Search Arbitrage — Let’s End It

Why should search arbitrage still be an issue in 2015? It can be hard to detect, but could the problem simply be that search engines make money from it?

Search (or pay per click) arbitrage is the practice of purchasing low cost paid search ads to send people to a web page featuring search ads for higher cost keywords. The profit comes from the higher returns the sites concerned earn when people click on more expensive hosted ads.

Arbitragers tend to focus on verticals where generic terms have relatively high CPCs (financial services, in particular) and where the difference between the price for a brand name (or other low-cost keyword) and higher cost generic terms is greatest.

This past week, we’ve been working to resolve an arbitrage issue affecting one of our clients. Companies had started bidding on our client’s brand name (as well as those of some competitors) on Bing, and they were also using trademarked brand names in their ads.

Landing pages for these ads prominently (and in some cases, exclusively) featured higher cost Google search ads. Following is the landing page that was being used for our client’s brand name:


Click on a “related link” and you were taken to this page, featuring ads for car insurance provided by Google:

insurancecomparingrate 2

Working with Bing, we were able to identify and remove some of the offenders, as the ads violated the company’s landing page and site content quality policies. Bing’s policy states that “Landing page and site content should not function primarily to support the display of advertising or attract traffic”. And that sites or landing pages “may be considered low-quality content if they…display a high density of advertising above the fold, and/or consist significantly of advertising or links”. Google’s policies also discourage arbitrage, prohibiting “driving traffic (whether through “arbitrage” or otherwise) to destinations with more ads than original content, little or no original content, or excessive advertising”.

But the issue is still to be completely resolved. The arbitragers are no longer using our client’s brand name in ads – but ads are still shown on brand-related searches. When one site is removed, another appears.

And we’ve had no success yet in removing ads from two companies that have long practiced search arbitrage: Ask.com and About.com, both IAC properties. Here the Bing/Yahoo! relationship has proved a complication, in that although the ads are shown on Bing they have been sold by Yahoo!

Ask and About are Google Search Partner sites who receive a direct XML feed of search results from Google. As Google pays them a more generous percentage in CPC earnings than are paid to AdSense partners, there can be considerable profit in purchasing Bing ads, where the cost for a brand term is likely to be a fraction of that they earn from Google for clicks on more competitive terms.

Ask has been in the arbitrage business for several years now. When called to task for the practice in 2008, the company blamed their search marketing vendor. After a 2014 Search Engine Land article (Will Ask.com Google Arbitrage Ever Stop?), Ask CEO Doug Leeds responded, justifying the practice as “the marketing of our collective businesses – high quality articles on millions of subjects – through search engines..”

Certainly, since most online content relies on advertising for revenue, the question as to what consitutes good or high quality content is a subjective one. Clickbait networks such as Buzzfeed, Outbrain, Taboola and Upworthy attract plenty of visitors, and could perhaps claim that in so doing they provide a valuable service. But we doubt that even they would claim to have high-quality content.

What good really is an Ask.com search results page or an About.com page of article links when, after a brand search, the consumer is expecting to see that brand’s website or information about that brand? What use is there in sending brand searchers from one page full of brand-related search results (on Bing) to generic search results (on Ask)?

What’s Google’s role in all this? The company facilitates search arbitrage when it fails to apply its advertising terms and conditions equitably. And, if Google’s serious about improving web experience, it needs to tackle poor and thin content in its ad distribution network with as much rigour as it has its organic search results. (Ironically, Panda 4.0 hit Ask.com organic listings particularly hard for having poor content, but Google has not stopped serving AdWords ads to those same pages).

Why should you care?

If you’ve seen a hefty increase in your Brand name CPCs, it’s most likely due to competitor bidding — perhaps, but not necessarily, by search arbitragers.

Both Google and Bing allow bidding on competitor brands but you can take steps to regain control of your brand.

– In addition to bidding on your own brand terms, use distinguishing content in your ad copy (use a trademark symbol, or use language such as “official site”).
– Make sure you are using Site Links and other ad extensions to help your brand ads stand out in the clutter.
– Be sure to include your brand name in your display URL.
– Report any ads that direct users to poor quality landing pages (such as those shown above) where the obvious intent is arbitrage.

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About the Author Jeremy Templer

Jeremy is a Partner and Senior Consultant at SureFire. Jeremy has been working in search since 1996, when he joined the Australian search engine, LookSmart. After relocating to San Francisco, he was instrumental in the development of the company’s paid search ad platform. At analytics company Coremetrics (now owned by IBM) he established an in-house search agency managing campaigns for Coremetrics clients such as Macy’s, Bass Pro and Lands End. At Acxiom he managed members of the pioneering SEO firm Marketleap and worked with clients such as Capital One, American General Finance and Kaiser Health. Joining SureFire in 2009, he is the head of Paid Search Advertising and oversees the delivery of AdWords and other PPC campaigns. He also helps clients make sense of their website data.