AdWords’ Dot-TK Plague & the End of Automatic Placements

By , December 3, 2013

All year, I’ve been doing battle with a never-ending series of aggressive fraudsters who use AdSense ads across many dot-tk (.tk) domains which each generate small numbers of cheap fraudulent clicks, siphoning money from any campaign which has Automatic Placements enabled.

Why does it work? It works because Google AdWords refuses to enable exclusion of placements (web sites) based on Top Level Domain (TLD).

They refuse because the .tk domains, like millions of other miniscule-traffic web sites, drain millions of dollars from AdWords advertisers’ accounts, if Automatic Placements are enabled. Google splits the stolen money with the fraudsters, and there’s no cost-effective way for advertisers to seek credit for the fraudulent activity (our staff time far exceeds the return; when we do complain, Google reports [after a suitable delay] that they have researched the issue but cannot find any clear proof of fraud).

Until recently, the obvious solution was to block (exclude) these sites as they appear (even though the vast majority never generate activity again).  That meant duplicating each exclusion across many ad groups, or more recently, using Shared Library Placement Exclusion Lists.  (Because Google delays reporting for Automatic Placements by 40 hours, each new fraudulent .tk site gets a minimum of 40 hours of exposure in your account.)

But a glitch in Google’s most recent AdWords algorithm update has created a “complexity limit” beyond which AdWords simply stops working.  Once an account exceeds some unknown limit of exclusions and targeting options, the account simply freezes; ads stop appearing on any Display Network placements.  As a result, advertisers must purge tens of thousands of exclusions in order to get the campaign re-activated; Google resists acknowledging the problem, but eventually suggests that advertisers use fewer targeting options.

So advertisers can’t exclude, and advertisers can’t tolerate the bleeding.

The solution? Generate reports for past placement activity; identify sites to be added into Managed Placements; and then disable Automatic Placements.

That first step isn’t easy, because Google’s complexity limits also apply to campaign reporting.  Try running a Placement report for more than a few weeks, and the AdWords interface crashes (if there are Automatic Placements; for campaigns which have never included Automatic Placements, the range is longer).

But in the end, the only plausible solution is to simply stop flushing money on Automatic Placements and the endless hours required to monitor campaigns to staunch the flow of fraudulent activity.  (Yes, we’ve identified many major fraud sites and demanded and received credits from Google, but this isn’t plausible [or cost-effective] when each individual site generates only one or a few clicks.)



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