Does Google Bar Adwords That Compete With Gmail?

By | June 16, 2005

Google has removed an adword on its search engine placed by a competitor to its Gmail service.

AlienCamel, an Australia-based email service (full disclosure: I use the service), applied to have the word ‘webmail’, along with several others, inserted into the ‘sponsored links’ section of Google’s search pages when people entered the search ‘webmail’. After initially accepting the ad, AlienCamel’s Sydney Low says, it was removed without explanation. Other keywords — white list, virus, spam, spamming etc were accepted. “It’s so arbitrary,” Low says.

(Low says an ad for the keyword ‘gmail’ was also rejected out of hand; this could be explained as a trademark issue, though Low points out that Google has stated that it will not adjudicate trademark issues. But I won’t get into that here.)

Any search for ‘webmail’ on Google throws up only one ad for —– Gmail. Google decline to comment on specific cases, but a spokesman replied to my query about the ‘webmail’ query thus:

As you may know, Google AdWords ads have a performance threshold to ensure relevance and protect the user experience and help advertisers get the best return from their advertising spend. That is, if an ad doesn’t receive a minimum click-through rate it is disabled. Again, I can’t comment on specifics but this often happens with general keywords like “webmail”. The advertisers has the option to revise keywords or ad text to continue to run.

In other words, if the advertiser is not getting enough clickthroughs from an ad, Google suspends it. But apparently, without telling them. But even if this were the real reason, is it true in AlienCamel’s case? No, says Syd Low: “They ran my ad on 1 day, between June 8th and 14th, gave it 841 impressions and then killed the ad.” The ad got one clickthrough on that day. Not great, but not awful in the first day. His point: he’d like to see how many click throughs the Gmail ad for the same keyword got. “I bet you it wasn’t any better. My point is that they are negatively favouring their own ads and not applying their own policies.

I would have agree that Google’s answer seems lame. Can it be that no one — AlienCamel aside — wants to advertise on the word ‘webmail’, or if they did, that they can get enough clickthroughs from it to justify the cost? Even the words ‘web mail’ hav some sponsors — I get five on my Hong Kong-directed Google search, three from Hong Kong itself, one Google and another more global. And if this is the correct explanation, why wasn’t AlienCamel told? (At time of posting they have not received any answer to their request for explanation.)

Given that the adword ‘webmail’ does not fall into any of the categories that Google lists as unacceptable content, and it does not constitute a trademark term, which might otherwise have explained Google’s removal of the term, one might be forgiven for suspecting that Google is using its position to elbow out potential competitors to a parallel service it offers. I think Google owes AlienCamel, and us, a better explanation.

3 thoughts on “Does Google Bar Adwords That Compete With Gmail?

  1. Jeremy

    I asked for a better explanation from Google, and I’ve got it, in response to the post above, here’s Barry Schnitt of Google PR:

    Alien Camel was notified about “webmail”. In their account, next to each keyword it gives information about each keyword including impressions, clicks and the status of that keyword. The status lables a keyword either “in trial” in yellow, “normal” in green, or “disabled” in red. The meaning of each of these classes is clear and linked to throughout the account. Links to some of these explanations are below.

    As you will see from the links above, the click-through rate threshold for keywords is 0.5%. If my math is correct, 1 click for 841 impressions is somewhere around 0.1% – considerable less than the threshold. I think 841 impressions is also considered statisticly significant enough to make a determination of how well the keyword is going to perform.

    All Google campaigns conform to the same policies and guidelines we stipulate for our advertisers. If a keyword promoting a Google product or service does not maintain a 0.5% click-through rate, it is automatically disabled.

    We do our best to respond to advertiser emails in a timely manner. However, we can always do better.

  2. Jeremy

    Google’s second response makes some sense. But it still troubles me that Google’s Gmail ads appear exclusively in response to the search word ‘webmail’, a word that elicits more than 23 million responses, while the less common ‘web mail’, with only 3.6 million responses, has other advertisers who presumably passed the 0.5% threshold. Why would a word that is eight or more time less common (webmail, one word, is the more established version of the term) be getting results, and everyone except Google not getting any results from ‘webmail’?

    A second point: Sydney Low suggests Google show that its own adwords are hitting the threshold to prove they are following their own rules and to indicate transparency. I imagine Google probably is hitting the threshold, but I think it’s a good idea nonetheless. Finally, I think Google has to be more careful and nuanced in its approach when it’s dealing with adwords in which it has a potential conflict of interest. The perception of not providing a level playing field here is as important as the reality.

  3. aliencamel

    The other gripe about AdWords is that it is nigh impossible to run another ad using the same keyword once it’s been disabled by Google. So we can never run another ad on the keyword ‘webmail’ ever again.


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