Fruit of the Poisonous Tree: The likely cause of YouTube’s Invalid Traffic problem

It’s been a week since my last video on YouTube’s demonetization of many small channels due to “invalid traffic” and YouTube is still silent as to why some small creators are losing anywhere from half to nearly all of their revenue. In my latest video I take a look at what is the likely cause of this problem and why YouTube isn’t talking.

My suspicion is that YouTube is currently under scrutiny from three major stakeholders, and unfortunately, creators aren’t on that list. First, there are YouTube’s advertisers. Over the summer, a company named Adalytics released two significant studies that questioned some of Google and YouTube’s advertising practices. Although YouTube and parent company Google have denied these claims, the evidence from these studies suggests that these issues might be why revenue is getting clawed back.

One of the studies by Adalytics focused on TrueView skippable in-stream ads. These are the ads you see when you start a YouTube video, which you can choose to watch or skip. If you watch the ad, the advertiser pays. However, over the past two and a half years, YouTube has been selling these ads not just on their platform but also on other websites.

Adalytics and some industry insiders believe that many of these ads aren’t even being viewed by people. They’re running in the background on a website or sometimes not displayed to a person at all. This might be because YouTube doesn’t have as much ad inventory available for advertisers on YouTube itself, making YouTube-only placements a more expensive advertising option compared to other ad supported platforms like Hulu and Netflix.

Another factor is YouTube’s restrictions on how ads can run. Videos deemed “made for kids” can’t run certain types of ads. This reduces the available inventory. Also, YouTube is stringent about which channels can run ads. Many channels and videos are deemed “not advertiser-friendly,” further limiting ad inventory that YouTube can offer advertisers. For some reason advertisers are ok with their ads appearing on platforms like Netflix and Hulu next to content that they would not be comfortable with on YouTube.

Then there’s the issue of YouTube Shorts. These short videos are drawing viewers away from the more profitable long-form content that YouTube’s advertisers want to pay for. Creators who are able to negotiate brand deals on their own are far more motivated to make low-effort Shorts vs. longer form videos that require a greater time investment.

Another concern raised by Adalytics is about the placement of ads on “made for kids” videos. The study suggests that YouTube might be bending the rules by detecting when an adult is watching one of these videos and showing them adult-targeted ads. This was likely done in an effort to increase the amount of inventory they could sell to advertisers.

But here’s the problem: what if YouTube’s adult-detecting AI gets it wrong and a kid is the one actually watching? The Adalytics report suggests this is happening and advertisers are very unhappy. One advertiser said they’d be looking for refunds:

“Google has failed advertisers, again. There is no reasonable excuse for ads running on content intended primarily for kids other than to extort advertisers through a toddler-enabled click farm. The observations around Pmax (Preschooler Max) are damning given the hard sell Google is putting on us to trust their so-called AI black box. We’re overdue real transparency and Google needs to be made accountable – refunding us for all ads on this content and explaining themselves to the FTC.”

This is problematic because kids might still end up clicking on these ads, leading to potential legal issues. It is against the law in the United States to track the online behavior of children under the age of 13.

This in turn creates a “fruit of the poisonous tree” situation. And here’s how I think this is playing out: A kid gets served an adult ad on a “made for kids” video. They click on the ad and now an advertiser is collecting data on that individual. That account then starts viewing other ads on non-kid videos and additional data is collected and additional targeted advertising is directed at that account. But the entire account is poisoned at this point – and any ad views are likely going to be deemed invalid.

If YouTube is looking to refund advertisers for this traffic they’re going to have to follow those accounts across all of the videos they watched in an effort to make these advertisers whole. And it’s likely the creators getting hit with this are appealing to younger audiences hence the great impact. The only open question is why this seems to be hitting smaller creators more than the larger ones.

All these challenges come at a time when Google, YouTube’s parent company, is facing a lawsuit from the U.S. Department of Justice accusing them of being a monopoly. This is a significant case, and Google’s entire business could be at risk.

I recently spoke with Sarah Kimmel, a fellow creator who runs a channel called Family Tech. She shared her frustrations with the current situation on YouTube. Like many, she’s seen a significant drop in her revenue with zero communication from YouTube. She emphasized the need for transparency from YouTube. All she wants, like many of us, is clarity.

