Is There A Deception In the Google Ad System?

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As I was writing my previous article for SEJ, I conducted several experiments during which I stumbled across few troubling issues with Google’s methods. One such behavior is a serious issue in terms of customer awareness, which may be considered  border-line fraudulent. Make no mistake, my intention is not to become the Ralph Nader for Google customers, but something at this scale is worth my time and yours too.

Google Instant

Dollars, time, and cents

Before getting into the issue, let me remind you of some basic definitions:

Instant Result-Streaming:

Instant Result-Streaming is what Google does when you start typing a query (longer than a single word), and before you finish it, search results are streamed to the front page. This all happens very quickly before you click on the search button, or sometimes you don’t even have to click on the button. Google calls it “Google Instant”.


CTR (Click Through Ratio) is a measurement that indicates how many times your advertisement was shown versus how many times it was clicked by the user. For example, if your advertisement was shown (impression) 100 times, and it was clicked by the end user twice, the CTR for that ad would be 2%.

The Problem:

The problem is that Instant Result-Streaming (Google Instant) is eating up impressions before the users get ample time to view the page, and automatically decreasing CTR because no one will click on those ads present. In other words, you (advertiser in Google) are paying extra for a feature Google uses to increase its appeal. You’ll find below an example how this occurs:

My query is “auto insurance coverage in New York”. With this question in mind, I start typing. But, as soon as I finish the first word “auto” and before I start typing the second word “insurance” results are streamed with ads. Here is the screen capture:

Google Instant

Consider: This preleminary streaming result rapidly transposes as you type

Now, keep in mind you are comfortably viewing this screen capture with ample time because this is a blog page, not a search page. However, in real Google Instant time, as I continue typing with the complete query in my mind, I will not pay attention to this page any longer. It flashes within a fraction of a second before I start typing the 2nd word. Therefore, the impressions by AutoZone and Advanced Auto Parts are totally wasted. Here is my second word screen capture:

Google Instant money maker

Again, while still typing my real query more impressions go by.

Again, I will not pay attention to this page either because I am still typing. Impressions by State Farm, Geico, and Travelers are wasted. Now the 4th word:

Google Instant impression loss

More lost opportunities

State Farm gets another hit along with Maureen Lavelle and MetLife. I am still typing:

Google Instant

The survivors show up with only wasted impressions in their wake

Now I am finished. I am looking at the page, and I have ample time to decide what to do like any other Google user. The top ads State Farm, Geico, and Travelers survived. However, they survived at the expense of few wasted impressions along the way. In addition, the other advertisers like MetLife, or Maureen Lavelle are no longer on the screen. Their impressions were totally wasted.

Google does not give infinite impressions. The number of impressions are directly proportional to bidding, thus the advertiser is paying for it.

Before declaring it as DECEPTION, I have the following questions for Google (if they honor SEJ readers by answering).

  • Do the impressions in Google ads have a timer such that an exposure less than, say 5 seconds, would not count as an impression?
  • If the answer is “no” to the above, then comes the next question: Are Google’s customers presented with an explanation that some of the impressions could be part of Google Instant operation, with extremely low probability to be clicked? I did not find such information on Google’s ad system myself, but it is possible it exists in some form.

If one of the answers above is YES, then the Google Ad system is still not off the hook. This is because of the CTR problem, which will be lower with Google Instant than without it. But we can no longer call this problem a deception. However, it stands to reason that if both of the answers above is NO, then this is a deception.

I checked the Internet to see if this problem had ever been addressed, and yes,  in fact it has. One blog ( explains this issue focused on its effect on the CTR. The fact that the issue was already published on blogs provoked me further. It told me that the answers to both questions above are most likely “NO”. I was sad to see how people are taking an “accepting” position and trying to offer some Micky-Mouse solutions.

It is not my personal interest to find flaws in Google, I just stumbled upon it, and was astonished with the degree of disrespect Google has developed over the years for their core clientele, who are the bread and butter of Google. With this mentality in place, I would not be surprised to see some class-action suit against Google down the road. I strongly recommend that Google takes this issue seriously and finds a remedy showing their fairness. Here is the simplest solution:


Photo credit: Google time versus money mashup – courtesy © fontriel and © Michael Flippo Fotolia. 

