|My name is Dylan Winter. I am a freelance journalist and film-maker from England. I am 55 years old. Two weeks before Christmas, I was sacked by a Google algorithm.
I have worked for the newspapers, magazines, radio stations and TV stations. One of the things you get used to as a freelance is being sacked.
After all, that’s why they take us on – we are easy to sack.
Sometimes being sacked is as simple as coming to the end of a contract – and no-one offers you any more work. I have also been let go by decent men and women who have told me face-to-face that ‘this next block of work is your last’.
Programmes close, magazine sections change focus.
Once, I was ‘let go’ by a boss via a casual comment passed through the window of his car as he drove away from the last day’s filming. The word has come by phone, letter, fax, text and email. I am used to it. It’s part of the game.
But this was different.
On Monday the 13th of December – two weeks before Christmas – I was sacked by a Google algorithm.
It sent an email to me and summarily killed my main source of income. No humans were involved in this process at all. It was, literally, the most inhumane letting go I have ever experienced.
As well as ‘letting me go’ the Google Algorithm also confiscated all my earned income October 31st to December 13th. Tough indeed - and no human has ever done that to me; they have always paid me for work done.
Then twio days before Christmas I got a letter from my bank saying that the check for October – worth £1,700 had been stopped.
That is £3,700 gone from my family fiancés in the two weeks before Chisitmas.
Welcome to the world of Google. Kafka would be proud of Google, whilst Orwell would be perfectly unsurprised.
This is how it happened:
Over the past 18 months I have been making films for Google. In fact, I make them for Youtube – owned by Google. I am the 97th biggest reporter on YouTube ever, globally, and No 7 in the UK.
At the moment I am delivering 1.5 million good solid hits a months to Youtube. My Youtube space has now had 20,000,000 visits.
One film in particular, ‘Big Trucks in the Canadian West’, has received 13,000,000 hits.
Now I appreciate that if you don’t like trucks but still choose to watch it then it is likely to be the dullest four minutes of your life, but both I and Youtube make money from these films.
Adsense – owned by Google – places adverts against them. About one per cent of those viewers will click on an advert. Youtube get paid per click - and they give me a share.
It ends up at about 1c per click. I have no idea how much they get paid per click – that is a secret.
The mathematicians amongst you will already have clocked that the trucking films have earned me about $18,000. Good money.
So I made more films for Youtube. I diversified into films about rodeos, dog training and cattle ranching.
The Adsense check – which arrived bang on time every month from a bank in Switzerland – was rapidly becoming a major part of my household finances.
I need it. I still have two teenage children at English Universities. So I have to bale pretty hard to stay afloat and this seemed like a good way of earning money. No capricious boss to ‘let me go’ whenever he felt like it.
All my life, sailing has been my main hobby and I have always wanted to sail around Britain’s ridiculously crinkly 20,000 mile long coastline.
I have a small boat – aka “The Slug” - and I spend my weekends and holidays slowly sailing it around the UK and shoving its ugly little bow into every aquatic nook and cranny I can find.
I spend a month or more on each river or estuary drinking in the atmosphere before moving it onto the next port or inlet.
I began to think of my little project as “Keep Turning Left”.
Being a cameraman I obviously never travel without a camera so I started filming the journey, which I turned into a series of nicely made short films and posted them on Youtube – a good one would get 25,000 hits a year, whilst an average might get 5,000.
Pathetic compared to the truck films, but pretty soon sailors were asking me for DVDs of the sailing venture and asking when I would be posting the next film. Clearly there was a small but firm demand for my sailing films.
So I built a website – and started posting all the new films there in high definition. There are now about 150 films on the website. I have 700 subscribers paying $4.99 a quarter to watch the films.
If I can keep them interested then that’s around $15,000 a year. Not a massive income, true, but it all helps the mix.
I was still losing money hand over fist on the sailing – after all, making films is a labour intensive business, some are 25 minutes long and take two weeks to cut and master and each represents at least three days editing - some take two weeks to make.
The Slug is a 50 year-old 18 foot sailing boat. It cost me £2,000 and bits fall off it almost every week.
As well as telling the Keep Turning Left subscribers about the rivers of the UK I also share details of the times The Slug falls apart
This makes them happy because my subscribers also spend their weekends screwing and glueing bis back onto their boats. I showed them how I fixed the holes I made in the boat when I hit the rocks off Cromer, and how much the engine repairs cost. I film myself huddling around a tray of candles in the boat as the ice slides past the hull in the winter.
The subscribers can see that I cut every possible financial corner in an effort to keep costs down and the project going.