In conclusion, these are challenging times for creators on YouTube. Many factors are at play, and it’s crucial for YouTube to communicate and support its creator community. They

The Silent Crisis on YouTube : Invalid Traffic Revenue Clawbacks Decimating Small channels

The other day I received a concerning message in my YouTube analytics. The message indicated that ads had been limited on one or more of my videos due to “invalid traffic.” The ambiguity of the message left me puzzled. Which videos were affected? What financial implications would this have for my channel? I explore this brewing crisis in my latest video.

I wasn’t alone in this. A quick search revealed that several other creators, especially smaller channels like mine, were facing similar issues. Some reported losing up to 80 and 90% of their revenue with no clear explanation from YouTube beyond the vague explanation of “invalid traffic.”

YouTube’s response to this has been, to put it mildly, unsatisfactory. Their support articles mostly point fingers at creators, suggesting that the invalid traffic might be due to automated or incentivized traffic from third parties, or even friends playing videos from playlists all day long. I can confidently say that I’ve never engaged in such practices. I’ve built my channel from the ground up over a decade, always focusing on genuine content and organic growth.

What’s even more frustrating is the lack of clear communication from YouTube. When I reached out to their support, I was met with evasive answers. They wouldn’t specify which of my videos were affected or provide any clarity on the potential financial impact I can expect.

Speculating on the cause, I believe that channels like mine, which rely heavily on search traffic, might be getting penalized. About 42% of my traffic comes from people searching for specific product reviews. If YouTube’s algorithms can’t distinguish between genuine and “invalid” search traffic, channels like mine stand to lose a significant portion of their revenue.

But this issue is just the tip of the iceberg. YouTube seems to be undergoing an identity crisis. Their recent push towards “shorts” to compete with platforms like TikTok has had unintended consequences. Their usual communication discipline is appearing to break down as evidenced through a leak of their internal debates to a Financial Times reporter. The platform’s shift in focus to be more like TikTok and Instagram has affected how long-form content is recommended, leading to decreased visibility for creators like me.

The core strength of YouTube has always been its long-form content. But with the platform’s current trajectory, it feels like they’re sidelining creators who’ve been with them from the start. The lack of clear communication and support only exacerbates the feeling of being undervalued.

While I remain hopeful for the future, YouTube needs to address these issues head-on. Clear communication, better support for creators, and a re-evaluation of their current strategies are crucial. Only then can they rebuild the trust that seems to be eroding with each passing day.

YouTube Kills External Linking Because TikTok Does It?

YouTube announced this weekend that they will be disabling external links in the video description and comments for YouTube Shorts videos. This is the subject of my latest video.

This change, set to take effect on August 31st, has left me concerned for small and mid-sized creators who rely on affiliate marketing links for a portion of their revenue. When I first started making videos affiliate links drove most of my channel’s income and still represent a sizable portion of my overall revenue.

Affiliate links pay the creator a commission for sales that are generated from a user clicking on the link. What I really like about affiliate marketing is that it disincentivizes false advertising, as any returns made on an affiliate generated sale are deducted from the commission paid to the creator.

That’s why I was very disappointed to see the official response from YouTube’s “Creator Liaison,” Rene Ritchie, who said in a Twitter post that this was “the same as Reels and TikTok” and creators on those platforms were doing just fine.

I’ve always believed that YouTube offers a unique platform that stands out from its competitors through generous (and transparent) revenue sharing on long form videos, great discovery features, and the ability to use external links for affiliate marketing and other purposes.

The introduction of this restriction feels like a step backward – especially as their spokesperson devalues his own brand by comparing it to platforms that are the absolute worst for creator monetization. Perhaps Rene’s experience as a content creator and the creators he associates with are not struggling the way most monetized creators do on the platform. Some of us would prefer not to do the type of payola that clogs up TikTok and Reels.

