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I recently discussed whether click fraud was truly a problem for Google. I conclude that it isn’t really – at least until the hordes of new & naive advertisers stop buying ads on Google and Google is forced to rely exclusively on sophisticated advertisers for their revenue.

For second-tier search engines, however, the story is different. By “second tier”, I basically mean any search engine that isn’t Google, Yahoo, AOL, or MSN. So that includes Ask, Kanoodle, Miva, Mamma, 7Search, Quigo, Industry Brains, etc, etc. On many of these sites, click fraud is the business model as far as I can tell.

As sure as death and taxes, every week I get a pitch from a second-tier company encouraging me to advertise on their PPC network. The pitch always has three main elements:

  1. We have X billion searches each month;
  2. We cost 50% less than Google and Yahoo;
  3. Our traffic is of the highest quality.

Now, as a young and impressionable search engine marketer, I used to fall victim to this pitch. I’d dutifully deposit $1500 into an account, carefully select keywords to upload, and start the campaign right away.

In almost every instance, one of two things happened. Either there was gobs of really bad traffic, or virtually no traffic at all. Mostly it’s the former. I’ve seen campaigns that I know convert at 4-5% on Google or Overture get 1500 clicks on a second-tier site with nary a conversion among them. The odds of 1500 people a) searching for one of my carefully-selected keywords; b) deciding to click on my little old ad, and c) collectively deciding not to buy what I am selling, is slim to none, and Slim just walked out the door (with thanks to Horace Grant for the quote).

Of course, the ad rep who sold me this horrible placement undoubtedly knew all along that this was going to happen. But can you really blame him? He’s got to put bread on his family’s table, and if he doesn’t get my $1500, that’s $1500 farther away from his quota.

I will admit that there are a few diamonds in the rough with the second-tier players. I do work with a few second-tiers that can sometimes generate as much as 10% of my monthly revenue and profit. But it takes a lot of work to separate the wheat from the chaff. That being said, here’s my advice on how to work with second-tier search engines:

  1. Talk to other advertisers about the search engine: Read WebMasterWorld, talk to friends at other companies. Have they used What were the results?
  2. Look at their user interface: Any company that’s in this for the long-haul will have invested some money into an online interface that enables you to change bids, download reports, etc, a la AdWords or (to a degree) Yahoo’s Direct Traffic Center. If it looks like the CEO’s teenage son designed the Web site for extra credit in one of his classes, steer clear.
  3. Only work with people you like: There are aggressive sales reps and firm but polite sales reps. A smart sales rep considers the lifetime customer value of a relationship. If he sells you on a bad deal today, two years from now you aren’t going to talk to him when he has a good deal. Account reps who are upfront with you and who manage your expectations are key.
  4. Ask for a free trial: The best way to test out a sales rep’s claims is to ask for a couple hundred dollars of free clicks in advance. A lot of reps have the authority to do this, especially if you are already a big spender on the major search engines.
  5. Make as small a deposit as possible: If you do have to plunk down some change, make it as small an amount as you can. The goal is to assess the potential profitability of this site as quickly as possible, and with as little financial pain. If an ad rep is pressuring you to put down a larger deposit than what you want to invest, that’s usually a sign of a “slash and burn” mentality, and you should run in the other direction as fast as possible.
  6. Track every keyword individually: This is fundamental to any search engine marketing. By tracking each keyword, you can identify where potential click fraud is coming from and where there may be a sweet spot on the search engine.
  7. Consider the value of your time: At the end of the day, your job is to make as much profit for your company as you can. If you can make an extra $500 of profit a day by tweaking your Google accounts but only $250 a day working with GreenBanana, the choice is clear. Time is money!