Don’t Be Evil: How Google Screwed a Startup

After trying to go through the “proper channels” for almost a year now it’s time to share this story of how Google screwed over our startup with the world.

Hatchlings is the world’s largest Easter Egg hunt. We have over 3.5 million users spanning all 50 states and almost every country on Earth. We have been in operation for over 4 years and are launching our new version, Hatchlings 2, this spring.

In a nutshell: Google bid on, displayed, and then failed to pay for over $40,000 of advertising space on Hatchlings. They have since stonewalled us for almost a year, locking us out of our accounts, screening our phone calls, ignoring our emails, and making it a living hell to figure out what exactly went wrong.

What you can do to help: please share, tweet, and reblog this post. Help us get the word out so that others don’t fall into this same trap.

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Since early 2008 we have been running the world’s largest Easter Egg Hunt on Facebook and hatchlings.com. We have amassed a loyal following of users from all over the globe who have spent untold hours collecting over 1,300 unique eggs and pets.

We are a bootstrapped startup located in Des Moines, Iowa and now have a full-time team of 5 and are currently looking to hire 2 more. We owe many thanks to our paying users for supporting us by purchasing premium memberships and eggs over the years. Without you we would be out of business right now.

Because of Google.

Our relationship with Google started out great, continued on great for several years, and in an instant they banned us, confiscated two months of our earnings, and have never contacted us again despite our repeated efforts.

Let’s go through a brief timeline of our relationship with Google. (Links will open supporting documentation or referenced email correspondence)

  • February 2006: I sign up for a Google Adsense account.
  • 2006-2008: I use Adsense on some personal websites with minimal traffic.
  • February 2008: Hatchlings is launched out of my dorm room at Iowa State. I include Google Ads as a revenue model from the start.
  • Spring 2008: Hatchlings takes off. The Google ads start making money.
  • October 2008: Worried that our rapid growth might trip some sort of trigger at Google I reach out to Matt Cutts who sets us up with our first account manager at Google, Debby Chang.
  • October 2008: Debby and I had our first optimization call and she made suggestions about our ad placements, etc. They first mention selling Hatchlings branded eggs to advertisers.
  • February 12, 2009: Google raises concerns about one of my personal websites. I immediately take down the ads on the site since Hatchlings is much more important. Debby assures us on February 12 that “your AdSense account remains in good standing and any actions taken on this domain do not affect the performance of your other AdSense ads." This is the only issue that has ever been raised by Google in regard to our account.
  • February 24, 2009, Debby contacts me with an urgent proposal to release a Marley & Me branded egg to coincide with their DVD release along with a full ad-buyout of Hatchlings’ ad inventory.
  • The rest of 2009: More optimization calls, good working relationship.
  • Also in 2009: Google is still working on finding an opportunity for them to sell deeply integrated ads.
  • Throughout 2010: more of the same. Good working relationship. No concerns raised about Hatchlings’ compliance, etc. We launch hatchlings.com to distance ourselves a bit from the Facebook platform.
  • January 2011: We get an email from our new account manager at Google, Laura Sergio.
  • February 25, 2011: Our last correspondence with Laura was February 25, 2011.
  • April 18, 2011: So you can imagine my surprise when less than two months later we received an automated email that said “After reviewing our records, we’ve determined that your AdSense account poses a risk of generating invalid activity… we’ve found it necessary to disable your AdSense account. Your outstanding balance and Google’s share of the revenue will both be fully refunded back to the affected advertisers." [emphasis mine] As we were locked out of our account we don’t know the exact amount of credited money that was taken back but based on historical data it is in the range of $40,000. This is for ads that were already shown on our site from February 1 to April 18.
  • April 18, 2011: thinking this was obviously a mistake and that some algorithm had flagged us with a false positive of some kind I followed an appeal and reached out to our account manager, Laura.
  • May 4, 2011: the appeal was summarily denied. Our account manager never returned my calls or emails.
  • May 2011: at this point we started exploring what our options were. We found out that some people had success filing a super-detailed second appeal form itemizing the Adsense terms of service and explaining how they were not in violation. Although, if you’ll note, Google never even claimed we were in violation of their terms.
  • July 21, 2011: after an extensive review of our records, the Google terms, our historical correspondence with Google, etc. We filed a very detailed second appeal. We also included some extra sources such as traffic stats and email records (not linking to them here as they contain some confidential info).
  • September 2011-Present: Google never replied to our second appeal so we started trying to explore other channels to get this issue resolved. Contacting someone through their lobbying arm via a personal connection yielded nothing. Getting in touch via the Startup America Partnership was unsuccessful.

    The closest we can get to an answer is “oh yeah we’ll look into it and see what we can find”… then silence. We still don’t even know what it is that we supposedly did wrong.
  • We even sent them the full text (including the links to the supporting emails!) of this blog post last week before publishing with no reply.

We have been advised that to sue Google (even though we are completely in the right and would probably win) would cost more money than we’d get out of it. We are just spreading the word about what happened to us to help other startups.

The moral of the story is to be careful when planning your business that one “partner” company can’t pull the rug out from under you. While this is a story about Google it could very well have been another large “partner.” Who does your business hinge on? A lot of startups accept the implied risks of building on “platforms” or having big, faceless “partners” form an integral part of their business foundation without a second thought.

We were very fortunate to have a diversified revenue stream with paying users to support us and help us remain a viable business even after losing a large chunk of advertising revenue (and we thank our users from the bottom of our heart for that) but others wouldn’t have been so lucky.

Personal Note to Google: I realize that this probably wasn’t done maliciously and that we were probably caught up in some algorithm gone awry. And I also realize that for the amount of money we’re talking about you probably don’t even consider this to be an issue worth your time. But for a startup like us this is a huge deal. Feel free to reach out.. you have my cell number and email address. But after almost a year of being ignored I’m not holding my breath.

What you can do to help: please share, tweet, and reblog this post. Help us get the word out so that others don’t fall into this same trap.

Media Roundup: Startup Iowa, Silicon Prairie News, DM Reg, Hacker News, Business Insider, Tech Meme, The Economist

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  14. missyshenanigan reblogged this from adamusprime and added:
    aww, that’s not cool. I like Hatchlings. Google, why are you being such a butthead?
  15. flightcub reblogged this from hatchlingsblog
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  23. thenthebaconfell reblogged this from adamusprime and added:
    Well, that’s just dandy. Now I’m terrified of Google. D:
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  26. adamusprime reblogged this from hatchlingsblog and added:
    caring at all :)
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