AVG (NYSE:AVG), Perion Technology (NASDAQ:PERI), and Babylon (BBYL.TA) have been in the news a lot lately. All three companies have relied on their AdSense partnership with Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) for the majority of their revenue as their non-premium software is free. Instead, they make money by installing additional browser extensions that change its home page and default search engine during the installation process. This new search engine and home page will be still powered by Google search but will also display additional ads, often looking like "organic search" results, which are of much higher click-through value than Google's search "sponsored links". The revenue from clicking on these ads is usually split 50/50 with Google.
Last fall Google decided to tighten up its partnership policy after hearing constant complaints about browser search being "hijacked" by an unknown search engine after installing some free program.
Eiad Asbahi published an excellent analysis explaining how this default "opt-in" works for AVG. Perion's, Babylon's, and countless other "free" programs work in almost exactly the same way. Perion Network was especially hard-hit by harsh criticism from Bloomberg's Cory Johnson and Seeking Alpha's Vince Martin, while Frank Voisin provided a rebuttal. These articles did a very good job covering all the important points and expressed strong but opposing opinions on whether the new rules will damage Perion's business. However, I feel the whole argument may be beside the point as the new Google rules are easy to get around and Google is not serious about enforcing them.
I want to show a simple example of abiding by the "letter" of the new Google policy while almost completely ignoring its "spirit".
We don't really know how Google changed its AdSense Affiliate Partner Policy as all partner agreements are confidential and may vary. There is a page on Google site describing a general framework of such an agreement. Perion's and AVG press releases and conference calls provide us with information that Google wants an explicit "opt-in" option to be default in order to install any browser extensions or change its home page. If a user selects nothing, only the downloaded software is installed.
Let me show you how Perion's subsidiary SweetPacks creatively got around an "opt-in" requirement.
Step 1: Starting a standard install:
Step 2: "Default search" engine and "default home page" are unchecked as required by new Google policy. Intuitively, a user expects to click on the right button "Agree & Continue" but can't! Of course, there is "Skip all additional offers" button on the left which will move directly to the software installation process but we've been trained over many installation that the left side is "to go back" to the previous step.
Step 3: The user thinks "Why can't I continue?" and there is a helpful button just to answer this question. Now the installation process cannot proceed at all without "opting-in"!
Step 4: The user checked the choices to change the browser home page and the search engine and can proceed.
Hopefully, this article sheds some light on how easy it is to get around the new requirements of the AdSense Affiliate Partner Policy. My best guess is that Google doesn't really mind as these partnerships are very profitable. Google wants to be known as a "good citizen" but not at a high cost. Eiad Asbahi pointed out another credible threat: a new feature in a beta version of Chrome browser which disables all third-party browser extensions by default. It's worth remembering, though, a quick death of "Do Not Track" Internet Explorer 10 default option which is not honored by any major search engine (even Bing!). As they say, "money talks"…
Disclosure: I am long PERI. I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for it (other than from Seeking Alpha). I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.