Since the beginning of AdWords, companies have used various methods to push the boundaries of Google's policies in order to gain additional exposure. One of the most common tactics has been through different forms of double serving, or serving multiple ads for the same company on the same keyword.
For the number of years this has been an issue, one would think that Google would have this one licked by now. Unfortunately, I've managed to come across several examples, in varying degrees of obviousness, following just a handful of searches.
We'll walk through what I found, which begins with the most blatant violations of Google's policy on double serving and ends with large and complex collections of sites and ads, as well as a couple companies that seem to specialize in populating ad positions for big players.
Naturally, the more blurry the question of "Is this in violation of the policy?" becomes, the larger the companies behind the ads get.
First, let's start with Google's policy on double serving. The entire thing certainly applies to this discussion, but the key points are below:
Violations of this policy occur when multiple websites share Common Ownership ..., plus when two or more of the following factors are present:
- Common product offering: For physical goods being sold, the sites share products in common such that a user browsing the site would perceive little difference in inventory between the sites.
- Similar pricing: When pricing is available on the sites, there's a price difference between the sites of 25% or less for substantially the same product or service. When two or more sites solicit contact information from users in order to provide a custom quote, they will be considered to have zero price difference.
- Similar customer support experience: The sites offer the same or similar type of product or service for which the customer can expect to receive the same or similar level of Support ...
- Brand: The sites have non-differentiated Brands ... for which either the brand name is the same or the logo is the same.
It's also important to note that Google's definition of Common Ownership is "when the same entity, whether an individual or a business, owns or controls one or more of the sites in question at the time of multiple ad serving."
The longstanding issue of double serving was brought to my attention yesterday while I was performing a search in my town of Grand Rapids, Michigan for "office moving." Notice anything that stands out?
Yup, the second and third results are virtually identical. The domains twomenandatrucknorthgrandrapids.com and twomenandatrucksouthgrandrapids.com are, of course, remarkably similar and they didn't even bother to change more than one word of the ad copy. That's pretty ballsy. Naturally, these two sites are practically carbon copies of each other:
According to Google, these two ads are in violation of their policy if they share Common Ownership and exhibit two or more of the factors including a common product offering, similar pricing, similar customer support experience, and brand.
Let's break it down:
- Common product offering? Check.
- Similar pricing? Check. In Google's own words, the two sites solicit contact information to provide a custom quote.
- Similar customer support experience? Technically unknown, since you may receive separate dedicated customer service representative.
- Brand? Check. In this case, these two sites pretty clearly violate Google's definition of a brand: "the names of the brands must be clearly differentiated and may not be extensions or derivatives of the same name. Logos must be visually distinct."
OK, so they definitely exhibit two or more of the listed factors, however they aren't considered in violation of the policy unless they share Common Ownership. Here's where things get blurry. Two Men And A Truck is a franchise and these seem to be two separate franchises and presumably, owned by separate people. Yet, judging by the nearly identical ad copy and keyword bidding, it's probably safe to assume the account(s) are being managed by the same person or agency. Should they be considered separate businesses?
Seeing this blatant similarity sparked my curiosity, and I began a search for other occurrences. I quickly came across a post from a couple months ago from Justin Sous in which he showed a sample search for "pest control." It's been a couple months but I decided to try my luck anyways and, sure enough:
Suck it, user experience!
In this case, the two sites are much more different from each other than in the first example, however the brand and the product offering are definitely the same. Once again, though, the question comes down to Common Ownership. Despite the fact that Terminix has franchises, the site terminixpestcontroloffers.com doesn't seem to be one. In fact, the site doesn't mention a physical location. It seems likely that the same entity is operating both sites and ads (both ads even offer the same $50 special offer).
In my brief quest for more examples, I searched for "lawn care" in New York. This time, I wasn't very surprised to find the same parent company in the first two results, but I did notice something else in one of the ads; can you spot it? (hint: it's related to the Terminix example)
If you noticed the display URL in the second ad and how it and one of the Terminix display URLs follow the naming convention CompanyKeywordoffers.com; congrats, treat yourself to a pat on the back. These domains also sparked my curiosity, so I looked up terminixpestcontroloffers.com on SpyOnWeb.com.
What I found was numerous domains connected to a company called ConsumerComm, which serves some of the biggest cable companies in the nation including Comcast, Charter and Time Warner. They also happen to own a boatload of these "offers" domains.
Naturally, I wanted to see what Comcast was up to, being associated with this company and considering its deep pockets, so I did a search for "internet service" (location set to New York):
Ouch. Three out of the top five ad positions are promoting Comcast. These particular three sites are visually different, however there are sites owned by ConsumerComm and Bridgevine (another company that seems to employ similar tactics for cable companies) that are remarkebly similar and sometimes even identical to the ones serving ads on this keyword; leading me to imagine there is a shell game of sites, AdWords accounts and even domain registrars in play.
This is where things get extremely blurry. Do these ads violate Google's policy on double serving? It is unclear who actually owns the sites comcastspecial.com and comcastbusinessservices.com, even if they share a common product offering and brand.
It seems incredibly easy to find ways around the policy and this makes me wonder how seriously AdWords enforces it, and how closely they even watch it. I had no trouble finding numerous instances of the same company being promoted through multiple ads; some even directed ads toward their Google+ and Facebook pages, and in one case even an Ask.com page.
So is it OK for companies to leverage multiple franchises, special offer sites and social profiles to fill up ad positions on the same keyword? Is it ethical?
Resolving these issues certainly doesn't seem to be a high priority for Google, and their vague double serving policy doesn't help matters much. One thing is for certain, however; none of these strategies make for a positive search experience or a "level playing field."