Note: The opinions expressed in this article are the views of the author, and not necessarily the views of Search Engine Journal, its staff, or its partners.

Riza Berkan
A nuclear physicist by training, Dr. Berkan worked on artificial intelligence, fuzzy logic, and semantics over the past two decades with emphasis on search and dialogue systems. In his own words, his main interest is "the bridge between technology, which is solving problems without understanding them, and science which is understanding problems without actually solving them."
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  • Mike Wheatley

    I suspect Google were hoping no one would notice. Oh dear…

  • benny profane

    I think that Google communicated on this issue.
    There is a threshold: it’s just 3 seconds and not 5

    • Mihaela Lica Butler

      I don’t think 3 or 5 seconds are enough. It is still deceiving for advertisers. Slow typists will never notice (nor care). Besides, the article you linked doesn’t address the question. Search queries are not CTR.

      • benny profane

        Maybe it is too short, but you have to admit that Google does address the issue.
        Search queries generate impressions which are the denominator of CTR.

        Excerpt from my link:
        “Impressions are measured in three ways with Google Instant:

        1. Your site is displayed in search results as a response to a user’s completed query (e.g. by pressing “enter” or selecting a term from autocomplete). This is the traditional model.

        With Google Instant, we also measure impressions in these new cases:

        2. The user begins to type a term on Google and clicks on a link on the page, such as a search result, ad, or a related search.

        3. The user stops typing, and the results are displayed for a minimum of 3 seconds.”

        I think point 3 speaks for itself

      • Gavin Hudson

        Google can’t make everybody happy all the time, but I admire them for their honest try to do the best they can. 3 seconds is perfectly reasonable. If you type slower than one character per 3 seconds, you probably don’t use the internet (or the computer) much. Also, advertisers have the choice between paying per click (PPC) or per thousand impressions (PPM).

    • Mihaela Lica Butler

      Google only addresses the issue for experts. And again, CTR is not synonymous with impressions. And 3 seconds for slow bandwidth and slow typists are not enough. The real problem is that CTRs are used by Google to determine QUALITY SCORES which can affect costs and ad position. I believe Google should be more transparent about these issues. There is no clear tutorial or article addressing this. It’s time for Google to address the questions.

      • benny profane

        CTR = clicks/impressions.
        If your impressions increase and your clicks don’t, your CTR will fall,
        But this will only happen if your ad appears and you stop typing for 3 seconds…
        It’s not perfect, but it IS out there…

      • Mihaela Lica Butler

        That’s the issue, Benny. The fact that it is not perfect hurts advertisers. CTR determines how much each advertiser pays for AdWords. You see now why impressions vs. CTR are so important? You and I may have very fast browsers, and Internet connections, but the average users (usually) don’t. Can you see the stop watch though? What I mean is: the 3 seconds gap is not enough. Google has factored this in, when they launched instant search – which was a brilliant way to increase ROI. But let’s face it, it was not designed to bring any advantage for advertisers. On the contrary. If you don’t know what you are doing in AdWords, you end up wasting a lot of money. See where I am going?

    • Riza Berkan

      Is this an official Google site elaborating the issue? I searched through the Google AdWords system, and could not locate anything.

      • benny profane

        It is an official blog for Google.
        I agree with you though: it could have appeared in the AdWords help

  • Sebastian

    Google adressed this in a blogpost after the introduction of Google Instant, here’s the interesting part:

    Impressions are measured in three ways with Google Instant:

    ” With Google Instant, we also measure impressions in these new cases:

    The user begins to type a term on Google and clicks on a link on the page, such as a search result, ad, or a related search.

