Google: the New Kafka?
Let me tell you the surreal story of Google and me. For a few months, this space—the upper right hand corner of this page and of two others on this site—featured an unobtrusive box containing “ads by Google.”
The ads were there because someone told me I could earn a bit of money from the traffic on my site by signing up for Google AdSense. It was easy: you just applied to Google, filled in some online forms, got some HTML code from Google, pasted it into your site, and voila! ads started appearing. The premise was (is), a Google engine studies your site and inserts ads relevant to your content in the spaces you designate. Every time someone clicks on the ads, you get a ha’penny (or some such trivial sum).
I went through the arcane process of opening a Google AdSense account and getting my code, and it worked. On three pages of my site, stacks of four or five discreet little ads started appearing. It was cute to see what Google considered “relevant.” I posted a column responding to a reader’s question “Why are bluejays blue?” and sure enough, an ad from a bird watching society went up next to it. I wrote a rant about why the 49ers are so bad and got ads from a site that sells 49ers paraphernalia. I wrote about my cat Raoul, and here came the veterinarians, the cat food companies, and the cat calendar vendors.
Then one day in October (just before the elections) a friend called me. “Are you aware that anti-Obama ads are appearing on your site?”
I checked and—whoa! Not just “anti-Obama ads,” but repugnant, conspiracy-theory-mongering, teabagger (or whatever they’re called) nonsense, questioning Obama’s citizenship, screaming about death panels, deriding unions … on my site! Not in there with the veterinarians and bird-watchers but replacing them all. Suddenly, these were the only ads on my site, they took up an eye-catching one-sixth of the visible screen, and they weren’t selling any product or service. These ads were just promoting ideas (if you can glorify foul, Fox-news-strained-through hell rhetoric of this sort by calling it “ideas.”)
In a shocked daze, I wondered what made Google AdSense think these ads would be ‘relevant’ to my content. I tried changing the content. I took down a light-hearted column called You’re an American If… thinking that maybe Google’s engine saw “You’re an American” and decided this was a national-chauvinist flag-waving site. It did no good. Then, I deliberately posted content antithetical to the unwanted ads directly under them: I wrote a column telling my readers I disagreed bitterly with the sentiments above my words, which were chosen by Google not me, and I declared that my own convictions ran exactly counter to those: I followed all this with a brief political and cultural manifesto eviscerating teabaggers, Meg Whitman, and anyone else I could think of that lay in that camp. I guess I thought of it as waving a red cape, trying to get Google’s engine to see me, realize who I was.
It changed nothing. The horrid ads kept running, unabated. Finally, I decided to remove the code. Simply get rid of it. I cut it, and pasted it into a Word file for future reference. That’s when I noticed something.
The code that Google had given me differed from the code I had just removed. The latter had these few additional characters: /* Tamim's Apparently someone had hacked into my site and hijacked the space allotted to Google’s ads.
So I applied to Google for fresh new code, which I duly pasted into my site. For a few weeks, everything was fine. Then one day, I logged into my site, and there at the upper right hand corner of the page was a big blank space exactly the size of the box that used to contain ads, except that now there was just empty space in that spot.
A few minutes later, I got an email from Google telling me I had violated Google AdSense policies and my AdSense account had been closed–and could never be reopened.
What had I done wrong? When had I done it? Google did not say. The email only gave me a hyperlink to click for “more information.” Clicking it brought me to this boilerplate:
Because we have a need to protect our proprietary detection system, we’re unable to provide our publishers with any information about their account activity, including any web pages, users, or third-party services that may have been involved.
This , my friends, is Google’s idea of “more information.”
I don’t know about you, but I’m thinking Google could have given me this boilerplate right in the email instead of a “more information” button that would take me to this boilerplate.
Google did say I could “appeal” the decision by filling out a certain online form. The first box to fill in asked for my “publisher number.” Huh? Whazzat?
Oh, no need to feel confused. Here was a helpful note from Google: I could find my “publisher number” by logging into my AdSense account and looking in a certain place. I tried to log into my AdSense account–only to get a message telling me I could not access that account because it had been disabled and could never be re-opened.
Fortunately, when I first opened the account , I had copied a bunch of info out of the online forms and pasted them into a Word file because I’m a Luddite simpleton who can’t deal with online stuff. I need it in a more primitive form, which at this point means “a Word file.” Fortunately, too, my publisher’s number was one of the data-bits I had archived in a Word file back when there was no reason to think I would ever need it. So I was able to fill out my online appeal form, explain about the suspected hacking, and submit it to Google.
Eight days later I got Google’s response. Here it is verbatim:
Wir haben Ihren Einspruch erhalten. Wir bedanken uns für die zusätzlichen Informationen, die Sie uns zur Verfügung gestellt haben, sowie für Ihr weiteres Interesse an unserem AdSense-Programm. Nach sorgfältiger Prüfung Ihrer Kontodaten und Rückmeldung kamen wir leider zu dem Schluss, dass wir Ihr AdSense-Konto nicht wieder aktivieren können. Wenn Sie Bedenken oder Fragen zu Ihrem Konto oder den erfolgten Maßnahmen haben oder sich generell über ungültige Aktivitäten informieren möchten, rufen Sie auf.
The Google AdSense Team
Google haunted by the ghost of Kafka? You be the judge.