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Google’s Two-Click Penalty for Publishers Explained

Google's Two-Click Penalty for Publishers Explained

Google’s two-click penalty has been around for a while, but has become increasingly popular over the past year when some big publishers started complaining about it. Others had no idea what actually hit them. However, they knew that something was not right with the ads’ performance on their website. In fact, if you don’t click on your own ads, (which is against Google’s Policies) or perform an advanced checkup, you might not even notice that this penalty has been imposed on you.

DevriX has been partnering with publishers, developing complex WordPress solutions and implementing adtech optimizations, so we understand the industry very well. In this article, we will explain more about Google’s two-click penalty for publishers, so you know what might happen if it happens to you.

1. What Is a Two-Click Penalty?

Google’s Two Click Penalty is not ordinary enforcement of Google’s ad rules. It has been known under several names – “Confirmed Click Visible”, “Visit site overlay” and “1.5 click penalty” and does not fall within any clear rules. It’s something that Google won’t notify you about, but can seriously affect your CTR and revenue.

Unlike other types of penalties, for example, gambling advertisements or having a landing page with malware, there is no notification about that in your Google AdManager. You won’t even receive an email warning to suggest you to take action, neither will you get guidance on how to resolve this. It just shows up on your AdX ads on the site and if you do good – one day it just disappears and your revenue levels are back.

2. Why Publishers May Get a Two-Click Penalty?

Most advertisers buy traffic based on cost per click or CPC, so they don’t want their clicks to be wasted on websites where users may click on their ads unintentionally.

The two-click penalty is supposed to protect advertisers on the Google Display Network – both Google AdSense and Google AdX, from such fraudulent clicks. In order to control and prevent that, Google requires users to confirm they clicked on an ad intentionally by showing an overlay above it with the message “Visit site” – and that is the second click. So, if a website visitor really wants to interact with the ad, he will have to click once again to be redirected to the site (or at least that’s the theory). But would you click on an ad twice?

google two click penalty example visit overlay

Example of the “Visit site” overlay

3. How Is a Two-Click Penalty Enforced on Your Site?

The funny thing is that no one can answer this. One day it just happens without any warning.

In our experience with publishers, we’ve seen it hit only mobile environments, where click-through rates or CTRs are much higher than other devices such as desktops, or tablets. It can also be enacted on all domains on a specific Google Ad Manager (GAM) account, but we’ve seen it being enforced on individual websites as well. As we’ve mentioned above, there are no clear rules and details from Google on that.

The nasty overlay starts by showing up on all of the ads from Google AdSense and Google AdX, except in some special formats such as video, or some rich media ads with a clickable button. It does not affect direct ads, set from GAM, or creatives from other programmatic partners, such as Prebid Advertisers or clients of Amazon A9.

We’ve also experienced cases when it affects individual ad units on a site, rather than all, in this case it’s easier to find what’s wrong. One more thing – there is no period set for how long it lasts. We’ve seen sites getting cleared within a day, while for others it may take months. It’s believed that it also depends on traffic volume, as if you stop promoting content after the penalty, it may take more time to get cleared – the bot may need more data to lift the penalty. Yet, if you haven’t fixed the potential issue before that, even this won’t help.

We’ve helped publishers optimize and adjust their websites and implement certain changes, and when we are convinced everything looks good, we push for more traffic and hope for a faster clearance.

4. How to Know Whether You Have a Two-Click Penalty or Not?

This one is a bit tricky. At DevriX, we manually test all the websites of all our publisher clients twice a week and we monitor account activity every day.

Let’s go through some tips on how you can spot a potential issue in your Google Ad Manager data.

Check the Reporting section on Google Ad Manager

  • When logged in to your Ad Manager, go to Reporting -> Reports select a new report and historical as a type (it’s default).
  • Then select a proper data range – a week or past 30 days for example.
  • On Filters you may want to choose Device: Smartphone, as this is where usually the 2-click penalty hits.
  • On Dimensions, you can select only the date, or the date and ad units.
  • On Metrics, check Ad Exchange CTR, Ad Exchange average eCPM, Ad Exchange impressions (%), Ad Exchange revenue (%).

