The Yahoos at Yahoo

by Randy Cassingham

The Cranky Customer web site has (at least, at the time of this posting*), ads on it from Yahoo. They're a hybrid between trying to match the content of the pages and an attempt to match the more general interests of the reader. I got into a big argument over the latter part with Yahoo not too long ago, regarding the ads on the crank on this site against "Hello Direct": all the ads were for -- you guessed it -- Hello Direct!

This has significant implications for any ad-supported web site, and the entire "pay per click" ad industry.

I told the Yahoo customer support people that it was entirely inappropriate for there to be Hello Direct ads on a rant about how much Hello Direct sucks! Why would anyone want to immediately do business with them after reading such a horrible cautionary tale? No, any clicks on such ads would be much more likely to be an attempt by the readers to punish the company for being so lousy, and how does that serve their customers, who were (in this case) Hello Direct and its affiliates? It doesn't; inappropriate clicks just hurts the pay-per-click industry, which in the long run hurts the web sites that depend on it for revenue to keep the sites going.

I tried to get them to stop trying to be "relevant" to the page content (which said "Hello Direct" all over it) and rather put up categories of ads that I specify -- which is, in fact, a feature of the "Yahoo Publisher's Network" ad system. Yet despite my attempts at such targeting, all I got was Hello Direct ads. I pointed this out to Yahoo. The response:

Your site has no content to merit the ad targeting category that you have selected, therefore the content from the site will drive the ad targeting. Please note that the advertisers that pay for these ads request that the page has content relevant to their ads.

Then why, I asked, are they allowing me to specify an ad category?! Isn't the entire point of being able to specify ad targeting to be able to target the ads to the visitors' interests and specifically not the content of the page the ads are on? If the ads have to reflect the content, then what is the purpose of the category targeting? And if the only reason people would click on the so-called "content-targeted" ads is to punish the advertiser, isn't that totally, completely wrong?

The answer:

Your site has no content to merit the ad targeting category that you have selected, therefore the content from the site will drive the ad targeting. Please note that the advertisers that pay for these ads request that the page has content relevant to their ads.

Sigh! I truly hate it when "support" types use boilerplates to "answer" a question, especially wrongly. But it's moronic to do it again when one points out why it didn't answer the question the first time.

I did finally get a supervisor to call me on the phone to increase the bandwidth. While he started out with an unbeliveably condescending "let me explain this to you again, sir" attitude, he did finally seem to "get it" and agreed to pass my "suggestion" on. Gee, thanks for letting me explain why the ads have to matter to the readers in order for them to be a viable long-term way to fund not only the site, but "relevant" ads in general for the entire "pay per click" industry! I've since found that some categories do work, even if others don't, so I've been able to mostly be rid of the ads based on page content.

Now, if that was my only beef with Yahoo Publisher's Network, well, it wouldn't be a very good crank, would it?

So today I get an e-mail from them on an entirely different topic:

The Yahoo! Publisher Network beta program Terms & Conditions were modified this past weekend. The new version of the Terms & Conditions contains several updates, and we encourage you to review it at [lengthy URL snipped] as your continued participation in the Yahoo! Publisher Network beta program constitutes acceptance of the modified Terms & Conditions.

Fair enough: there's a change in the T&C? You bet they should notify program participants!

Yet two things were wrong: First, the URL didn't work! Clicking on the lengthy URL, which is apparently a tracking URL to see who clicked on it and when, brought up an error page. (The problem: an extraneous comma at the end of the URL, which "broke it".) Now, you'd think top-notch industry-leading professionals would know not only how to create a proper URL but also to test it before sending it out to tens of thousands of people! But nah: that's apparently just too much trouble when it's a mere legal notice! But the second part is what really makes me cranky: the "correct" URL, which I reached just fine by removing the comma at the end, was merely a complete restatement of the now-edited terms and conditions -- 25K of text, 4,135 words of legalese (according to my text editor) with absolutely no indication of what had changed. (Sample of their almost laughable lawyer language: "4. Implementation. If there is any conflict between these implementation requirements and a Policy, you should comply with the Policy instead, but only to the extent of the conflict.")

What, I'm supposed to be able to do a scan of this and determine what has changed in this lawyer-dictated homage to War and Peace and be able to discern what's different from the last version -- which of course is no longer online? Who are they kidding? Yeah, no doubt there's someone out there who did it and posted the differences on some PPC-watch blog, and maybe even explained their significance. But now I have to find who did it, where they posted it, and try to figure out if they really have a clue about what it means, adding all sorts of biased interpretation, because Yahoo was too freaking lazy to identify what the changes were, and explain them if necessary, rather than leave it up to third parties. Great. Thanks, Yahoo.