As part of the deal, and as a way of involving the sailors, I tell them about the revenue for the project which all comes from the website. The more the website earns the more sailing I can do, the more films they see.
I send out a monthly or bi-weekly update explaining how the project is going and about the films I am posting.
So what’s coming in? 100 new subscriptions a month at $4.99. I also have an advertising block for a UK chandler www.saltyjohn.co.uk that earns me £14 a week. And I have a special little box from Amazon. If a sailor buys a sailing book by entering Amazon via my website, I get a 5 per cent referral fee. If some-one spends $200 on a Kindle or a camera, get their next three month s subscription for free.
That postage stamp sized box on my front page is shifting $10,000 worth of business through Amazon this month (December 2010). So, it’s pretty good for them, pretty good for me.
It was jolly nice of my subscribers to take the effort of taking the extra step of entering Amazon through my site. Loyal lot these KTL subscribers. They all own small boats and love to see another bloke sailing his boat.
Oh yes, I was also running little blocks of adverts provided by Adsense and, yes, I told my subscribers that I got some money if they visited the websites of those advertisers – all of whom were interested in selling stuff to sailors.
I thought this was not much of a revelation - as any fule kno that is how it works.
The click through rate on Keep Turning Left was at 6 per cent which I now know is high enough to upset a Google Algorithm but www.keepturningleft.co.uk is a film streaming site and some of the films are 25 minutes long compared to the four minutes for the truck films.
The mathematicians amongst you will again realise that Youtube is getting an advert click for every 400 minutes of web time.
My films are longer, so that I am getting a click every 200 minutes – but my films are also in high definition (HD) and take longer to buffer than the pixel soup dished up by YouTube.
Plus the adverts on my site are aimed straight at my subscribers. They are for chartering yachts and sail training courses; over on YouTube they were being offered adverts for computer games – duh!
I did get the odd subscriber sending me an email saying that he had clicked loads of adverts. This is called demon clicking. I would reply that I would prefer them to only click on adverts they were interested in.
I allow my subscribers to leave comments on the films. If one of them mentioned clicking on adverts to show their appreciation – well it’s a nice gesture, but I would edit their posting to remove the mention.
The advertising revenue started to climb along with the number of page impressions and the number of subscribers.
Nothing was earning as much as the truck films on Youtube because 1.5 million views from truck enthusiasts is always going to outgun 30,000 hits on a sailing site.
The click-through rate for the truck films was a rock solid one per cent while click-through from www.keepturningleft.co.uk went up and down a bit more – sometimes less than six per cent, seldom more.
Then on the 13th of December I went into my home office, opened my emails and there was this from a Google computer.
This message was sent from a notification-only email address that does not accept incoming email. Please do not reply to this message.
After reviewing our records, we've determined that your AdSense account poses a risk of generating invalid activity. Because we have a responsibility to protect our AdWords advertisers from inflated costs due to invalid activity, we've found it necessary to disable your AdSense account. Your outstanding balance and Google's share of the revenue will both be fully refunded to the affected advertisers.
Please understand that we need to take such steps to maintain the effectiveness of Google's advertising system, particularly the advertiser-publisher relationship. We understand the inconvenience that this may cause you, and we thank you in advance for your understanding and cooperation.
If you have any questions or concerns about the actions we've taken, how you can appeal this decision or invalid activity in general, you can find more information by visiting www.google.com/adsense/support/bin/answer.py?answer=57153
The Google AdSense Team
There is an appeal process where you go to fill in some boxes on a web page. But I did not know what was wrong with the account and I no longer had access to the data because they had suspended it.
You may have had school friends like this – the rich ones who owned the football. As soon as they had enough of the game, or mummy called them in for tea, or they got in a huff, they would pick up the ball and walk off with it.
I filled in the tiny boxes on the link they gave me and submitted the following answers:
27_TrafficSources: they are subscribers. I promote the site through keepturningleft on YouTube and by being active in the sailing forums in the UK, USA and Australia. This is a classic 1,000 true fans operation. They are keen sailors and they are watching my well produced sailing films
28_AdvertiserValue: sailors who love sailing and who have heard about the films from other sailors
29_UserIncentive: Some of them click adverts to support the films - they have emailed me and told me so. I tell them not to but to only click on adverts that are of interest to them
31_InvalidActivity: I have two sources of Adsense revenue - the main one is from my YouTube space that has 1.5 million hits a month. Dylanwinter1. Films about trucks; one has had 13 million hits.
#7 - Most Viewed (All Time) - Reporters
#92 - Most Viewed (All Time) - Reporters - Global
Impossible for me to influence clicking on that site. 50,000 hits a day.It gets a click through rate of between 1 per cent and .5 per cent.
