Google Laughing in the Face of the FTC – Raven, SEOMoz, and the AdWords API

Update2: As expected, Google’s “leniency” with Raven came with a huge price – drop the SERPs. Yep, exactly as I said, Google doesn’t want you to ever have the ability to compare the value of Adwords to SEO.

Update: Google has reopened the API for Raven Tools! Let’s keep a watch and see if they do the same thing for SEOMoz. Keep up the pressure!

What is Going Down?

If you are in the search marketing community, you are likely familiar with Raven Tools and SEOMoz. These two SEO tool leaders provide incredible tool sets for webmasters looking to improve their search performance – in both paid and organic. They aggregate data from numerous sources including the Google Adwords API. Back in September, reported that Google had begun a process of revoking a large number of AdWords users’ API access and then provisionally allow access. This explained why SEOMoz saw intermittent access of the API over the last several months. We have now learned that both SEOMoz and Raven Tools have lost their AdWords access.

Why is Google Doing This?

From Google’s perspective, the AdWords API is to be specifically used by AdWords customers to help improve their own campaigns. In general, they are not to be used as a part of an exposed public or private tool, even if the expressed use is to improve AdWords campaign performance. In reality, the AdWords API is one of Google’s biggest liabilities for numerous reasons. Here are just a few…

  1. Traffic volume data provides competitors with information on target markets
  2. Bid prices allow for advertisers to automatically compare prices and, potentially, determine better advertising opportunities
  3. Bid prices allow competitor ad networks to price their products appropriately

Google’s Adwords API, despite being paid, is kept under incredibly strict usage guidelines that are enforced regularly and without much forgiveness. Why would Google create a paid service and then restrict the number of its customers and the volume of its usage so carefully? To protect industry dominance.

What Does the FTC Have to Do With This?

The FTC has been investigating Google for monopolistic practices for quite some time. While we can quibble back and forth about whether Google is genuinely a monopoly, there is little to no argument that Google is not trying to behave like one. The New York Times points out that “The investigators are… looking into whether Google’s automated advertising marketplace, AdWords, discriminates against advertisers from competing online commerce services like comparison shopping sites and consumer review Web sites.”

The tight reigns on the Adwords API do just this. You cannot know the cost of using AdWords without actually being a logged in customer of AdWords. The prices are private and restricted. It is a violation of their Terms and Conditions to extract data in any other way than those expressly permitted by Google (T&C Section 4(B)). This would be akin to WalMart refusing to publish their prices in any public fashion and then refuse to allow you to log-in and “extract” their prices in any way other than what they expressly tell you is OK so you know if you are getting a good deal – AND THEN STARTED ENFORCING IT by booting people out of the store who were caught writing down prices or seeing how many items were still in stock.

This kind of activity is alright when there are a bunch of other stores in the area, but when Google is by far the biggest advertising game in town, it starts to look very suspicious.


The big word that comes to me here is hubris. Google is over-confident that the FTC is not willing to take them to court. Winning monopoly cases is expensive and right now the Federal Government doesn’t exactly have a huge budget. But this kind of activity simply laughs in the face of the FTC right as they are planning to release their findings. If I were Google, I would be more careful. But, alas, I am not. I’m just a guy trying to run a business.


Great feedback is coming in from the search community. Andrew Dumont mentioned that by not allowing users to purchase ads from within their app, they are in violation of the Terms & Conditions of the API. If I wasn’t clear above, I don’t mean to state that people are wrongfully having their API access revoked. The T&C are being fairly enforced. My intent was to note that these rigorously enforced T&C serve a very specific purpose of intentionally hiding both their pricing and their inventory to make it difficult for consumers to compare costs and opportunities with both paid and free alternatives.

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  1. Jason Brown
    Nov 27, 2012

    What doesn’t make sense is why Google would take the API away from their friends? Since Google and SEOMOZ keep doing each other massive favors, why upset the force? What does Google gain with this move? It seems like they are trying to hurt those that help them to be who they are today. Maybe Google has gotten too big and like the Roman empire ready to fall. Google talks alot about being fair and leveling the playing field yest does not want to share the other children.

    Author Response: The keyword competitiveness tool, for example, allowed SEOs to use AdWords data to make decisions about SEO. I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again, SEO is Google’s biggest competitors. They are a minority in their own house. Most people click on organic results, and if businesses can find ways to get sufficient traffic from organic, Google loses.
  2. Oliver Nielsen
    Nov 28, 2012

    The author response (in red above) is the case in a nutshell:

    Google doesn’t like SEO, plain and simple.

    Nice site design btw – I like the sidebar.


  3. Tiggerito
    Dec 1, 2012

    Raven sent out an email on the 29th saying they have regained access and almost all the data they could get previously.

  4. Adam Gillrie
    Dec 1, 2012

    I’m confused, Is google trying to keep the FTC from possibly getting information or will the FTC be more upset that google has blocked these sites?

  5. admin
    Dec 2, 2012

    yes, i updated the post

  6. David
    Dec 10, 2012

    Aha – I had been wondering why the Keywords Tool in SEOMoz has been so flakey of late.

    Seems that Google has a tough time having to choose between having a more AdWords approach or actually being helpful with organic search.

    While SEO is certainly a competitor to AdWords, without good organic search results, there would be no need for people to use Google at all. Who want want a results page that is all ads (although it seems more like that all the time)?

    I’m not a fan of monopolies!

  7. mike campolattano
    Jan 3, 2013

    Google wants the SEO business to go away and just have everyone be SEMs. They have said it for years that they want people to just build good sites, with great content, and pay to to play when needed like a kumbaya hippy commune where we all just cheerfully give Google money and you get to rank, when you “deserve” to rank and organic is more of a truly unintentional effort like “oh yay, we rank #1 for toys” instead of “we have to figure out how to rank for toys”

    Google feels that SEOs have destroyed the internet and in some ways they are right spammy and slimy SEO practices have filled the internet with cheap, low quality content, that doesn’t add a lot of value. So look for Semantic search and improved local accessibility to be the way things move into. Semantic search is just Google deciding what you are really searching for so something locally or not locally etc so for instance if you have “Tony’s Pizza” located in “Orlando” you want to show up in local semantic searches so when people search on their phones/computers for Italian Restaurants you want Tony’s for whenever it is Geographically relevant to show up as the number 1 choice but you also want it to show up for Italian Restaurants in Orlando as well.


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