary device to try to simply the explanation. I am not stealing from Amazon. Perhaps I should have made it simpler.

 

Is there anything that can distinguish a real ad from a fake ad?
As far as I can tell, there are a couple things. In Google, you might see a map, or product pics or product rankings. I don’t think those can be faked. The problem is that not everyone has those or is able to implement those. Anyways, these legit ads can still be over-ridden with a bogus ad.

In Yahoo/MSN there is a special “Official Site” designation sometimes.

So this happens in Yahoo/MSN too?
Yes.

You just caused us a lot more work! You’re making this scam public! You’re costing us money!
A)The affiliates already know about this, you should too. B) Is that what you tell your IT guys when they find a hole in your security? C) This is fixable.

 

Obviously Amazon wouldn’t have this problem. They’d just call Google and Google would fix it for them, right?
I don’t know. Sears, Kohl’s, Kmart, Mattel etc are having this problem. They are pretty big companies.

 

Are all redirects between google and the destination site a sign that something is fishy?
No, your ppc company might be using some sort of tracking mechanism that uses redirects. Most are fishy.

 

Are you saying all affiliates are evil?
No. Many are affiliates are great. All scammer-affiliates are evil.

 

What can I do?

I want to emphasize the purpose of this post. I want this problem fixed. It can cause a lot of lost man- hours and financial loss. The search engine companies are aware of this problem, though they consider it a feature not a bug… Perhaps if other companies see what is happening they will complain and the search engines will change.

Google, Bing, Yahoo could fix this in an hour. There are a couple ways. The best solution is to only allow one PPC account to use one display URL.* A company should be able to have an official adwords account. Google requires you to verify your Google Plus account, your webmaster account, your analytics account, your google places account… but for some reason not your Adwords account? That’s the only one that really matters.

Perhaps there is an even more elegant solution. We need to recognize that it is a problem first. Write your google account rep if this concerns you.
In the meantime you could monitor your affiliates, and kick them out when they violate this policy. Also, there is a company that can check all of this stuff for you, so you don’t have to hunt down the scammers. It is BrandVerity.com. They are expensive, but they work. (no-I am not an affiliate). The search engines should offer this service for free though, for all the billions they make.

 

I still have questions.
Write me.
Eric(dot)zwickler(at)gmail(dot)com

 

This is really long.
That’s not a question.

 

Footnotes

*I was going to say “stolen from”, “scammed”, but I’ll let you decide what word is most appropriate. Maybe neither.
*maybe I got one wrong, probably not.
*Okay, technically not 50/50, but I am trying to write this for executives, so work with me.
*If anyone at Google wants to talk about how this hurts your bottom line, I am here.
*linked accounts count as one.

 

What is Remarketing?

In most cases remarketing campaigns target visitors who did not convert or purchase on your site. If a visitor converts, they become a “customer” and thus no longer need to be “acquired”, they need to be “retained” or upsold.* Thus, once a visitor becomes a customer they are no longer the domain of the acquisition team, they are shipped off to the sales or retention department. (Depending on the size of your company, you may be involved in one or all three teams.) But if a visitor leaves your site without converting, they are still the domain of the acquisition team. “Remarketing” is task of targeting that segment and getting them to convert.

Remarketing is hot in the internet marketing world. It is becoming easier and cheaper to implement, thus lowering the barrier to entry. In the online world, the term “remarketing” is used to discuss efforts to acquire customers who have already visited your site or opened an email. If someone has never visited your site, you cannot “RE-market to them”.

As of today, remarketing is only used on the display network. However, it seems that Google or MSN could use that data to customize your search network ads sometime in the future. With the focus on “personalized search” I would think this is on its way.

Facts about Remarketing
The segment of traffic that comes to our site and leaves without converting will be the target of most remarketing campaigns. Since these visitors have already shown a previous interest in our site we can make three assumptions about them:

1. Remarketing segments will always be a subset of the general population. Thus, the impressions and traffic you receive are likely to be small.

2. Remarketing campaigns will cost less to convert since this segment has already demonstrated interest in your brand. We might think of their prior exposure to our brand as a kind of micro-conversion. If your brand is worth anything, remarketing should cost less than the general segment.

3. Remarketing segments are worth more to us than the general population. Feel free to spend more to insure these visitors see your ads.