Here is a demo setup:

Reports - Google Ad Manager

When you look at the data, you are probably going to see a certain dip in most of these metrics – the CTR is lower, the CPMs drop, and AdX starts winning fewer impressions and providing less revenue.

Even if you don’t do this specific segmentation and report, and just monitor the overall performance in your daily routine, you may still be able to spot it. As usual, AdX has the biggest share of voice (SOV) of programmatic partners, the overall CPMs decrease and the demand and competition are lower.

Spot It on the Website

Even after you check the data in your GAM account and notice something suspicious, you still can’t be certain if a two-click penalty is the reason for that without checking it by yourself on the website.

What we do at DevriX if we have any concerns is to open the site in a browser and activate the Developers tools mode (Ctrl+Shift+I in Google Chrome), then emulate mobile mode (Ctrl+M) and refresh the page to get the proper ads.

Now, if you are running Prebid alongside, using a command in the console might help you isolate the ads.

You can stop all of the Prebid adapters by pasting this in the console:

pbjs.setConfig({
debugging: {
enabled: true, // suppresses bids from other bidders
bidders: []
}
});

The code is from Prebid.org and for some wrappers, you may need to change “pbjs” with the wrapper’s specific command.

This leaves you only with AdX, EBDA, Amazon and direct ads (if you have some of these). You might also want to open the Google Publisher console via this command:

googletag.openConsole()

This will let you see the creatives and line items from where the ads are served. You can check if any of them are AdX ads.

Then just load several ads and go to Elements in Developers tools. Search for “common” – it should look something like common_15click_overlay.

If you have this, you know the ad has been penalized. If you want to be 100% sure, you can click on the ad and see the dreadful “Visit site” overlay. That’s how you know you’ve been penalized.

developer-tools-google-2-click-penalty

5. What to Do Now? Or How to Analyze and Recover Аfter a 2-Click Penalty

Now that you know why your traffic is bringing in lower results, you should start guessing the cause of it. I’m saying “guess”, because, with no clear documentation on the issue by Google, you may never be sure what caused it.

Google representatives can’t really point out the exact reasons for your site being punished or how to manually get your account cleared. So basically, you just wait for the piece of code that analyzes site traffic to do its magic so that the penalty gets lifted.

There are, however, a few good practices we have learned both from our experience and from representatives of our partner publishers that we can recommend to you:

  1. Check for ad units with higher CTR.
  2. Fix site reflow/jumping and get your cumulative layout score to a better level.
  3. Look for clickable elements in high-risk places.
  4. Limit the use of layouts with more clickable elements, such as paginated galleries.
  5. Look for traffic sources that coincide with the introduction of a 2 click penalty.
  6. Get your mobile sticky anchor right.
  7. Optimize your site for speed.
  8. Look for any advertisers that cause high CTR.

Check Reports for Ad Units With a Higher CTR

This is the very first thing we do at DevriX when establishing an issue. When in GAM, you should generate a historical report for a longer period of time and choose dimensions. You might add a date, an ad unit, devices (this is important, as iOS has quite lower CTRs than Android).

Later, you might even add creative size delivered, since certain sizes can be the cause of clicks. If you can think of another fragmentation of your traffic, such as different layouts on your site, distinguishable by ad key-values, you might go for them as well.

Now put all this info into a pivot table and look for two things – ad units with higher than average AdX/AdSense CTR and ad units that have seen the greatest drop inCTRs after the 2-click penalty has supposedly happened. When you have identified such ad units, go to your site and investigate what might be causing people to click on them more often.

For example, for one of our clients, we saw a higher CTR on Android in their galleries. It appeared that people with low-end devices tended to click more than once on the “Next button” and if, in between the two clicks, the next page loaded – it made them click on an “Above the Fold Ad” that appeared in the same place on the screen. We were able to introduce a smart fix there and get the CTR back to normal levels.

