Is Ask.com Continuing To Play The Google Arbitrage Game?

We recently received an email from a reader who’d made an inquiry with Google AdWords support. Why, this reader had asked, is Ask.com allowed to buy AdWords and rank for certain surprising terms, when its landing page features mostly ads above the fold? Doesn’t that violate Google’s policies on arbitrage?

All About Arbitrage

Arbitrage, when it comes to Google AdWords, is when a advertiser hopes it can buy traffic from Google for less than it makes off ads on its own site.

In other words, say a company buys an ad for $0.60 per click on Google. Visitors click on that ad, come to the advertiser’s site where they click on a ad there — maybe even an ad that’s part of the Google ad network — and generate $1 per click. The advertiser has earned a tidy $0.40 in profit.

Google doesn’t like arbitrage because it’s annoying for its searchers. As Google’s policy against arbitrage says:

One example of this kind of prohibited behavior is called arbitrage, where advertisers drive traffic to their websites at low cost and pay for that traffic by earning money from the ads placed on those websites. We’ve created this policy to help ensure that users see useful, unique, and original content without excessive advertising.

It makes sense. Who wants to click on ad at Google, then show up on a page that seems designed just to show a bunch of other ads? But that’s the situation that does happen with some ads that Ask.com runs on Google.

It’s something we’ve seen before on Ask, as we covered in our Ask.com Plays The Google AdWords Arbitrage Game in 2008. Back then, Ask said it was an “isolated incident” down to its search marketing agency. But nearly four years later, it can feel like arbitrage has returned.

Ask’s Ads

Consider these Google results for a search on ”What is gluten?”

The results are topped by an ad from Ask, promising ”Get Answers Now on Ask.com,” like this:

But when the user clicks through, they find ads taking up the majority of the space above the fold, like this:

In the example above, the first listing (marked as “Answers”) isn’t easily clicked on. The “What is Gluten” title isn’t a link, as with regular search listings. The only way to get to that answer is if you use the “More” link at the end of the page description:

Under this comes a big block of ads, the first listings that are more easily clicked upon. Sometimes, these ads even come before the answers:

 

Similar situations happen for a range of searches, such as ”What is Celiac disease?” and ”What is Aspergers syndrome?”

From Google Ad To Google Ad

The ads themselves all come from Google. Ask is part of Google’s ad network. That means Ask has purchased ads on Google for “what is gluten,” then shows a page with ads for “what is gluten.” How’s Ask making money off of that?

One answer is that Ask is likely buying the ads more cheaply on Google than other advertisers, perhaps because it has a long account history that helps its overall quality score. Another issue is that it might be carrying ads that aren’t targeting the word gluten expressly — and so which might be more expensive that those going after that term specifically.

Consider the ads for both McDonald’s and Cheerios that appear. Neither leads to landing pages that have anything to do with gluten:

AdWords Rep: It’s Not Arbitrage, Because Ask.com Is A Google Product

Our reader asked a Google AdWords support rep about the situation and got a surprising response that this was allowed because Ask.com is a “Google product” and because as a search engine, it’s fine for Ask to drive people to a search results page that includes both ad and regular unpaid “organic” listings:

After consulting with a policy specialist, I’ve found that Ask.com is not in violation of any policies. Since Ask.com is considered a Google product, they are able to serve ads at the top of the page when the search query is found to be relevant to their ads. For example, if you search for “adwords” in a Google search, an ad for www.google.com/AdWords will always appear at the top of the results.

As far as the landing page being in violation of arbitrage policy, this is not the case due to Ask.com being a search engine. Like Google.com, Ask.com has relevant ads to the search terms displayed at the top of the page, and organic search results displayed below. I understand how you could interpret this in a sense of arbitrage, but it is not the case.

Google PR: No Special Treatment For Ask

When we contacted Google’s PR department, it said the email was a mistake. Ask isn’t considered a Google product, even though Ask has a deal to syndicate Google AdWords and “other search-related services.”

Google said Ask gets no special treatment (nor does any other search partner). Beyond that, the company wouldn’t comment on specific Ask.com AdWords creatives. Since we brought up a number of the examples last week, and they are still appearing as of this writing, that suggests that Google doesn’t view them as violating its arbitrage policy.

Ask.com: We’re Providing A Service

Ask.com also said it was getting no special treatment and that its ads were leading to useful ad-supported information.

“We’re clearly a service that uses advertising to monetize our site, but the only way that we make advertising work is when people come back to our site,” Doug Leeds, CEO of Ask.com told me.

Leeds wouldn’t get into the details of whether Ask.com is — deliberately or not — benefiting from an arbitrage-like situation. He did say the company’s goal is to get visitors to stay and come back, rather than click on an ad and leave.

“Our business model depends on people who come to us from Google coming back again, or else it doesn’t work,” he said.

Related Topics: Ask | Channel: SEM | Features: Analysis | Google: AdWords | Top News

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About The Author: is Executive Features Editor at Search Engine Land and Marketing Land. She’s a well-respected authority on digital marketing, having reported and written on the subject since 1998.

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Read before commenting! We welcome constructive comments and allow any that meet our common sense criteria. This means being respectful and polite to others. It means providing helpful information that contributes to a story or discussion. It means leaving links only that substantially add further to a discussion. Comments using foul language, being disrespectful to others or otherwise violating what we believe are common sense standards of discussion will be deleted. Comments may also be removed if they are posted from anonymous accounts. You can read more about our comments policy here.
  • http://twitter.com/stealherstyle_ Steal Her Style

    Google cares way more about itself than they do about the user. If a user does a search, clicks on an ask.com ad, and then clicks an ad on Ask, Google gets paid for two ad clicks.

