Google Ads: profiting from their imposed ‘dead’ links

I have been a keen user of various Google products for many years, but it was only recently that I started fueling the ‘machine’ that drives the empire: Google Ads.

Google had revenues of around US$23.6 billion in calendar year 2009. That’s $23,600,000,000.00 in case you were wondering. It is not immediately clear from their financial statements, but well over 90% of Google revenues are derived from Google Ads (either directly through their own search results pages or through search/ad partners, etc).

Could this 23.6 billion dollar ‘machine’ have some faults? Of course it does, and I doubt even the engineers at Google would deny this. However, I have uncovered what I think is a serious flaw in their AdWords interface. It’s an issue of transparency and it leaves me with the following question rattling around in my mind:

what percentage of Google’s billions are being paid for by unassuming users via the ‘dead’ links imposed by their AdWords system?

To avoid the background story dragging on I will summarise here:

1. We (at Steplight) trialled Google AdWords last year and it worked fine. I did some further research (and even attended a free Google Ads ‘webinar’) and found out that quite specific ads with concise landing pages work best. So I suspended advertising and waited till our web content improved a little.

2. Re-activating Google Ads with some more concise landing pages in December our Google AdWords account started to tick over again (diligently auto-debiting our credit card every $100 or so).

3. Each time I set-up a new ad I performed a few basic checks, namely 1) clicking the ad in the AdWords interface to check it is going to the correct page on our website (first image below), and 2) entering a few search terms to check that it is coming up in search results (second image below). Of course I didn’t actually click that search result ad because I didn’t want to pay for a wasted click… after all, I had already checked the same ad in the AdWords interface.

4. Apart from the above basic checks I didn’t go into micro-analysing the results, as we were only spending relatively small amounts on the targeted AdWords. I had it set up so that our Analytics and AdWords accounts are linked, so all the data would still be there to analyse later.

5. When I did log in and look at our Analytics data I was surprised to find that the clicks from Ads didn’t seem to be showing up. It’s not just that they weren’t showing up as “Google (cpc)”… even the item “Google (organic)” or other referral sites did not list enough clicks as we were paying for. I did some research to make sure everything was set-up correctly, including having ‘auto-tagging’ enabled. Everything seemed fine.

6. Trying to delve further into the problem a week or so later I finally came across a Google Analytics help topic called ‘What is Destination URL Auto-tagging?‘. Remarked in this item, and not referenced anywhere in the Ads interface as far as I can tell, is an explanation of how to test links and the following note:

Note: Auto-tagging may not be appropriate for all websites. A small percentage of destination URLs do not accept additional URL parameters due to redirects or server settings. This can cause the “gclid” to be dropped or generate an error page.

7. Needless to say I performed the check on our website and auto-tagging did not work. I then went and did a Google search for one of our ads… actually clicked on it for the first time and discovered what possibly every person who has clicked on a Steplight Ad in the past two months will have seen (nothing – an error page):

8. I am certain this is not as uncommon as it may seem. Personally, I have clicked on a number of Ads in the past, gone to an error page, and thought to myself “They must be idiots at this company – they are paying for Google Ads which go to a dead link on their site!”. I now know they probably aren’t idiots – they may just be unwitting victims of a flaw in the Google Ads system.

9. I have now de-selected destination auto-tagging and our Ads are working fine.

My recommendations to Google

1. Re-fund the amount we spent on bogus Google Ads imposed by your recommended auto-tagging system between 6 Dec 2009 and 2 Feb 2010 ($243.18). You can contact me for account details.

2. Address this discrepancy in your system as a matter of urgency. I believe the simplest way to do this is for the demo Ad shown in the AdWords interface to include a test gclid tag (if the account has auto-tagging enabled). This way users can test their ad up-front in the user interface, see that it goes to a dead link, and click on a help icon placed next to the ad titled “Click here if your ad is not working as expected” or similar.

Why this is a blog post, not a private email to Google

I am not prone to making inflammatory claims, and it is not my intention to do so above. If the above is all correct, this is serious. Even if this affects 0.1% of Google Ads (just 1 in 1000) – that’s still US$23 million odd flowing out of the pockets of businesses to Google in 2009 alone.

I am keen to hear if others have had similar or related problems. Please contact me or post a comment below.

What is Destination URL Auto-tagging?

6 Responses to “Google Ads: profiting from their imposed ‘dead’ links”

  1. 1 rpmccarthy 4 February 2010 at 10:20 PM

    After doing some further research it is plainly obvious that Google needs to adopt the simple recommendation I outlined above to improve the transparency of their AdWords service.

    Many others are having problems with the gclid tags which would be overcome if the example ad in the AdWords user interface did a true test of the link as it would be used when running as a paid-for click.

    Same problem I had, and same proposed recommendation to fix it:

    Same problem I had:

    Related problem:

    Related problem (see comment by Azores):

    And a slightly disheartening post from over three years ago “Why Google AdWords is Always Right”

    • 2 G Wiens 9 June 2010 at 1:36 PM

      We noticed clicks and visits weren’t showing the same. We found some explaination in the help about javascript or cookies not being activated which accounted for the discrepancy. When we didn’t see any visits at all we began to search again. Then we discovered your helpful advice. We have disabled auto tag. We’ll see what happens. Thanks for the heads up.

  2. 3 dean 18 February 2010 at 6:41 PM

    Luckily this was noticed right away before potential damage could be done. Hadn’t this not be picked up and left to flow. Scary the thought. Such a simple fix, is honestly a joke considering the profits.

  3. 4 Louise 6 March 2010 at 2:45 AM

    Thanks for writing about this! I just ran up against this issue and while waiting for Google to get back to me, I discovered this blog post. Thank you!!

  4. 5 soraya 27 May 2010 at 2:16 AM

    We have had this issue as well with a new google adwords campaign. I hadnt even contemplated that it might be an issue with Auto tagging, as we have another campaign running which directs to another area of our website, without any problems at all. (our website was built with two different systems so it seems that some pages can allow additional URL parameters, whereas other pages cannot.) Either way, I am hugely dissapointed that we have wasted £100 on wasted clicks, and it seems that Google is unwilling to refund us for this, as they say it is not their fault.

    Surely it is unacceptable that Google allows paying customers to make these mistakes – can they not see which ads are going to Error 404 pages, and do something about it?

  5. 6 Daniele 30 November 2011 at 2:32 AM

    I noticed this problem by chance as a customer told us that the adword was going to a dead link (404). WTF? I thought, after all, I checked all Ads with the tool in Adwords… So I click on my own Ad and spend over £1 for the priviledge of discovering this. My analytics is showing huge number of 404s but they are not apparent unless you dig because all URL have a different number after the gclid tag, so they are all one visit pages that dont show up on the first page of your report. We get our traffic 50% from serps and 50% from ppc and because we convert offline, this has not been apparent at all. I have contacted Google and I will keep you up to date on the outcome. I am fuming ! Over £1200 over the last month all on 404 ! Can you believe it ! We should do a class action and get a refund ! If the tool on Adwords shows the Ad as working, that is it – it should be working !

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