Say what you will about its importance for business, communications and international relations; the Internets great power continues to be the ability to get peoples knickers in a twist over issues that were solved in other media decades ago.
The size of the knickers and the importance of the twist continue to grow, however, which indicates the medium is maturing. A little.
Rather than sweating over the risk that 14-year-olds will bring down the music industry, knickers are twisting about advertising fraud and a lawsuit by a Texarkana, Ark.-based gift shop lodged against the biggest companies in the Internet business.
Lanes Gifts & Collectibles—which carries more than 30 lines of dolls, masses of figurines, gift-candles and other knick-knackery but appears otherwise to be a respectable business—charges that Google, AskJeeves, Yahoo and others are purposely defrauding it by allowing its pay-per-click ad count to be inflated.
Which is nonsense. They dont exactly have a vested interest in keeping shady-looking click patterns completely out of the network, but theres no evidence that any of them deliberately allow PPC counts to be inflated to jack up their revenues.
On the other hand, they dont offer a lot of evidence to the contrary, either.
About all the advertisers get is access to log files that they have to run through KeywordMax or other fraud control programs to spot discrepancies—like a 1,000 percent spike in clicks on the day your main competitor started bidding against you for the choicest key words on Google.
Thats not a good situation for a business wanting to spend its time actually looking for business rather than preventing fraud.
Loss-prevention is a part of any business, but to do it effectively online takes too long and is too difficult for most companies who want to advertise online.
It would be a lot easier if advertisers were able to block clicks from specific addresses, or filter out suspicious activity as its happening. But they dont have that.
And search engines dont pull back the curtain to show advertisers what they are doing to identify potentially fraudulent click-patterns.
They dont want to help the scam artists by showing too much of the process they use to catch scam artists.
They dont want to show other search engines how clever (or lame) they are at identifying fraud before it happens.
But in the process of refusing to do all these things, they just erode their own credibility.
Some advertisers complaining on SearchEngineWatch and other online-marketing sites want the search engines to behave more like the credit-card companies, which aggressively resist fraud and protect their customers from it.
If a search engine cant prove to an advertiser that a click is legitimate, the reasoning goes, the advertiser shouldnt have to pay.
Thats a great idea, but not a realistic one.
It would take a ton of time and effort for both advertiser and search engine, for one thing. And it would require that every search engine, publication, nonprofit organization and Web ring that takes advertising establish a separate but equally rigorous audit process.
Looking to other media
This problem came up and was solved a long time ago in paper advertising.
Newspapers and magazines were forced by increasing competition and pressure from advertisers to prove claims that their publications were reaching X number of potential customers.
They established and subscribed to a publishing-specific audit process run by the ABC (Audit Bureau of Circulations), which was established in 1914.
The ABC, and a few other known and certified organizations like it, have been grilling publications semi-annually ever since, checking their circulation records and printing records to be sure that the number of publications being printed and circulated was the same that the publication claimed.
Its a pain for publications, but its a lot easier than having to prove to every advertiser individually that youre living up to your promises.
Auditing traffic online is potentially a lot more precise and less labor-intensive than auditing circulation in print.
Searchable logs already exist, and youd better believe the search engines have a lot better data on usage, fraud profiles and sources of fraudulent activity than theyre offering to advertisers right now.
It would give all online advertisers a way to demonstrate theyre on the up-and-up without spilling all their secret beans to their competitors. And it would give the advertisers some peace of mind.
It would also change some ad prices, ad promises and the anti-fraud practices of some of the more lax search engines real quick.
But it would also keep the fraud/anti-fraud forces from staging the kind of endless NASCAR race currently under way between the forces of spam and anti-spam and virus/anti-virus.
It wouldnt be perfect, but it doesnt need to be. It just needs to define and enforce a level of trust between companies that buy ads and those that sell them.
And it would keep a lot of knickers un-twust.