Tips and More Details on Remarketing
Two other quick things that you need to know about remarketing. One, this remarketing “magic” is created done by using tagging in your analytics/ ppc/ display tool. Your analytics /ppc /display guy should be able to help you.

Keep it simple. There are many more advanced ways to use remarketing which are beyond the scope of this article. If you are not using remarketing, feel free to use it as I described. Even this is way beyond most companies’ capabilities (because they don’t get enough traffic, or lack the resources to analyze the data).

* There are some exceptions to this case. In ecommerce, often time customers need to be reacquired each time they search for a new product. However, let’s ignore this situation for the sake of simplicity.

Adwords Tips: How Much Should I Spend Per Month On Pay Per Click?

“How much should I be spending?” is one of the first and most frequent questions we get from potential clients. In that question are two separate questions that the client wants to know, though they are rarely able verbalize it:

1) What should I be spending per month
2) What will my setup costs be if I don’t already have an account.

What Should I Spend Per Month?
There are several ways to answer this question. You may want to consider these answers before you hire a pay per click management team. Some popular answers to this question are “what you can afford to lose”, “it depends on the industry”, and “about whatever you think you can afford to spend”. Those are all reasonable answers for some clients.

For advanced businessmen and women I think the following answer is better: “If you could buy one dollar bills for $.99, how many would you buy?” Obviously you would want to buy as many as possible, or spend infinite amounts. Even though margins are low (in this example), the more you spend, the more you make.

Would you still be interested in this deal if you had to pay someone else to arrange this service for you? Again, the answer would be yes. While this eats into your margins (again), you are still in a position to make a ton of money if you put up the money.

Lets bring this back to pay per click. Due to advances in tracking technology, we are able to calculate the amount of money you are spending and the amount of money you are making directly from pay per click ads. If this is a positive number, it is no different than the above example, where you are buying dollar bills for $.99.

This advice has is limitations, but not in the ways you might expect. The obvious limitation is that there is not an infinite supply of customers. This manifests itself in the following way: the more you spend, the higher the cost of acquisition, which will eat into your margins. However, if you do not yet have a solid account, you probably do not need to be concerned about this.

Setup Costs
The other limitation to this advice is that it will cost you money to get your account to a profitable state. Accounts are rarely profitable on day one. You will have to invest some money upfront in your advertising, just like all other forms of advertising. This cost varies from company to company. A pharmaceutical company that advertises to every country will pay a lot more than a mom-and-pop button-making shop that serves only San Diego.

Thus, there are two variables to keep in mind that will affect your startup costs (not to be confused with “setup costs”, which is the cost your ppc company charges you to setup the account): How competitive your industry is and how large the geographic region you want to advertise to is.

Adwords Hack Works Around Current Missing Adwords Feature

One feature that is surprisingly missing in Google Adwords (as of 2010) is the ability to allocate a different daily spend to each day of the week. Imagine the following scenario:

An advertiser spends $100 every day of the week except for Wednesdays. On Wednesdays, the company spends $250. Currently Adwords does not allow you to easily account for this scenario. The closest they come is Google offers you the ability to bid a certain percentage higher or lower on certain days.
That is not what we want.

We could wake up at 12am on Wednesday and change the spend from $100 to $250 and then change it back at midnight. However that seems like a lot of work, with not enough return.
However, there is another way. An Adwords hack, if you will. It ads a lot of complexity to the account, so I only recommend this solution for advertisers that anticipate a great discrepancy in daily spending (based on the day of the week).

Here is how it works: (We will pretend you have an account with one campaign for simplicity sake.)

1) Turn off all spending on Wednesdays by bidding on keywords at 0% on Wednesdays.
2) In Google Adwords Editor copy the campaign and repaste it. Rename the new Campaign “Wednesdays”.
3) In the “Wednesdays” campaign, turn off spending on all days except Wednesday. Set the daily spend to $250.

The result is that campaign one will bid $100/day mon, tue, thur, fri, sat, sun. Your new “Wednesday” campaign will bid on the exact same keywords on Wednesdays but the daily spend will be $250 on Wednesdays.

You can repeat this process for multiple campaigns if you have more than one.

Ideally, this seems like a feature that would be should be addressed by Google’s people. Perhaps it could be added to the interface to save time and avoid confusion.
If you need help with this procedure contact me.