One of the arguments presented by YouTube for this change revolves around security concerns, specifically the risk of scams and hacks appearing in comment threads. But YouTube solved that problem years ago by holding comments with links for moderation if the creator enables that feature (I do). Rene also rejected the idea of allowing those in the YouTube partner program to continue linking as he thinks it would make them a target for phishing attacks. But large creators are already the targets of phishing attacks as Linus Tech Tips found out a few months ago.

What I think is happening here is that YouTube is trying to get their own affiliate program off the ground which does work with Shorts. This new feature embeds affiliate links in the video itself but is limited only to retailers that agree to work with YouTube who presumably takes a cut of the action.

While this program has potential, my experience with it so far has been underwhelming. The click-through rates and conversions from YouTube’s affiliate links are significantly lower than my personally generated affiliate links and very few retailers that sell the types of products I cover are participating in the YouTube program.

I hope that YouTube will reconsider this decision and continue to support creators of all sizes. I love YouTube because it’s not a payola cesspool like their competitors. If that’s the vision for Shorts, fine. But the people I know at YouTube want to do better than that. And after all, it’s the creators who drive the platform, and their voices should be heard.

YouTube Needs to Fix the Subscriptions Tab!

I’ve been a part of the YouTube community for about 18 years, starting as an avid viewer and transitioning into a content creator over the last decade. Over the years, I’ve observed the platform’s evolution, especially the algorithmic recommendations on the homepage. While these recommendations often present me with content I’m genuinely interested in, there are times when I miss out on channels I want to catch up with.

I think YouTube can fix this problem by updating their “Subscriptions Tab” to make it easier to organize and navigate subscribed channels. This is the subject of my latest video.

Last year I delved deeper into RSS feeds, a standard for content distribution that can be used with an RSS feed reader to aggregate content from various sources into one organized space. This exploration was an eye-opener as I discovered I was missing content from many of my favorite creators including some larger ones.

Apparently if you don’t religiously watch a creator you’re effectively “shadow unsubscribed” and rarely see their uploads on the recommended home page.

This discrepancy led me to revisit YouTube’s subscriptions tab which gives users the “fire hose” of everything uploaded from subscribed channels in the order in which those videos were posted.

The experience varies across devices. On desktop, it’s a mix of live channels and a chronological list of videos from subscribed channels. On a TV, there’s a semblance of organization with frequently watched channels appearing at the top but no way to control what channels get pinned to the top of that list. The mobile version offers filters like ‘Live’ and ‘Continue Watching’, but the overall experience remains cluttered – especially if you’re subscribed to channels that dump a whole bunch of content at once.

The subscription tab on TV pins frequently watched channels to the top.

One feature I appreciate on YouTube’s algorithmically generated homepage is the topic-based organization of its recommendations. It would be beneficial if such a system were integrated into the subscriptions tab, allowing users to view content from their subscribed channels based on specific topics.

To experiment with this idea, I set up my own RSS reader dedicated to YouTube. Using FreshRSS, I organized channels into topics, creating a streamlined content consumption experience. This approach allowed me to view content from local news stations, hyper-local channels, and other niche interests, all in one place.

In addition to subscribing to channels YouTube also allows the generation of feeds for playlists too. For example I added the playlist for Wil Wheaton’s “Ready Room” Star Trek interview show on the Paramount+ as that’s about the only thing I watch from their channel.

The best part about the RSS approach is that it’s more efficient from a viewing perspective and lets ME choose what not to watch vs. having an algorithm do it for me. Being able to see what I’m passing over is preferable to not seeing it at all IMHO.

While I appreciate YouTube’s efforts in content recommendation, there’s room for improvement in the subscriptions tab. As both a viewer and a creator, I believe that refining this feature will enhance the user experience, ensuring that we never miss out on content from our favorite creators.

Broadcasters Roll Out Restrictive DRM Encryption on ATSC 3.0 Broadcasts

In my latest video I discuss the concerning trend of broadcasters introducing encryption and Digital Rights Management (DRM) to ATSC 3 broadcasts in the United States. This move, while seemingly about preventing piracy and illegal re-transmission of signals, could significantly limit consumers’ ability to consume content in the way they want.