    Besides, virtually all content websites are supported by ads. If Google wants any ads for informational searches, they have to allow sites with above the fold ads.

  • http://twitter.com/incrediblehelp Jaan Kanellis

    What a terrible search experience. Wait… Isn’t that what Google is always worried about? Why don’t they index search result pages anymore in the organic results?

  • http://www.seo-theory.com/ Michael Martinez

    Technically Google does not index Ask’s search results. They are Google-powered search results anyway.

  • http://www.facebook.com/doug.leeds Doug Leeds

    Hey Pamela, Doug from Ask.com here. As I mentioned when we spoke, Ask
    is investing heavily in our product and brand in order to provide users
    with answers to their questions, backed up by some the best content on the
    web (such as the articles and expert content we just acquired at About.com).
    We’re proud of the content on our pages, which you can see pretty clearly
    contain much more than just ads.

    We get traffic to Ask.com from many sources — online and off — and
    Google is just one part of our strategy.  We are consistently collecting
    feedback from users who come to Ask via search advertising on Google, and
    the data shows that our experience is good compared to other advertisers
    on the page. For example, our advertisements on Google generate 200%
    higher retention, 33% higher time on site, and excellent customer
    satisfaction scores as compared against our competitors. You don’t get
    those results by just sending people to pages with ads – we get them by
    making good on the promise of delivering answers.  We don’t do everything
    perfectly however, and I’m definitely all ears in terms of how we can
    continue to do things better.

  • Johan

    Ask.com is useless anyway, who would want to go there ?

  • Johan

    I have the exact same stats on all my sites, adwords traffic is just better quality, that’s all. That doesn’t mean your site is the perfect answer to their query. I had once a crap site, a MFA. I bought adwords before the arbitrage rule went on. Believe me, my site was total crap. I made a lot of sales and adwords traffic was generating a lot of sales compared to normal organic traffic. I was buying for 10K USD/month in adwords. Your answer is a nosense for anyone who understand this market.

  • http://ftc.gov/ MonopolizedSearch

    This is another example of the subjective application of Google’s own policies. It’s really no different then Google giving preference to its own businesses/services in organic search. If there is a buck to be made, Google will bend their policies to get as much of that buck as they can.

  • Pat Grady

    “How’s Ask making money off of that?
    One answer is…”
    I’ve got another possible answer to consider. Land on Ask, arbitrage G ads, obvious – but that math doesn’t work for me – rev share makes it very unlikely. Other monetizaton efforts would be needed. Landing also allows cookie setting, for known searches. Retargeting crowd pays dearly for user data, and it’s for sale in exchanges and elsewhere. Not an accusation, I’d need proof for that, and good luck on that front, anonymizing (to the public) the data would make it impossible to uncover from here. Everyone knows Ask, the 2nd level click fraud needed to make the arbitrage math work, G would catch that in a NY minute – so am guessing, it’d have to run much deeper than that.

  • http://trucklicense.net/get-cdl Freedom Jackson

    Cheat to win the wall street guide to being successful.

    Its sad to see this mentality come from google. One question I have is who determines how much of your adsense revenue you get to keep?

    I have noticed a “google” tax on adsense earnings have you?

    Lets say you earn $100 they always pay you $100 – “the google tax” = Your net earnings.

  • Giacomo Pelagatti

    Mr. Leeds, I would be curious to know what percentage of queries on Ask.com are triggered by ads. I’m asking this because I myself can’t recall the last time I actually typed a search on Ask.com.

  • http://www.facebook.com/patrick.kompf.9 Patrick Kompf

    Doug, are you afraid this investigation will find further flaws in your adwords strategy? This thing could blow up big time. This is in violation of google policy and you know it. You can lace your big words and type responses like your sitting before the wall street congressional panel. “No” “Yes” No, we didn’t take money. Ask.com is not a product. It leaches clicks off other search engines to generate revenue. Without forwarded traffic – there is no ask.com revenue.

  • Kent Riddersholm Nielsen

    Now, I know I may be speculating here, but… First off, I can see Ask’s motivation for showing ads in Google, as they get important low priced trafic which helps sell their generel product to advertisers (I also find it interesting to read Doug Leeds’ answer in the comment section). The question is what is Google’s motivation to allow this controversial game? I see one thing that isn’t mentioned here, and will point to Aaron Walls post, which basically implies, that you practically never get to pay minimum click-price even though there is no competition. I can see the controversy here. In auctions, there is a term known as “puffing”, which is illegal by the way. That’s when you hire someone to raise to price. In my opinion, there is a close resemblance to Google and Ask’s relationship. Especially with this shady, we’re partners / we’re not partners theme the last couple of years. It looks pretty shady in my eyes.

  • http://searchengineland.com/ Danny Sullivan

    Google’s motivation is probably not to crack down on Ask because it makes a lot of money off Ask carrying its ads that often lead to pages that also carry Google’s ads.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=76300871 Jon Krueger

    So after much Research, I’ve discovered that its from ask.com that My Search Partners portion of my Adwords account is getting worthless clicks that don’t convert. However, I get enough conversions from Ask that I don’t want to cut it out completely and other Search Partners like Aol.com convert quite well for me. Does ANYONE have any ideas how I can isolate Ask.com (or search partners) and manage them differently than Google. I know i can bid only for Google.com. But i want to be able to also bid only for Search Partners, which Adwords does not allow. Thoughts???

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