Google Profiting from Illegal Ads… but that not’s the real story

I’m quite happy to be cynical and sceptical of Google, but sometimes people are keen to leap down their throat for the wrong reasons.

“Google admits profiting from illegal Olympic ticket ads” screams the BBC headline. In breathless tones, the report unfolds to describe how Google keeps the money it generates from running ads for fraudulent companies. In this case, tickets for the 2012 Olympics. We are introduced to people who clicked ads on Google and who subsequently lost money when it turned out that they did not, in fact, have any tickets.

Naturally, anyone would sympathise with the people concerned: it is certainly unpleasant to find yourself ripped off in this way, by anyone.

But the article then spends the remainder of its running length implying that Google are somehow complicit in the fraud because they allowed these people to advertise with them. An expert is wheeled out to argue that the algorithmic checks that Google run are insufficient to prevent fraudulent advertisers and from there the implication is drawn that it wrong for Google to keep the money they got from the advertising.

Firstly: of course Google keep the money! Let’s imagine that this fraudulent company had an office somewhere and went out and bought sandwiches every day. When the company is discovered, is there some argument that says that the rents should be paid back, or that the sandwich shop should hand back the cash? I’m not aware of it.

If the company in question had advertised in Yellow Pages – or even on ITV, the consequences would have been the same. When people falsely advertise, it is they who are the criminal – not the advertising media they choose to use.

Secondly, there is no system in the world that can perform a background check on a company’s bona fides. Google is an advertising platform that is open to all. I could, if I wish, advertise my services as a wedding singer (ha!) but there is no way that anyone could possibly say whether I’m a good enough singer or have any experience in the job. Google can’t be held to account for that. (In fact, by rolling review scores into their adverts, Google is arguably trying to go a lot further than any form of broadcast or print media).

But the same would equally be true if I advertised in any other medium – including Facebook ads, banner advertising, email marketing… All that really differentiates Google is the speed and visibility of the route to market.

What Google do do is ban entire categories of advertising (certain forms of gambling, drugs, guns, etc), particular keywords related to the same and stringently police trademark infringements (try bidding on Coca Cola) Is it a perfect system? Of course not – as periodic episodes of violation and exploited loopholes attest.

The lesson here is the one that has been taught since time immemorial: caveat emptor – let the buyer beware. It has been trailed for well over 2 years that only very few outlets are licensed to sell Olympic Tickets and this has been covered widely in the press. At some point, there is a line between what Google can reasonably be expected to do, and the responsibility of the buyer themselves to research matters for themselves and to judge where and from whom to buy things.

Finally, this draws attention to the real dangers – which lie among the organic results. It is there where the true Wild West is to be found. Google may deign that they will not sell advertising for drugs and guns, but some judicious searching will easily take you to kinds of places where you can find that kind of information available – just as you can find any kind of pornography or extreme political or religious philosophy.

However, the argument that Google should use its power to act as a censor is one that should fill you with fear, however well-intentioned.


Some thoughts on the unholy Unruly Google mess

In case you missed it, this week’s storm in the SEO teacup is Google’s apparent connivance in a linkbuying campaign, and their subsequent decision to penalise one of their own pages (The full story is better told by Danny Sullivan over at Search Engine Land, and I don’t propose to rehash it all here – suffice to say that the blame game is in full swing).

The main thing that occurs to me is the godawful situation that Google have helped to create. It’s a trite enough observation – made a million times before – that it was Google who gave value to links by first making them a ranking factor, and second publicising the fact.

Their attempts to sandbag themselves against the backwash of that knowledge being in the public domain have opened up new legal/ethical/technical questions which daily furrow the brows of bloggers, marketers, website owners, SEOs and the occasional schlub who finds him or herself watching their traffic boom or die without ever understanding why it happened.

The innocent days where people would link to friends, business partners or things they just happened to like have been soured by the link economy. Now Google actively advises people to use the nofollow attribute on links so their almighty spider doesn’t mistake them for a link seller. In short: you are always under suspicion.

It’s another example of how site owners are just bobbing around helplessly in the commercial and technical sea that Google dominates.

By banning their own page, Google are just playing the PR game. That does nothing to hide the fact that as long as links count as a ranking metric then they will have value, and will be bought and sold accordingly. And it remains the case that if you want to rank for any serious (non-niche) keyword you have to have a big budget to either:

  1. Buy “natural” brand awareness/market share through advertising or viral
  2. Have the money and know-how to build a technically impregnable SEO empire
  3. Go out and buy links

And that is both Google’s fault, and Google’s problem.