Years ago, when AdWords was a largely unregulated world, affiliates made millions by “double-serving” their ads on Google. This was a simple and straight-forward scheme: all you needed to do was to set up a few domain names, host them on different sites, set up separate AdWords accounts, and buy the same keywords for each site. If you knew that they keyword “blue widgets” was a guaranteed money maker, you could dominate the results with two, three or sometimes 15 URLs, virtually guaranteeing that any searcher who clicked on an ad would end up buying a product or service from you.
Google initially tolerated this “shelf space” strategy, but once the number of advertisers participating in AdWords auctions increased, Google clamped down on this sort of behavior. The Google policy on double-serving made it clear that anyone trying to show more than one ad on the same result would incur the wrath of Google – in most cases, this just meant that Google would “link” offending accounts together, such that all the related sites could only advertise once on a given keyword, but in egregious cases, Google could and did simply shut down and block all the sites entirely from AdWords.
The policy, until recently, had the following rules:
When reviewing requests, we focus on the preservation of a unique user experience for each site, and also take into account the following:
- The destination site for each ad offers different products or services (for example, a large manufacturer with two product sites, one solely for stereos and one solely for computers, both running on the keyword ‘electronics’) and each destination site has a different layout and design
- The destination site for each ad features unique site content, features, and/or services which are highly significant to users and create a distinct user experience
- Product overlaps for each ad’s destination site are minor and don’t affect user experience. This criterion particularly applies to high volume retailers and other large inventory websites
I found the above wording quoted on a Google groups forum (the messaging has now been replaced), but as far as I can tell, this was the original text of the policy.
Recently, a little birdy alerted me to a pretty significant change in the policy, allegedly changed in January of this year. Here’s the new policy:
Exceptions are granted only in very limited cases. When reviewing requests, we focus on the preservation of a unique user experience for each site, and also take into account the following:
- The destination site for each ad offers different products or services (for example, a large manufacturer with two product sites, one solely for stereos and one solely for computers, both running on the keyword ‘electronics’)
- The destination site for each ad serves a different purpose (for example, one site focuses on product information only, and the other site focuses on product sale only)
- Any product overlaps for each ad’s destination site are not significant enough to affect user experience
- The pricing difference offered by each site is significant and based on the same criteria (for example, if one site includes pricing with tax, the other site must include pricing with tax)
The biggest change is the last one: “the pricing difference” clause. Though this seems somewhat innocuous, if you think about the consequences from an affiliate/lead gen perspective, it could be massive. For example, let’s take your standard “Acai Berry Diet.” The parent company offers a special deal on their site – get a free trial and then pay just $5 S&H. They then go to one affiliate and tell them to run an ad that says “get a free trial and pay only $8 S&H” and then tell another to offer a $10 offer but with a free booklet. Suddenly, an offer that would have only been allowed once on a SERP is being multi-served and is actually compliant with Google’s double-serving policy!
The timing of this change – and the fact that it hasn’t been publicized – leads me to the conclusion that this is a recession-related change, a loosening of AdWords rules that will enable more affiliates to participate in auctions in which they were previously excluded. Affiliate marketing and lead gen is a lot more recession-proof than typical brick and mortar advertisers, as we say in 2001 with the rise of companies like LowerMyBills and Nextag.
When the economy recovers, I’d expect this clause to once again disappear. For now, however, it appears that Google is ready to welcome back affiliates with open arms!