Image credit: Future NowGoogle's much-vaunted mantra has always been 'Don't Be Evil' - yet many don't realise that they've been bending the rules for a fair while now. Ever typed in a domain name, got it slightly wrong (a simple typo) or put a hyphen in where it doesn't need one? (for example, typing verycool-products.com instead of verycoolproducts.org)... I know I have, and sometimes you get those annoying pages of adverts which try to fool you into thinking that they're somehow related to the official site you're looking for. In no uncertain terms, this is arguably cybersquatting, but unscrupulous companies who engage in this prefer to call the practice "domain portfolio monetisation" - the long and short of it is that they most likely own many hundreds of domain names (tens of thousands in the largest portfolios), on which they plonk pages full of adverts.
Google, arguably the world's largest pay-per-click advertiser, is complicit in this through their Google AdSense for Domains program. Here's how they defend their 'service':
What is AdSense for domains?
AdSense® for domains allows domain name registrars and large domain name holders to unlock the value in their parked page inventory. AdSense for domains delivers targeted, conceptually related advertisements to parked domain pages by using Google’s semantic technology to analyze and understand the meaning of the domain names. Our program uses ads from the Google AdWords™ network, which is comprised of thousands of advertisers worldwide and is growing larger everyday. Google AdSense for domains targets web sites in over 25 languages, and has fully localized segmentation technology in over 10 languages.
So Google, if you plan on not being evil, when are you going to stop your less-than-savoury profitable endeavours such as this? Nobody likes being greeted with a page full of ads if they make a simple typing mistake (some of which occasionally try to hijack your browser or launch new popup windows), and they also cause a big technical problem for web coders and programmers who expect a standard DNS error message if an invalid domain is submitted.
People have to be really stupid (or desperate) if they click on obvious adverts on a parked web page - they usually bear no relevance whatsoever to any search terms you might have been looking for, and if you come to them blind (without being referred through a search engine's results page) you often haven't a clue what's going on. In historical terms, it can cause a real problem too, if you have old domain names printed on your literature or publications, what happens if this domain name gets sniped around renewal time and you can't get it back?
Going back to the issue of DNS errors instead of technically-valid junk pages - what's the problem with this? Well, say you're coding a web platform which accepts valid domain names as an input, which it then parses to check whether they're valid or not - with parked domains displaying pages full of adverts, the site might be tricked into thinking that it's a valid site (instead of an invalid, parked domain), so this can cause programmers real headaches.
Verisign, one of the US' largest domain registrars, tried to sneak in its own brand of typo hijacking with its Site Finder system - something they quickly shuttered (to the benefit of both regular web users and network administrators alike). (More on Site Finder at Wikipedia and via what Google has to say about it... The irony's not lost on me).
Another problem with parked domain advertising is that it ties up many thousands of domains that would otherwise be available for people who might want to register them (especially those who have a valid use for them) - I'm currently trying to sort out a hijacked domain for a company I work for (it's a variation of their company name) and it's a bloody nightmare. ICANN fees are ludicrous ($1500 to file a domain name arbitration!) and there's not even a certainty you'll get the domain back, as the burden of proof is on you. Bad Faith usage on the part of the defendant certainly helps your case, but it's potentially a big investment with no return, and that's what squatters rely on.
With the situation as it is now, with Google and several other companies providing parked domain advertising for unscrupulous owners of very large portfolios of parked domains, it muddies the water for the rest of us and is most certainly not what the web is about. For shame, Google! It seems that their mantra of 'don't be evil' is fast becoming 'don't be ostensibly evil', especially given the company's past involvement with censorship in China and the previous debates about retention of surfers' search data...
...Maybe it's time to look for a new search engine? I still rely on Google for day-to-day activities, but I'm trying to change my habits; I already use the SSL version of Scroogle for anonymous Googling.