Another Advertiser Class Action Lawsuit Filed Against Google–Woods v. Google

By Eric Goldman

Woods v. Google Inc., 5:11-cv-01263-HRL (N.D. Cal. complaint filed March 15, 2011)

Since Google settled its click fraud lawsuits in 2006 and the CLRB Hanson case in 2009, it’s been a little quiet on the advertiser-vs.-Google class action lawsuit front. This lawsuit breaks that calm. It’s a 300 paragraph broadside against many of Google’s advertising practices that lead to alleged overcharges, which the complaint characterizes as click fraud.

A quick note about the named plaintiff: he describes himself in the complaint (para. 16) as “an Arkansas attorney advertising his legal services.” (Is this him?) What is it with lawyers who sue Google as plaintiffs? I previously noted how lawyers suing for their own account were unusually common plaintiffs against Google.

Beneath the bloated and mind-numbing prose in the complaint, there could be some potentially juicy allegations here. Unfortunately, weak drafting prevents me from fully understanding the plaintiffs’ beefs. It appears to have something to do with Google’s AdSense terms restricting certain publisher behavior, which the complaint appears to treat as promises to advertisers that they would not be charged for such behavior. If I’m reading this correctly, the plaintiffs’ complaints are predicated on the unfortunately all-too-common but nevertheless obviously flawed logic that Z’s negative behavioral covenants with party X are Z’s affirmative promises to party Y that such behavior won’t occur. See, e.g., para. 70, which tries to convert the AdSense terms into affirmative promises to advertisers. More typically, Y tries to take advantage of X’s negative behavioral covenants by claiming to be a third party beneficiary of the Z-X contract, but those arguments rarely work, and the plaintiffs don’t try them here.

As a specific application of the flawed logic about advertisers as beneficiaries of the Google AdSense terms, the plaintiffs appear to be unhappy that Google cut special deals with big advertising distribution partners (such as IAC and Infospace) who were governed by different (and less advertiser-friendly) ad display rules than rank-and-file AdSense publishers. I believe this gripe is predicated an implicit assumption among advertisers that the published AdSense contract is the only rules that govern AdWords distribution. The cloak-and-dagger stuff about special partners having favorable hidden deals can be pretty interesting, but the complaint’s assumption that advertisers didn’t know that some AdSense publishers had customized terms seemed dubious to me.

The complaint also goes into some detail about Google’s “Smart Pricing” mechanism and argues that it didn’t work properly. The complaint gives some examples where the advertiser’s bids allegedly were inflated because Smart Pricing wasn’t turned on as it expected. I must confess that I find Google’s explanation of this mechanism pretty opaque (the explanations talk about “business results,” whatever that means), so I had a tough time evaluating the significance of the complaint’s gripes.

Based solely on the complaint, it’s virtually impossible to gauge the likelihood of the plaintiffs getting a payoff here. There are the usual challenges to class certification, including commonality/predominance of class issues. In this case, there’s the additional variables of how the prior class action settlements might limit this complaint, plus the overlay of any statute of limitations (a number of citations were to 2007 publications). And, as usual, so much depends on discovery (if the plaintiffs survive the inevitable motion to dismiss)–can they find smoking guns, or will their arguments remain mostly conjecture and assumptions? Despite all of these potential impediments, I can’t imagine Google is thrilled to be wrangling with a lawsuit like this.