We’ve also seen on other publishers, that a certain size was not bringing in the best UX and therefore having a lot of clicks and high CTR. What you need to do is to dive deep into your data, and find any potential issues.

As a drastic measure, you may have to stop AdX from showing on ad units with a high CTR, so you do not trigger the 2-click penalty.

Fix Site Reflow/Jumping and Obtain a Better Cumulative Layout Score

This is something that Google tends to point out when approached with concerns over their 2-click penalty. The idea is simple – if elements on your pages push others down when loading, that is considered “jumping” in the viewport. This may move elements, including ads around and this might force users to click on ads or other elements by mistake.

This is especially true on older Android devices, which often have difficulties with parsing JavaScript fast enough.

To fix this, there are several things you might do, but you can focus on a couple of them.

  • Introducing min-height on your ads

Your ads load slower than your site’s content, and it’s hard to change. The reason for this is that in general visuals need time to display (even more if they are heavy), also it also takes time to load all of the related JavaScripts on your site, and then the auctions to take place, etc. What you can do though is to reserve the proper space for them on the page, before they have even loaded.

You might want to introduce min-height as a CSS rule for your ads’ divs. For example, if you are running mostly 300×250 ads you should reserve 250px of height on the page for the ad to load into. Also, you should keep some space for the advertising label and 10 or 20 pixels of padding before and after them on mobile, so that when the ad loads, there is no jumping on the site.

Introducing a gray background around your ads might help as well. This is considered a best practice.

  • Introducing min-height on your images

If you set to lazyload your ads as the reader goes through the text, you should apply the same rule for the images as well. Keep in mind you also need to reserve some blank space for the images as they might load a bit slower on some devices and cause similar issues as the ads. For example, a user passes through an empty space where an image should load, and he continues scrolling down the article. At some point, he decides to click somewhere on the page, but this may push the other content down because the image above is still loading. And this causes the user to unintentionally click on an ad instead of a button or other element of the page.

Google has announced in 2020 that site reflow, which is part of the so-called Core Web Vitals, will be penalized. So fixing jumping on your site is important not only to avoid this penalty but also for your SEO results.

You can check your CLS score in the Core Web Vitals section of your Google Webmaster Tools as well.

Look for Clickable Elements in High-Risk Places

Fixing the reflow is an important step but it might not be enough. You should carefully consider all possible clickable elements on your website and whether they are close to an ad.

For example, here are some things to consider and keep in mind:

  • If you have a gallery template with a “next” button, you should give it space and distinguish it from your ads. Having more padding around it might also be a good idea.
  • We’ve seen sites where the GDPR/CCPA privacy policy is set as a sticky on the right side of the screen and this can create an overlap with ads when scrolling – that’s something that needs fixing as well.
  • If you have an infinite scroll on your website and you have a footer with clickable elements in it, keep in mind that they disappear as the content loads with scrolling. At the same time there may be users who try to click on it, but instead, click on an ad.

These are just some examples we have experienced that can help you evaluate your performance. Revisit your site, do a thorough QA and see what is not alright with it. If there are UX redesign tasks in the backlog that you have been postponing, it’s probably time to take care of them.

Limit the Use of Layouts With More Clickable Elements, Such as Paginated Galleries

If you run paginated galleries or quizzes on your websites, then you know that these are elements that make people click on your site a lot. If something is wrong with the UX, you might be facing misclicks. And this might get you punished.

Limiting traffic to this type of content and improving the user experience when there is a 2-click penalty on the site might help you get a clearance pass from the bot. In the meantime, you should do everything you can to reduce CTR on these layouts and improve site UX, so that you can continue pushing traffic there after lifting the penalty.

Traffic Sources that Coincide with the Introduction of a 2-Click Penalty

The data is a key factor for finding any issues you might have to face to get the site cleared. Along with professional QA-ing the site UX, it might tell you what you need to change.

