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New AdSense Policies Released: major implications for link sellers, MFAs & blended ad styles

It’s new AdSense Policies time.  Remember, when you agreed to the AdSense terms & conditions, you automatically agreed to also abide by the AdSense Policies, even when they are changed, so be sure you aren’t in violation of the new policies :)  

And some of the changes are pretty huge in my opinion, I just wish this was changed before I was able to grill the Google AdSense team last week at ADSPACE!  Here are the key changes that are most important for publishers (and keep reading for the complete details about each).

  • Selling text links to casinos, gambling sites, prescription drug sites is now a violation of the AdSense terms, since publishers now cannot *link* to those sites (and many other types of sites).
  • Making your contents/ads blended enough that it is hard to tell them apart.
  • Very specific webmaster guidelines AdSense publishers must abide by, including no hidden text/links, that sites must be information-rich, and no doorways or cookie cutter affiliate sites.
  • Changes if you receive traffic from paid search

This took a lot longer to finish, because they completely reorganized how the various policies were split up into headers, which meant a lot of back and forth to make sure everything was accounted for and to double check for the additions and removals.

So, here is the rundown on what is new, removed and changed from the last policies update.

In the first paragraph, some of the wording has been changed around, including removing the reference to “While in many cases we prefer to work with publishers to achieve policy compliance” that appeared prior to the mention of disabling an AdSense account.  The new paragraph reads:

Publishers participating in the AdSense program are required to adhere to the following policies, so please read them carefully. If you fail to comply with these policies, we reserve the right to disable ad serving to your site and/or disable your AdSense account at any time. If your account is disabled, you will not be eligible for further participation in the AdSense program.

In the second paragraph, it was split into two sentences with the addition of:

 please check back often for updates

So this could be a sign that it could be updated more frequently than we have seen in the past.  It is worth noting though, that this new version of the policies is NOT date stamped (the old one had a notation of the date it was last updated) so unless someone goes through line by line, it could be very easy to miss any updates and/or changes to it.  So if Google is listening, please add an “Updated: April 28, 2009″ to make my life easier :)

Invalid Clicks & Impressions

This snippet has been added prior to the “Learn more” notation:

Publishers may not click on their own ads or use any means to artificially inflate impressions and/or clicks, including manual methods.

AdSense lists different “prohibited methods” but they have removed some of the methods from the list, and have added a completely new section later in the policies called “Traffic Sources”.  So in this section, ”third-party services that generate clicks or impressions such as paid-to-click, paid-to-surf, autosurf, and click-exchange programs” have all been removed to be added to the later section.  So don’t get all excited that paid-to-surf is suddenly allowed ;)

Encouraging Clicks

In this section, the following has been added to the snippet:

This includes, but is not limited to, offering compensation to users for viewing ads or performing searches, promising to raise money for third parties for such behavior, or placing images next to individual ads.

 Under the “Publisher may not…” section they have removed (but added it to the later traffic sources section):

  • May not promote sites displaying ads through unsolicited mass emails or unwanted advertisements on third-party websites
  • May not compensate users for viewing ads or performing searches, or promise compensation to a third party for such behavior

Then under the “Publisher may not…” section, they have added:

  • Compensate users for viewing ads or performing searches, or promise compensation to a third party for such behavior.
  • Place ads in a floating box script.
  • Format ads so that they become indistinguishable from other content on that page.
  • Format site content so that it is difficult to distinguish it from ads.

 And wow, those last two additions are HUGE and can have major implications to many publishers who have perfected the blended technique, especially those who use blended with wrapping text around the ad units.  The key will be just about how blended they can be.  I will try and get followup from Google regarding this, because this could potentially put a lot of publishers in violations of the policies, depending on how much wiggle room there is in the “format site content so that it is difficult to distinguish it from ads”.  Just wow.