The subscription sailing site gets a higher rate - much higher after I post a new film - extremely erratic but I have no idea how such sites should perform. I only have this one website - www.keepturningleft.co.uk
The sailing website www.keepturningleft.co.uk is a small subscription only website. I cannot control their clicking activity however, it is a download site so they have to wait for the films to buffer. One man did email me to tell me that he looks at the adverts while waiting for the films to buffer.
Many of them have turned off their adblockers. One man said that he had saved himself £50 on his boat insurance. For some of them these are the first sailing related adverts they have ever seen.
I also have an Amazon box on the site - that brings in about £80 a week at the moment.
A sailing advertiser has bought space on the site and is extremely pleased with the response.
I will quite understand if you decide to kill the Adsense account for the sailing website if, as you report, it is producing some weird click-through patterns - however, disabling Adsense for my YouTube activities seems counter-intuitive. I am very happy to provide you with a login for the website so that you can assess it for yourself
Yours sincerely, etc etc
The next email I got was this , two hours later ...
"The winter holidays are approaching and we'd like to take the opportunity to wish all our publishers a very happy and delightful holiday season and a successful start to the new year!"
Monday afternoon this arrived ...
We are currently in the process of reviewing your account with the additional information that you have provided. Please understand, however, that there is no guarantee that your account will be reinstated into AdSense. As a reminder, Google does reserve the right to disable an account at any time, as stated in the AdSense Terms and Conditions ([url]https://www.google.com/adsense/terms[/url]).
Thank you for your patience.
The Google AdSense Team
Two hard days of worrying and walking the dog followed ...
I also spent a lot of time on line finding out why people get thrown out of the Adsense scheme and discovered that Google has three sets of rules you can break:
1. The ones in the very long contract that I confess I did not read very carefully
2. The rules that they try to explain in their many pages of Questions and Answers and FAQs
3. The rules they do not tell you about because they are secret and deal with their algorithms
On Wednesday this arrived.
Thank you for your appeal. We appreciate the additional information you've provided, as well as your continued interest in the AdSense programme.
However, after thoroughly re-reviewing your account data and taking your feedback into consideration, our specialists have confirmed that we're unable to reinstate your AdSense account.
As a reminder, if you have any questions or concerns about your account, the actions we've taken or invalid activity in general, you can find more information by visiting
The Google AdSense Team
I confess it was an emotional moment.
I signed up to a set of rules I did not fully understand. I also ticked a box agreeing to Google stopping our relationship at their discretion and without them having to tell me what I did wrong.
They are also within their rights to take back the $3,000 that had accumulated in the account over the six weeks from November 1st to the 13th of December.
The bulk of the money was from the truck films on YouTube - and if you look at the space you will see that I have worked really hard to create those 99 films and post them up there.
There are a few other bits of information that might be of interest – especially if you run a website that uses Adsense.
The Adsense contract is a beautiful piece of work. One of my subscribers is a lawyer. She looked at the contract and said “wow – this is a beautiful and incredibly expensive piece of work. These guys employ the best.” Her advice? Don’t bother fighting Google.
The contract is designed so that it is almost impossible not to break the Google rules. If you disclose site data then you are in breach. YouTube discloses just the sort of site data that would have me thrown out – but YouTube is Google which is Adsense.
If your subscribers are clicking on adverts and not buying, then you are in breach. This is a new concept – do not look at an advert unless you intend to buy.
Imagine if that were applied to TV adverts and hoardings. Do not look at them unless you intend to buy – very weird. Do not eat the sample of cheese being handed out in the supermarket – unkless you intend to buy. My website gave the advertisers a chance to get eyes on their products. If they did not sell is that my fault?
The website owner is to be held responsible for the activities of his site users. Imagine that being applied to cars or baseball bats or hamburgers.
Here is a great one – if you are an Adsense account holder and you hear of another Adsense account holder who is breaking the rules then you must report them to Adsense, otherwise you too are guilty by association and will have your account disabled.
Presumably since Youtube appear to be breaking the rules as well and I have not reported them to Adsense then I am breach of the contract I ticked.
As for being allowed back into the scheme:
There is no redemption in the land of Google. Hardly anyone ever gets back on the scheme.
It seems likely that at no time was human involved in my relationship with Google. Just a computer algorithm.
It was quite literally therefore an inhuman act to sack me two weeks before Christmas and seize £3,700 back.
Oh, and one more thing.
Google is still placing adverts against my work on Youtube. My films on there are heading for 2 million hits in December.
Do I feel bitter?
The Google slogan is “Don’t Be Evil”. You could not make it up.
Read what Gavin Atkin has to say about this issue on InTheBoatshed.net