    The user stops typing, and the results are displayed for a minimum of 3 seconds. ”


    • Riza Berkan

      Again. Is this an official Google site? The fact that it says “OFFICIAL” on the page does not tell me this is Google. I want to see something printed at I do not think Google has run out of disk space at to publish information on this issue. 🙂

  • Sam

    Google has addressed this issue –

    They have a timer of three seconds once you have stopped typing before an impression is counted. An impression will also be counted if the user hits enter or “search” or if they click any link on the screen. Otherwise an impression is not counted.

    • Riza Berkan

      In the Link you put here, I did not see any reference to 3 second rule. Why is this crucial information is too hard to find? Now 2 comments on this blog with links suggested, still I cannot see anything from Google on this matter. May be it will show up here eventually. Thanks for the comments.

      • Sam

        The link is under the drop down entitled “Google Instant and your ads”. It’s at the bottom.

  • Riza Berkan
  • riza berkan

    3 seconds rule, although it has been printed like the small print in credit card agreement forms, changes my initial position from deception question to insult question. I personally had tough time to find the information. The reading speed of a human is very limited. In 3 seconds, between typing querry words, no one will have enough time to view the flashing pages. It is also reported that CTRs have been lower since this feature, which supports the assessment. I suggested 5 seconds in the article, which is still too short. If the CTRs are reportedly lowered, then may be Google’s timer is not working. Bottom line, impression count is money, very important issue. Google is making money via unfair practice. The fact that they are somewhat saying it outloud changes the title of my article to “IS GOOGLE AD SYSTEM INSULTING?”

  • Douglas Karr

    Oh… were we actually supposed to believe Google’s impression data?

  • Kristen Nicole

    I trust no one!

  • Matt Jeter

    This should be just as much about the quality of these Google Instant generated impressions as it is about the timing of the impressions. Rather than argue how many seconds is fair time to engage via Google Instant, I am more concerned that I am paying for impressions that don’t align with my keywords. The example given charges Autozone with an impression while “Auto Parts” is clearly not the user’s search intent.

  • Sanju

    this thing never came into my mind, i saw this happening a lot of times but never bothered to think on it..
    great job!!

  • Bruce M. Clay

    Which begs the SEO question, does the Webmaster Tools average position also change then after 3 seconds? There are organic listings being viewed as well so I would suspect these have some form of similar rules for reporting average position with instant.

  • Totio Filipov

    I don’t think Google are that greedy to rip people off in such an obvious way. As I was reading the information provided by Google, I am almost satisfied that there is at least something to prevent a waste of impressions. And I kind of don’t believe that a giant like Google would not think of that problem either. However, I am sure Google are ripping people off in other ways but this is not the topic of conversation here.

    • Riza Berkan

      This is not about character assassination of Google. We are not interested in finding out what type of greed they harbor. This is about CONSUMER AWARENESS. Not different than buying a car and being notified by the manufacturer about faulty steering wheel. Other industries are far ahead, they have the RECALL mechanism in place as a result of several class-action law suits. Insurance companies went through the same evolution. Recently credit card companies have had their share of class action law suits for their deceptive practices. If Google keeps this attitude, they will attract more regulation, class action law suits, etc. It will finally knock on Google’s door.

      • Totio Filipov

        You are totally right about the deception. I sometimes can’t believe how some companies just get away with it and it always seems to be the big ones.

  • Jeff Crabb

    I have been wondering about that for a while. I appreciated your comment, and here is what I found on Google’s end. Although I still agree that 3 seconds is still too short, I think it should be extended to 5 seconds, but at least they do have a time constraint on it.

    • Riza Berkan

      The time constraint will only be acceptable if the CTRs go back to what they were before this feature was added. Is it 5 seconds? or 25 seconds? Google has to find out herself. Google has to clean its act and say ” we do not make money from ad impressions that are logically impossible to be viewed and clicked by normal human beings.”

  • Jeremy

    I don’t see Google Instant as a feature that would hurt advertisers whatsoever, for a number of reasons:

    1) Advertisers aren’t charged for impressions on Google Search so no direct extra cost is accrued by receiving extra “wasted” impressions.

