That's bad enough - but the real darling of interactive for the past two years has been Search, of course. And Search is quantified on clicks - not cookies. Search - or SEM, more precisely - has been responsible for the lion's share of the increase in online ad spending during the past two years, no matter how you slice it.
But, as Cory Treffiletti wrote this week, we do make things difficult for ourselves, don't we? SEM is under serious fire these days. And even if only some of these salvos hit the target, the impact implies losses in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
If AdAware, SpyBot and others can demonize the relatively harmless cookie, BlowSearch and others can do the same to the credibility of SEM results. The NY-based Meta-Search company aggregates the listings from other engines and indemnifies the results against click-fraud. Their PR efforts have been impressive, with representatives claiming that click fraud is far worse a problem than has been feared. (Fear makes for great marketing - just ask Greenpeace - who effectively ended commercial nuclear power in the US after an accident in which nobody even got sick). Blowsearch is attempting to paint Google, et al. into a corner that they will have to paint their way out of by proving a negative in an issue they haven't even taken much notice of publicly yet.
I've praised each of these Search properties in this space for their PR acumen, especially Google. So, I'm really looking forward to their response to this threat from the standing start represented by their ostrich posture today (head in sand). With coverage on this issue having appeared in the Wall Street Journal Online as well as in Wired Magazine just this week, I think it's safe to say that the big three engines will all begin to take notice more actively now.
It had better be a serious effort by Google, Yahoo! and MSN to allay advertisers' fears about click fraud, or else this growing issue could become a PR nightmare - or worse.
"The search engines and paid-search networks are going to have to go public soon with a strong PR push with evidence that they take this problem seriously," said Greg Sterling of The Kelsey Group. "They absolutely need to assert that they are vigilantly and diligently protecting the integrity of the system - as well as their advertisers' interests."
Today, if you run any one of these company's SEM operation, the last thing you'd ever do would be to admit that click fraud was a serious problem. That's the job of the growing number of companies that are building businesses around the promise of knowing which clicks are legitimate
These companies have names like ClickDetective, WhosClickingWho, (shouldn't it be WhosClickingWhom?) and Click Defense. They monitor the sites of companies who hire them as adjunct to their SEM campaigns, garnering data on web users' visits and forms that are completed - or not. But, if you spent $10K on an SEM campaign last month, and one of these companies told you that $4K was fraudulently billed, that wouldn't carry much weight at any of the major Search Engines.
At this point, as the sell-side holds all the power in Search and flexes its muscles by telling SEM firms that they need to increase buy-levels by 10% quarter on quarter just to keep their service levels up to date, we may be coming to an interesting segue. Watch what happens in the click fraud class action filed by Lane's Gifts and Collectables back in February. Go ahead - type that phrase into your preferred Search engine window right now.