On the websites of several publishers that we work with, we’ve noticed something unusual – right before the 2-click penalty was enforced, there was an uplift in traffic coming from Snapchat. Others in the publisher community reported similar trends on their end. We are not saying that Snapchat caused the penalty. More than likely, we are trying to point out the potential issues that can occur with an in-app browser and you may not be aware of.

You may even face an issue when buying bot traffic, that intentionally clicks on the ads, to bring in more revenue. Pausing this traffic and running tests might help. For bots in particular certain services like Cloudflare bot fight mode might help as well.

If you buy some of your traffic it’s better to use utm_source and utm_medium and pass them to Google Ad Manager via a key-value, so that you can better understand the traffic going through.

Get Your Mobile Sticky Anchor Right

It’s one of the things Google’s reps usually point out in the case of a 2-click penalty. As you can probably understand by now, the sticky adhesion or mobile anchor, or however you may call it is a high-risk element due to a certain number of factors that can contribute to it being clicked on by mistake.

Some tips on how to approach this:

  • It’s best to have the anchor ad wrapped in a white background, with some padding above, to limit misclicks.
  • It’s also a good idea to have it going from side to side on your screen, not leaving any content below it as well.
  • Also, if it has a close button, people might click on the ad by mistake, therefore you might want to consider removing the button.
  • One thing that might work is to move the sticky ad from the bottom of the screen to the top – this seems like a way to reduce the CTR on the unit.

The anchor is a good way to monetize your content and quite often it’s hard for a publisher to just get rid of it. However, if this is the only thing that helps, you might need to do it. Yet, trying to fix some potential issues around it is always a good place to start.

Optimize Your Site for Speed

You should always be doing this, not only when a 2 click penalty arrives. It’s good not only for your users, but for your ads’ viewability and SEO as well.

With the right developers by your side, you might see miracles. For example:

  • Introduce a content delivery network (CDN), if you don’t have one.
  • Load your ad related scripts as soon as your page loads.
  • Bring in faster layouts, such as the Fullpager in comparison to infinite scroll.
  • Optimize what loads first, and then focus on loading the elements that are initially in the viewport.
  • Optimizing site speed deserves a separate article, as this is a place for infinite improvements.

Find the right people with experience in ad tech optimization to help you and look at the results. Аnd although UX is probably not directly related to the 2-click penalty, it is related to loading speeds, so you should always strive to improve them.

Look for any Advertisers that Cause High CTR

It’s one of the things you learn by experience. There are certain advertisers out there that do their ads in a way that’s not the best for you or your readers.

To check for this, do a historical report with several days of data, smartphone devices as a filter and Advertiser (Classified) as a dimension.

Add in several AdX/ AdSense dimensions such as CTR, CPM, number of clicks, impressions and revenue they’ve provided. An example you might find below:

Dimensions

Then you simply export it to a sheet, order them by number of impressions and start looking at potential abusers with higher CTR. You might spot how different advertisers have different average CTR and different average CPM. Some will have their ads being clicked only a couple of times in 1000 impressions and others might reach a CTR as high as 3%. The latter you may want to block from running ads on your sites.

You can do so by going to the Protections tab in your Google Ad Manager Account and adding a new one. You can select the advertisers with a higher CTR, mobile inventory, and save this. They now won’t be able to bid on your inventory and increase your CTR.

“I Still Have the Two-Click Penalty”

Contact us if you are a Publisher running a WordPress site with ads, and we can do these checks with you, along with any additional ones that are too specific to be written in the article.

Diving into data is always a good idea, as you can spot a lot of issues there. Browsing your site on older devices helps you understand how the average Joe consumes your content.

Keep in mind, that even after it’s lifted, it’s not uncommon to see the 2-click penalty return to your site. Scale your traffic if you have implemented changes that should help fight “visit site” overlay.

Thanks to several months of work, we, at DevriX, were able to collect all this information on the 2 click, and help our publishers get themselves successfully out of it.

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