Why should Yahoo bother with that extra step? This is why: If Yahoo wants to attract publishers away from the much-stronger Google Adsense program, they need to go the extra mile and show why their program is better. For this site, I chose YPN over Adsense because of that "category targeting" I explained at the top. It makes no sense whatever for YPN to try to deliver ads for Dell Computer on a page that rants about how lousy Dell's service is; it does make sense to have, say, Income Tax Preparation Service ads show up when everyone is gearing up to do their tax returns, and travel ads to show up at the start of the summer vacation period. Yahoo: if you want to be better than the competition, you've got to try harder. Avis Rent-a-Car understood that decades ago.

But more widely, this isn't only about Yahoo; many big companies expect users to read and agree to lengthy Terms & Conditions that it'd take a second-year legal student to understand, and that's bad enough. To then make a change (or 12) to those T&Cs and not say what has changed is way too common in the online industry. Some do a much better job at it, including the much-maligned PayPal, which is very specific about what changed. If the leader in online payments can do it, why can't #2 in "pay per click" ads do it when they're struggling mightily to unseat the 800-pound gorilla -- especially when the 1,600-pound gorilla (MSN) is warming up their own competing ad system? Indeed, why can't everyone do it? It's not too much to ask.

*Update: The outrage grows: see the March 23 comment to this posting!


Randy Cassingham is the publisher of This is True, the curator of the popular joke site, Jumbo Joke, and is the founder of Cranky Customer.

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For your amusement:

I once looked up information about "Catholic Priest misconduct" and found a website with such info.

On the right side of the screen were ads, one of which was from Ebay, informing me that "Catholic Priest Misconduct" is available on Ebay!!!

I know those things are computer generated, but I am amazed there are no "stop" words, such as "misconduct".

I'm a little confused as to why the earlier commenter thought that it was common sense to just block the ads, and not the whole website from international surfers. Sheesh. Now, in all honesty, I'm not the webmaster of our site, but I am fairly certain that it would be beyond trouble to create a page for international surfers to view that didn't have the ads, than it would be to just keep all international sufers off the site.

But I'm even more baffled as to why anyone would want to limit their advertising to just the U.S.A. to begin with. The more people who see an ad, the more people who are likely to click on the ad, therefore the more customers the company is likely to get. If the company is really only useful to Americans, and they are concerned about paying too much per click, then they really shouldn't be advertising on the *World Wide* Web to begin with. That Yahoo is catering to the (I'm suspecting VERY few) people who are that concerned about international clicks, is just sad. I'm guessing that if most advertisers found out that Yahoo was limiting the access to their ads to only U.S. surfers, they'd be appalled themselves.

After reading your rant and the many comments that followed, I would like to point out that this is not a problem with just Yahoo or, in fact, the Internet. I have been noticing a general decline in customer service from just about every company in America...or at least the ones I have dealt with over the past 5 or 6 years.

From the local grocery store and utilities company to Yahoo and Dell (and, of course, don't get me started on our politicians), I am amazed at how frequently I have to restate an issue (often more than once) before getting an answer that isn't a canned response or that actually addresses the issue. I fail to see why so many customer service people refuse to address the concerns of their customers when they are clearly written.

These companies, I believe, may be better off not having customer service departments! I have gotten to the point that after the second rephrase (or "spelling things out" like you were talking with a 4-year old), I send a nasty message asking if they learned their insane rambling in college or if a supervisor trained them to ignore their customer's actual questions.

It is unfortunate that it should come to such a condencending note, but the truly amazing (and sad) thing is that this is usually the only way to get them to actually answer a concern fully and without a canned response that does nothing to answer a concern. I would much rather these people behaved like the now rare CS agents that take the time to answer a question fully the first time or, at least, ask questions in response if they are unsure of the original problem or question.

Then, too, you have the companies that just don't even bother to reply (Dell - despite 3 attempts), but that is another story.

Kevin, you've reasonably succinctly stated why I started this site in the first place. Customer Service should matter to companies. For too many companies, it doesn't. If it takes shaming them in public to get them to improve, I'm all for it. My goal is for this web site to have no need to exist. We have a long way to go. -rc

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