Content Guidelines

Another MAJOR change here.  Before, the Google policies stated that “Sites displaying Google ads may not include”.  But now it says “Sites with Google ads may not include or link to:” (emphasis mine)  There will definitely be publishers who fall afoul of this new change.  It could even mean that a blog that has an imported RSS feed with a link to a news story about racial discrimination could be at risk.  But it also means that anyone selling text links on their sites would also now be in violation of the new AdSense policies.  So if you are selling text links to casinos/gambling or prescription drug sites in particular, you are now violating the AdSense terms.  It is definitely one way for Google to reduce the number of text links sold, by making it a violation for AdSense publishers to link to a few of the key link buying areas.

Under the “may not include or link to:”, there were some changes.  “Violent content” was split from “Content related to racial intolerance or advocacy against any individual, group, or organization”.

And there were several categories that included “sales or promotion of…”, but have all been changed to simply “sales of”.  The ones affected are:

  • Sales of beer or hard alcohol
  • Sales of tobacco or tobacco-related products
  • Sales of prescription drugs
  • Sales of weapons or ammunition (e.g., firearms, firearm components, fighting knives, stun guns)
  • Sales of products that are replicas or imitations of designer goods
  • This was likely to clarify the position of sites that were simply informational and not selling products, but which the “promotion” left a lot up to interpretation.

    Copyrighted Material

    This section is the same.

    Webmaster Guidelines

    This section used to simply be a reference to:

    AdSense publishers are required to adhere to the webmaster quality guidelines posted at http://www.google.com/webmasters/guidelines.html.

    But now, it is a new section, which is mostly brand new, although some of the points (such as the deceptive or manipulative content) which was in a different section of the previous terms.  It now says:

  • Do not place excessive, repetitive, or irrelevant keywords in the content or code of webpages.
  • Avoid hidden text or hidden links.
  • Avoid “doorway” pages created just for search engines, or other “cookie cutter” approaches such as affiliate programs with little or no original content.
  • Do not include deceptive or manipulative content or construction to improve your site’s search engine ranking (e.g., your site’s PageRank).
  • Create a useful, information-rich site, and write pages that clearly and accurately describe your content.
  • Worth noting is the fact that AdSense sites must be a “useful, information-rich site”, which ((cough)) we know some publishers will run afoul of, especially those with Made for AdSense type of sites.  And it will also mean spammy publishers using hidden text/links will no longer be allowed to do it… although it does raise the question of sites like spoiler tv sites that tend to hide the text of extreme spoilers, requiring a user to highlight the text if they really want to be spoiled.

    Traffic Sources

    This is another new section, although many parts were pulled from other parts of the older version.

    They have changed the part regarding those who are getting traffic through online advertising.  It used to read:

    Publishers using online advertising to drive traffic to pages showing Google ads must comply with the spirit of Google’s Landing Page Quality Guidelines. For instance, if you advertise for sites participating in the AdSense program, the advertising should not be deceptive to users.

    Now it is changed to:

    Receive traffic from online advertising unless the site complies with the spirit of Google’s Landing Page Quality Guidelines. For instance, users should be able to easily find what your ad promises.

    However, the “users should be able to easily find what your ad promises” obviously leaves much open to interpretation!  So if someone is advertising a Rachael Ray diet, does this mean the landing page must also say it is the Rachael Ray diet?  Because as many of us know who are plagued with these kind of ads, the landing pages (many which include AdSense) definitely don’t.  Same with those who are advertising on millions of random keywords ala eBay.  Technically, anyone advertising on keywords leading to a very generic landing page could be affected.

    Ad Behavior

    Same as before, from other parts of the old policy.

    Ad Placement

    This section is primarily the same, with two key additions.  They are :

    Google ads, search boxes, or search results may not be:

    • Placed on pages whose content or URL could confuse users into thinking it is associated with Google due to the misuse of logos, trademarks, or other brand features.
    • Placed on, within, or alongside other Google products or services in a manner that violates the policies of that product or service.

    Again, another one of those things that could affect a lot of publishers that have *any* Google product name or service in their URLs or on their pages.  It will be worth watching to see how Google handles this, although this was covered in the previous terms, just not the policies, and we have seen publishers with AdSense or Google in the domain name have ad serving turned off.

