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Why is it so hard to give Google money?
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Why is it so hard to give Google money? 

I’ve been trying to run search ads on Google for over a month. Due to two unrelated snags, I’ve only had ~12 hours of uptime with those ads in that time. Based on conversations with other startups that run Google Ads, my experience is neither unique nor surprising. Apropos of Google’s earnings day, I wanted to vent a bit about how hard Google makes it to use the product that drives so much of their revenue.


As a Google Workspace administrator, I get occasional emails encouraging me to try out Google Ads for my company. Recently we launched a new offering directed at a niche audience, and it seemed like a good time to test the waters of search advertising. As icing on the cake, Google was offering a promotional $500 credit after $500 of ad spend.

I encountered my first hurdle immediately after attempting to sign up. No matter how I tried to sign up, a bug caused me to be thrown into the flow to create a mobile application ad, which I couldn’t get past without putting in a Google Play or iOS application identifier (I have neither). I opened a support request with a short screen capture:

A screen capture showing an attempt at running a search ad which results in an app ad workflow.

After two weeks of back-and-forth emails, phone tag, and another screen cap, a very helpful support agent was able to manually bypass the onboarding flow for me so that I could start running ads.

I was finally able to use their ad tool to make an ad. It looked like this.

A Google ad preview for a product called Jamsocket offering serverless Jupyter notebooks

That afternoon, I spent about $50 on the ads and generated 47 clicks. We even had some sign-ups. The next morning, I woke up to this:

Email that says: your Google account has been suspended because we've identified suspicious behavior in the payment activity of your account.

This was strange, because there had been no payment activity on my account, nor should there have been: automatic payments are triggered by the end of the month or $350 in spend, neither of which had occurred. The same credit card on the account, a corporate Mastercard from Brex, is attached to Google Cloud, Google Workspace, and Google Domains. Collectively, Google services have successfully charged that same card over $2,000 since that email.

I was frustrated to encounter another snag already, but I figured it would be an easy appeal. It seemed like an obvious error, and that it would just take a human looking at the case to see that. I submitted an appeal on July 6th and waited.

Five days later, I got a response:

An email that says: after reviewing your case and taking your feedback into consideration, we've confirmed that your account was and still is in violation of our Google Ads policies.

Ugh, okay. They confirmed that my account was still “in violation”, but no hint as to why or what I can do to fix it. The ads UI still refers to suspicious payments, but I check again and still can’t find any details of any payments having been attempted.

An in-app notification that says: Your account is suspended. We've detected suspicious payments in your account.

The UI encourages using the appeal flow rather than other support channels. But that hadn’t worked, and I had just worked with a helpful support agent the prior week, so I reached back out directly to her.

Hi [redacted],

Thanks for your help on this, I can confirm that the account activation worked. Unfortunately, after one day of running ads, my account got flagged for suspicious payment activity. I’m baffled by this because my card on file is valid, I’m the authorized user, and according to my bank no attempt at a payment has been made. I submitted an appeal but it was denied today with no additional details.

I was wondering if having you set up the account from a different IP could have been what triggered this? Anything you could do to help would be appreciated, since I’ve already exhausted the appeal option.

Thanks,

Paul

The same day (July 13), I received another copy of the same account suspension form email, but signed by the support agent and with an additional line inserted in the message:

Please be informed that any assistance given in completing the account setup is not the reason for your account suspension.

I replied to the email, asking if there was anything I could do:

Is there any more information about what the payment issue is or what steps I can take? If it’s a matter of a payment being declined, I can assure you that it was an error and will be happy to resolve it, although I don’t see any evidence that that’s the case from my end. We are a VC-backed startup with a marketing budget; it would be mutually beneficial to have this resolved.

I also submitted a similar request again to the official appeal request channel. On July 21, that appeal was denied with (for the third time) the same uninformative form email.

So to recap, I’ve been trying to run ads for over a month, hit two separate snags, and have only been able to use the product for half a day in total.

I used to work on the Search team at Google (full disclosure, I still hold some shares). At the time, my biggest gripe was that we were too slow to address bad actors who used ads to deceive users, for example, into calling a scammer by listing their number in an ad that appeared for “windows support”. To make matters worse, it was (amazingly) possible to spoof domains in ads as recently as a few years ago.

I’m glad they’ve since cleaned up their act, but evidently they overshot. My best guess is that a statistical model flagged some transactions on some unrelated account, and that account had a card from the same (smallish) issuer, and since my account was new (and, by virtue thereof, had no payment history to redeem it), I got swept up as collateral damage. It’s the only explanation I can come up with for what “suspicious payments” could possibly mean in the context of no payments having been due or attempted. I also suspect that appeals are triaged by cumulative customer revenue, and since mine is (currently) only $50, I fall in the bucket that gets the least human eyeball time, hence appeals being a dead end.

I’m not particularly bummed to miss out on Ads – we have other ways of getting the word out, and our highly-technical target audience has a high propensity to use ad blockers. But the Kafkaesque experience makes me think question our reliance on other Google services, like Cloud and Workspace. My plea to Google is this: please stop making it so hard to give you money.

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