Can you trust Google sponsored results?

18 Feb 2011

It's a simple question, do you trust Google? My confusing answer is yes and no. Yes, I trust Google to find more relevant information in less time than other search engines. No, I don't trust Google to filter out all the cons and scams.

Indeed, the level of trust that I associate with Google search declines dramatically when it comes to those results that appear at the top and side of the page, you know, the ones with the very light text saying 'Ads' next to them. I cannot recall ever clicking on a 'sponsored search result' for a couple of very good reasons:

1. The whole point of using Google is to uncover information that has been deemed relevant courtesy of the hugely complex algorithm at the heart of the search engine's success, and not which has been dropped onto the page simply because someone paid for it to be there.

2. The bad guys have, for as long as I can remember, been using such sponsored results to lure people to their sites and whatever nefarious activity lies within.

Not that I am suggesting for one second that all such sponsored results lead to malware-ridden, spam-infested, drive-by-downloading and spawn-of-Satan sites. Some are genuinely just trying to buy your attention, because their SEO skills are such that they would just get lost halfway down the organic results list. Others are just covering all marketing bases, such as PC Pro itself which appears at the top of the organic results list when you search for 'PC Pro' but also as the solitary sponsored result.

By appearing as an advert on a Google search results page there is something of an implied transference of trust from the Google brand to the advertised resource

Yet, the point remains that many sponsored results are potentially unsafe, and there's a simple way to test this claim. Search for 'free downloads' and if you have a safe browsing tool installed check out how many sponsored results are flagged as having a poor reputation.

I use Web of Trust (WoT) to provide an at-a-glance idea of site reputation as it uses a community-based, crowd-sourced system to determine if a site is trustworthy. A green symbol next to a result indicates no reported problems, amber advises caution while red means go no further.

Taking that 'free downloads' search as an example, three of the top ten (or 30%) of the organic results are flagged red with the remainder green, while four out of the seven (or 57%) sponsored results carry a red ratings. It's 71% if you take the solitary amber warning into account as well. In other words, my trust gets turned on its head with only 30% of the sponsored results being flagged go-ahead-green rather than 30% being flagged stay-away red.

The WoT ratings take factors such as privacy issues, child safety, vendor reliability and trust into account. While not every site flagged red by WoT is going to be run by scammers, there's good reason why the bad guys like the Google sponsored search results and that's the big T word.

By appearing as an advert on a Google search results page there is something of an implied transference of trust from the Google brand to the advertised resource, and I'm convinced that's why people click on them. It is assumed, wrongly in my opinion, that a sponsored result can somehow be trusted more than an organic result.

As if to prove how valuable the trust equation is to the scammers and spammers, take a new pharmacy spam campaign that hijacks the Google brand. MessageLabs Intelligence has been tracking this campaign recently, and notes that it claims to be promoting a "Google-accredited" resource. The truth is that Google doesn't give approval to any site, let alone an online pharmacy; why would it? The spammers even use the Google logo with the 'oo' replaced by a couple of tablets. I love the concept that Google would approve a drugs-related doodle.

Just as I have trained my brain to ignore the adverts that appear alongside many free iPhone apps that I use, so I have trained it to totally filter out the paid-for search results that appear at the top and side of the organic search results. I suggest you start doing the same. Trust me...

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