    2) Even if the Google Instant feature results in a reduced CTR, this should not impact quality scores as CTR measurement that is used to define quality score is comparative to your competitors – and given that Google instant effects all advertisers this means that it’s still an even playing field.

    3) A feature like Google Instant promotes a better user experience, which is good for the search engine and therefore good for it’s advertisers.

    To minimize the reduction in CTR you might see from Google Instant, you could always use match types such as broad match modifier, phrase match and exact match to avoid your ad being displayed prematurely.

    • Riza Berkan

      It will lower the CTR so you have to bid higher. Especially for border line campaigns. You need to bid higher to stay float in the system. If you have a long-tail strategy, many bids will suffer from it. Quality scores will be affected depending on the query. If you bid on a term that starts with “auto” you will be more punished compared to if your first word was a brand like “XBOX”. With Auto, your CTR will be more affected than with XBOX.

      • Jeremy

        Why would you need to bid higher though? If you’re receiving a reduced CTR as a result of this feature being implemented, then you won’t be receiving less clicks – only an increase in impressions due to the fact that Google is counting multiple impressions made by a single user.

        As long as your campaign is set up correctly then this really shouldn’t effect quality scores at all. When determining quality score, Google looks at your CTR in comparison to the people you’re competing with on the search engine along with your ad position. Given that all of your competitors are experiencing similar CTR drops as a result of Google Instant, there really shouldn’t be difference in quality score. The only way I can see quality scores and performance taking a significant dive as a result of Instant being implemented would be if your keywords are far too broad and/or you’re overusing broad match.

      • Jeremy

        p.s. I agree that long-tail focused campaigns might see a slight reduction in impressions (and therefore clicks), but that wouldn’t impact CTRs at all.

      • Riza Berkan

        Ok, perhaps I can explain this way. Imagine there are 100 seats in an airplane and everyone is getting tickets based on bidding. Assume you are number 99. You go to the airport, they say “sorry this plane has 80 seats”. What do you do? You bid higher. Like you many people at the border line start a new bidding war. The bidding war trickles upward, every one gets the heat. When the dust settles, there will be less number of people on that plane (80) paying much higher prices. Now, Google advertising is not different than this scenario. When people in the border line are pushed below the success line, they start bidding again. Lowering everyone’s CTR corresponds to reducing the number of seats on a plane. This is basic economics. If you reduce available slots (or products) in an auction prices go up.

  • Kostas Kostalampros

    It would be very gentle to have a formal response to the above query emerged by Riza. Good job, I would never stumbled upon such a serious issue.

    • Riza Berkan

      Thanks for your comment Kostas. The chances of Google responding to this article is very slim. But rest assured, they will have to answer to some regulatory commission one day. Only few people in Google, who has the authority to view their income sheet, know if this new situation is generating more revenue or not. Theoretically speaking, the number of successful ad campaigns in Google are lower now but bidding prices are higher because of wasted impressions. So the net outcome is unknown.

  • Brian

    I think this issue was addressed on practically the same day that this feature was released. I think that was a year or two ago?

  • G

    Hi Riza
    You say that Google’s developed a ‘degree of disrespect’… I’d say that you’re underestimating them – a more accurate summation imho would be a ‘complete contempt’.
    I wonder how much Google Instant added/adds to Google’s bottom line – getting more bidders on fewer terms under the ruse of better usability was a very cunning move.

  • Sertaç Sever

    I think 3 seconds timeout is for “ideal networks” and for “ideal users”. Adwords users for example in developing countries should pay more for less target scenario when comparing to adwords users in USA. Google uses AJAX and waits a action from clients browser. What about client browser, computer , or network cant response to ” Google’s ideal standards ? ” It’s counted as a impression. Imagine mobile networks that their ping times is so fragile and easly can manipulated by enviroment ? By the way this disadvantage is listed in Adword’s contract ?

  • trevor – 5 gallon buckets ideas

    Do we know for sure that partial searches in google instant are actually counted as impressions? It would be interesting to get an official statement from Google on this, obviously if what you are suggesting is true, it’s indefensible.