Google says click fraud settlement near

Under proposed $90 million settlement, Google would give ad credits for fraudulent clicks on ads dating back to 2002.

Elinor Mills Former Staff Writer
Elinor Mills covers Internet security and privacy. She joined CNET News in 2005 after working as a foreign correspondent for Reuters in Portugal and writing for The Industry Standard, the IDG News Service and the Associated Press.
Elinor Mills
4 min read
Under a proposed $90 million settlement of a class-action lawsuit over alleged click fraud, Google said Wednesday that it would offer advertising credits to marketers who claim they were charged for invalid clicks and not reimbursed.

The total amount of credits, including attorneys' fees, will max out at $90 million, Nicole Wong, associate general counsel at Google, wrote in a Google blog posting.

The lawsuit, filed in February 2005 in state court in Texarkana, Ark., accused the defendant search engines of charging advertisers for clicks on online advertisements that were fraudulent or done in bad faith and not with the intention of legitimate commerce. The lawsuit was filed by Lane's Gifts and Collectibles and Caulfield Investigations against Google, Yahoo, Time Warner and its America Online and Netscape subsidiaries, Lycos, FindWhat.com, now known as Miva Media, Buena Vista Internet Group doing business as Go.com, LookSmart and Ask Jeeves, now known as Ask.com.

"This agreement covers all advertisers who claim to have been charged but not reimbursed for invalid clicks dating from 2002 when we launched our 'cost per click' advertising program through the date the settlement is approved by the judge," Wong wrote.

Currently, advertisers have 60 days to seek a credit for clicks they believe are fraudulent.

"Under the agreement with the plaintiffs, we are going to open up that window for all advertisers, regardless of when the questionable clicks occurred," the posting said. "For all eligible invalid clicks, we will offer credits which can be used to purchase new advertising with Google."

The attorneys' fees, to be determined by the judge, will be charged as an expense, most likely in the first quarter, Wong wrote. The credits will be recorded as a reduction to revenue during the quarters in which they are redeemed, she said.

Though Google and the plaintiffs have come to an agreement, a judge must approve it for it to be final, she said. The details are confidential but will become public when it is formally filed to the court, she said.

"By far, most invalid clicks are caught by our automatic filters and discarded before they reach an advertiser's bill," Wong wrote. "And for the clicks that are not caught in advance, advertisers can notify Google and ask for reimbursement. We investigate those clicks, and if we determine they were invalid, we reimburse advertisers for them. We will continue to do that, and believe that this settlement is further proof of our willingness to work together with advertisers to reimburse invalid clicks."

George McWilliams, one of the lawyers for the plaintiffs, said he could not comment on the details.

"It is our understanding that Google has announced today that a $90 million settlement has been reached in connection with the click fraud litigation pending in Miller County, Arkansas, Circuit Court," McWilliams, of the firm of Patton Roberts McWilliams & Capshaw in Texarkana, Texas, said in a phone interview. "Because the settlement is not final and must be approved by Circuit Judge Joe Griffin, we are not able to comment about the details about it at this time."

A representative for Ask.com said the company was named as a defendant in the lawsuit "as a result of our syndication relationship with Google for their Google sponsored listings, not as a result of our Ask.com sponsored listings product. Google has been handling defense of the lawsuit, and we expect to be covered by the settlement as well."

An AOL representative said the company had no comment on the case. Representatives from Yahoo, Lycos, LookSmart, Go.com and Miva could not be reached for comment or did not immediately return calls seeking comment.

A legal expert who has been following the case said the settlement would be a good deal for Google.

"So with the settlement, Google effectively eliminates its entire legacy liability for click fraud for $90 (million), only a portion of which is out-of-pocket cash. Given that the click fraud has been estimated in the billions, a $90 (million) settlement sounds like an excellent deal," Eric Goldman, assistant professor of law at Marquette University Law School, wrote on his blog.

"Unfortunately, the settlement doesn't appear to resolve the basic question of what constitutes click fraud and when search engines are on the hook for it," he said. "On that front, Google still will have an advertiser relations issue that needs further attention."

Anywhere from 5 percent to 20 percent or more of clicks on Internet ads are fraudulent, according to estimates. Click fraud can be conducted by companies that want to rack up advertising costs for rivals or by Web site publishers who want to increase the amount of revenue they get from hosting ads on their site.