Google has agreed to settle a class action lawsuit brought against it over the issue of click fraud. Google will pay as much as $90m (about £52m) to affected advertisers in legal fees and credits as part of the settlement.
Some industry experts believe click fraud could seriously threaten the company's main source of revenue: pay-per-click advertising.
The case was filed in an Arkansas court against Google and other search-engine operators and providers of pay-per-click ads, such as Yahoo and AOL. The lead plaintiff is Lane's Gifts & Collectibles, which sells items such as dolls, figurines and teddy bears online, over the phone and by mail.
At issue is click fraud, a practice in which someone clicks on a pay-per-click ad with a malicious intent. For example, a company official may click on competitors' ads, knowing that every time he does that, it costs his competitors money. Or the publisher of a website that runs pay-per-click ads may engage in the practice because the more the ads on his site are clicked on, the more commission money the publisher receives. The biggest losers from click fraud are the advertisers, because they are paying for clicks on ads that will not generate business.
Pay-per-click ads are commonly served up by search engines based on the topic of a user's query. These ads are the main source of revenue for Google and have become an important business for Yahoo.
In the Lane's Gifts case, Google and the plaintiffs have reached an agreement, which would still need to be approved by the judge, wrote Nicole Wong, associate general counsel at Google, on the company's official blog on Wednesday.
Details will become public when the proposed settlement is filed for the judge's consideration, but one key agreement is that Google has agreed to compensate advertisers that qualify for participation in the settlement. The company would pay out a maximum of $90m in the form of legal fees and credits for purchasing ads on Google.
"This agreement covers all advertisers who claim to have been charged but not reimbursed for invalid clicks dating from 2002 when we launched our 'cost per click' advertising program through the date the settlement is approved by the judge," Wong wrote.
Meanwhile, Yahoo declined to comment on Google's settlement but said it plans to continue fighting the lawsuit. "We stand firmly by our proprietary click-protection system, and look forward to vigorously defending our position in this matter," a Yahoo spokeswoman said via email.
Google will account for the legal fees as an expense, "most likely in the first quarter, once the amount is determined", while the credits will be noted as a revenue reduction in periods in which they are redeemed, Wong wrote.
Google executives have said in the past that click fraud is a problem that the company takes seriously and aggressively polices, but that it hasn't had a material effect on the company's business.