Google gets gruff over click fraud

Search giant files suit claiming Net operation fraudulently clicked on text ads for profits, one of the first such civil cases.

Google filed a lawsuit against an Internet operation that it claims systematically clicked on text ads to defraud its advertising network.

The case, filed Nov. 15 in the Superior Court of Santa Clara County in California, is among the first civil lawsuits to relate to click fraud. The lawsuit charges that Texas-based Auctions Expert International signed up to display Google's targeted text advertising on its Web site, and then fraudulently clicked on the ads to profit from its pay-per-click system.

"Because advertisers pay Google for each click on their advertisements, Google strives to ensure that each click is generated by a user legitimately interested in accessing the site being advertised," according to the complaint.

"Defendants...flagrantly abused (Google's service) by artificially and/or fraudulently generating ad clicks," the filing says. "These clicks were worthless to advertisers, but generated significant and unjust revenue for defendants."

Mountain View, Calif.-based Google did not say how much money was lost, but the company is seeking compensatory and punitive damages to be determined at trial.

As old as Internet advertising itself, click fraud is the practice of inflating traffic to advertisements or Web sites for profit. It has proliferated as Google, Overture Services and others have built multibillion-dollar, pay-per-click ad services that pair sponsored listings with related search results. With each click of a sponsored text link, they collect fees from advertisers, and then often share that revenue with publishing partners that display those ads.

The fraud is perpetrated in both automated and human ways. The most common method is the use of online robots, or "bots," programmed to click on advertisers' links that are displayed on Web sites or listed in search queries. A growing alternative employs low-cost workers who are hired in China, India and other countries to click on text links and other ads. A third form of fraud takes place when employees of companies click on rivals' ads to deplete their marketing budgets and skew search results.

According to Google's complaint, Auctions Expert erected its Web site and signed up for its Adsense programs with the sole intention of generating false clicks and collecting advertiser fees.

Click fraud is an elephant in the room of the search-advertising market, the fastest-growing sector of online advertising. While no one is certain of how much money is generated fraudulently, some executives in the industry estimate losses account for 5 percent to 20 percent of total sales. Some suspect the problem is growing, too, as Google, Overture and others syndicate their ads to small or international publishers that can be hard to police.

Unlike advertising in traditional media such as billboards and print publications, "cost per click" Internet ads displayed with

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