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by Stephen Logan on 10th January 2012
The latest exposé comes courtesy of the BBC, who found a number of people who had unwittingly coughed up for tickets that didn’t exist from companies that are equally elusive. The reason why they had fallen foul of this old ruse was simply that it appeared at the top of Google.
Unsurprisingly, the result that was clicked on in most instances wasn’t within the organic search results, but in the PPC adverts at the top of the page. Of course, just because a company uses AdWords doesn’t instantly make them untrustworthy; but you do have to be a little more careful when clicking on anything within the yellow-ish box.
Law Breakers and Unethical Companies
Google has a responsibility to ensure that the companies advertising through its AdWords platform adhere to the laws of the land though. This is why they found themselves in hot water with the Canadian Pharmaceutical fiasco, which ended up costing the search engine half a billion dollars.
They’ve had their fair share of run-ins as a result of PPC adverts though, particularly where trademarks are concerned. Louis Vuitton famously tried (and failed) to protect trademarked terms in France. This led to a number of radical changes, ensuring that trademarks were used only by authorised resellers and only under the strictest of terms – see Tara’s post for more information: Can Competitors Use My Brand Name in AdWords?
The Risks of Automated Advertising
However, this latest oversight shows the fallibility of Google and its automated advertising platform. It’s not just Olympic tickets that you can find, cannabis is also readily available through PPC ads. The reselling of tickets has certain legal ambiguities, some are fine, others not, but drugs should be much easier to, if you’ll excuse the pun, weed out.
As we have all been made well aware, Olympic tickets can only be sold by approved companies and travel agencies. This is to prevent scalpers from charging extortionate amounts and profiteering. Therefore, if a company is claiming to have tickets and is called ‘LiveOlympicTickets’ alarm bells should be ringing.
Unfortunately there does seem to be a general ignorance when it comes to online matters, with many, otherwise intelligent people falling into obvious traps. It is difficult to differentiate between paid adverts and the organic results, even when you know what you’re looking for. Equally, Google should be doing more to police the results they provide and the companies that advertise through AdWords. But it is a two-way street.
Understanding the Risks of Buying Online
If you see something that looks too good to be true, it probably is. Millions of people applied for and failed to secure Olympic tickets, with the official resale of unwanted tickets taking place a few days ago; so why would a company (top of Google or otherwise) that you don’t know from Adam be able to get some for you? Of course, if it was a well-known travel agent or official body, then perhaps your luck might be in. But there’s an equal chance that it is just an off-shore charlatan that will take your money and then never deliver the product – because it doesn’t exist.
There are plenty of people who question how ethical it is for Google to profit from clicks to trademark-breaching or law breaking websites. In the most part the search engine does tend to be pretty quick at spotting and removing any such issues; but some always seem to linger on and slip through the net. Now whether this is deliberate or an unfortunate result of automating advertising across millions of search terms, is up for debate (just not here, or now).
Ultimately though, this is annoying for the people who have lost money and embarrassing for Google. However, it happens and will probably continue to do so for a long time to come. Not all search results will be legitimate and neither will the PPC advertisers, which is why people need to be aware of the dangers and take the time to investigate before committing to a purchase online.
Scams exist in every walk of life, the good and bad news for Google is that those who choose to do their profiteering online generally choose to use paid averts on search engines. This latest story reinforces the need for a wider awareness of how the Internet works, what dangers lurk out there and how users can enjoy a safer experience. It is also another lesson for advertising hosts including Google and Microsoft, as this case perfectly highlights how a seemingly inconspicuous slip could result in a mainstream media PR disaster.