    Site Behavior

    Same as before, from other parts of the old policy.

    Competitive Ads and Services

    The wording is slightly changed, but not affecting the meaning.

    Google Advertising Cookies

    Again, primarily the same, with the emphasis on the need of having a privacy policy.

    Product-Specific Policies

    The subsection about AdSense for Search has been changed quite a bit.  It now reads:

    A maximum of two Google AdSense for search boxes may be placed per page. Also, a single link unit or a search box, but no other Google ads, may be placed on pages with AdSense for search results. Queries must originate from users inputting data directly into the search box and cannot be modified. This includes pre-populating the search box with terms or hard-coding direct links to search results pages. AdSense for search code may not be integrated into any software application such as a toolbar.

    This definitely clears up about using AdSense for Search in any kind of program, such as a toolbar or plugin.  Worth noting is the search results page can also have an added search box.

    Other removals from older policies

    There were more parts removed from the older policy, all related to the now defunct AdSense referrals.

    And that’s (finally) all, folks!

    And because many publishers did not get a copy of the email from Google (including me!) about the new AdSense terms, here is a copy of it.

    If you’ve checked the AdSense program policies page today, you’ve probably noticed that we’ve just made a few small updates. We’d like to take a moment to clarify what’s been changed.

    The first thing you might notice when you visit the program policies page is that we’ve revamped the look. Based on your feedback, we’ve reorganized the content and updated the layout to make it easier to read and navigate. We’ve highlighted some key information for each policy, and added expandable ‘Learn more’ sections that you can click for more detailed information. Also, we’ve grouped together policies that are specific to only AdSense for content or AdSense for search.

    There are also a few updates to the content of the program policies, which we’ve outlined below:

    • Google brand violations: This policy has always existed in our Terms and Conditions, but we’ve now brought it directly to the ‘Ad Placement’ section of the program policies page so that it’s easier to find. According to this policy, we don’t allow ads or search boxes to be placed on pages which misuse Google logos, trademarks, or other brand features in the page content or URL, and which could mislead users into thinking the page is associated with Google.
    • Deceptive implementations: We’ve clarified this policy a bit in the ‘Encouraging Clicks’ section of the program policies – ads may not be formatted in a way that makes them indistinguishable from other content on the page where they appear.
    • Ad placement in emails and email programs: This updated policy clarifies that Google ads , search boxes, and search results may not be placed in emails, as well as alongside emails.
    • Other Google products’ policies: With this new policy, publishers aren’t permitted to place ads, search boxes, or search results on, within, or alongside other Google products in a way that violates the policies of that other product or service. For instance, this would include placing ads on sites which allow users to download YouTube videos, which isn’t permitted by the YouTube Terms of Service.

    Finally, we’ve added more information to the ‘Webmaster Guidelines’ section and created a new ‘Traffic Sources’ section. Whether you regularly review the program policies or haven’t reviewed them since you signed up for AdSense, we encourage you to visit the program policies page and check out the updates.

    It is also on the Inside AdSense Blog.

    So what does everyone think of the new changes?  I must admit when I started diving into them, I was surprised at a few of the changes, including the addition of the “Sites with Google ads may not include or link to” part.  That could have huge implication for publishers, especially those who have already taken payments for those links to run for X months. 

    And the blending one is going to raise all kinds of questions about what is too blended and what is ok, especially since CTR is at stake.

    Then the information-rich policy will be fun to watch to see how it affects the spammier “crap content” Made for AdSense (MFA) sites out there.

    I am going to see if I can get some clarification from Google on some of the new policies that leave a lot open to interpretation, and I will post updates as I get them.  I will also twitter @jenstar any updates.  And if any AdSense Policy team member wants to contact me directly so I can get clarification, I’d appreciate it :)

    JenSense Pro Members: Forum thread here (if you are not a member, you can request a beta invite here)

    I couldn’t find any forum threads on either WebmasterWorld or Digital Point when I posted this.  Hat tip to netmeg for sending me a copy of the email that I didn’t get :)

    Update: I have received clarification from Google on a number of the above concerns.

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