While consumers can watch ATSC 3 content live on next-gen certified televisions, they may face restrictions when trying to use apps like Plex or Channels for DVR recordings or outside-the-home viewing. There’s also the looming question of whether an Internet connection might be required to watch broadcast TV in the future.

I suspect that the motivation behind this move is largely to protect their re-transmission fee revenue broadcasters collected on a per-subscriber basis from cable companies and streaming services. Some estimates have it as high as $15 billion annually.

However, this shift towards DRM and encryption raises several questions and concerns. One of the most pressing is whether broadcasters could eventually charge consumers to watch what should be free television. While broadcasters are barred from doing so by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), I wouldn’t be surprised to see some broadcasters lobbying the FCC to allow it.

Another concern is the future of free TV content. As networks transition into streaming services, there’s a risk that high-quality content may become exclusive to paid streaming, leaving only local news and less desirable content for free broadcast TV. We’re already seeing examples of NBC, through Peacock and CBS, through Paramount+ offering content exclusive to those streaming apps that are not available on broadcast.

Given these concerns, I believe it’s crucial for consumers to voice their objections to the introduction of DRM in ATSC 3 broadcasts. I recommend reaching out to your senators and representatives, particularly those who have shown interest in accelerating the rollout of the ATSC 3 standard, to bring this issue to their attention.

Since this video was uploaded I heard from a bunch of viewers who were recently impacted by this change. Here’s what Matthew Mello sent to me on Twitter this morning:

Here the Comcast owned affiliate encrypts their ATSC 3 over the air signal making it more difficult to tune for free. If you want to DVR content or watch on a phone you’ll have to subscribe to cable to get those features – with Comcast picking up subscription AND retransmission fees.

There’s a reason the FCC used to limit media ownership in a market!

As a consumer and a tech enthusiast, I’m keeping a close eye on these developments. If DRM gets activated where I live I’ll be sure to share my experiences and continue to advocate for consumer rights in the broadcasting industry. Until then, I encourage everyone to stay informed and take action to protect our access to free over-the-air TV.

I am Opting out of the Facebook Class Action Settlement

Facebook settled a privacy lawsuit for $725 million related to the Cambridge Analytica scandal and other data sharing practices from 2007 to 2022. Over 200 million people in the United States are automatically included in the class unless they opt out.

In my latest video we take a look at the settlement and why I think the lawyers and Facebook / Meta are the only ones who really benefit.

The lawyers involved in the case are set to receive 25% of the settlement fund, which amounts to about $181 million. Users are expected to receive just a couple of bucks each depending on the length of time they have been Facebook users. The settlement also prevents users from participating in any future lawsuits against Facebook or their parent company Meta regarding any issue related to data sharing that took place throughout the fifteen years the lawsuit covers.

Anyone in the United States that had a Facebook account between 2007-2022 will automatically be included in the class even if they don’t file for a compensation claim. That means unless individuals take the effort to opt-out they will be barred from any legal action against Facebook should additional data sharing scandals and or damages arise in the future.

To opt out of the settlement and preserve your rights, you can visit the Facebook lawsuit website and follow the opt-out instructions.

The Perils of Centralized Platforms

A few months ago I started look at ways to follow Indieweb principles in how I produce and consume content. On the consumption side I spent some time freshening up my RSS reader with a blob of feeds that I have been tracking for almost twenty years now. As for creation I set up this blog and looked at ways to syndicate content from the blog out to other places.

In my latest video in this series we take a look at how it’s all working six months later. I also look at some ways to decentralize other parts of my work, including video using a federated platform called Peertube.

It’s been fun exploring how open source developers are engineering ways to replicate the experience and reach potential of centralized platforms but in a way that’s completely decentralized. Join a server if you want or spin up your own – either way you’re in control of your content and data. And the best part is that there’s no owner who can pull the plug on it.

The past few weeks have shown the perils of centralization with Twitter’s ongoing drama and the collapse of centralized crypto exchanges. In many ways centralizing things on the Internet runs counter to its design doesn’t it? With the proliferation of much faster upstream broadband there’s a lot of opportunity in the decentralized “fediverse.” I think this will likely be as much of a focus in the 2020s as centralized networks were in the 2010s.