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Posted on February 18th, 2011 by Davey Winder

Can you trust Google sponsored results?

WOT warning

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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Posted in: Rant, Real World Computing


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12 Responses to “ Can you trust Google sponsored results? ”

  1. Craig Dunn Says:
    February 18th, 2011 at 4:27 pm

    What a narrow view of sponsored search you present.

    Are you not aware that “relevance” is where Google places a large amount of emphasis in where an ad places?

    Also, you need to be very careful with this kind of broad ranging statement.

    Thousands of small businesses, with no wish to steal your personal info, utilise paid search as a mechanism for revenue generation.

    Not to mention Google Gratns, that allows not-for profits to get tens of thousands of dollars of free clicks. Allowing them to provide excellent support services to wider audience. One they wouldn’t normally have access to.

    So, so far, we’ve established that your statement has the ability to harm small businesses – in a recession, and not-for-profits doing a great job.

    Care to amend your closing line?

  2. Craig Dunn Says:
    February 18th, 2011 at 4:28 pm

    Sorry that’s meant to read “Google GRANTS” not “gratns”…. I must have click on a sponsored link and some malware is effecting my spell check….

  3. Peter Says:
    February 18th, 2011 at 4:51 pm

    The word “trust” has various interpretations and connotations.

    In those halcyon days when “Google” was the name of an obscure search-engine, not a commonly used verb, I trusted it implicitly.

    Today Google is a multi-billion dollar advertising company which uses its Search engine to deliver the advertisements. Part of its ‘value-add’ to its corporate clients its the ability to find-out and record my personal data, and to ‘target’ me.
    None of this behaviour is, in my view, trustworthy.

    Having said all of that I still use Google (and Bing) but I’m very introspective about what I click-on….

  4. Andy Says:
    February 19th, 2011 at 3:30 pm

    Wow – how can someone be so naive – you really think that those in the ‘true’ google listing have not paid thousands of pounds to SEO companies to get there? Unfortunately trust is something to be bought on the internet. Who hasnt heard of hotels offering discounts for good reviews on tripadvisor, or people paying to have invisible links to other sites to raise their rankings on search engines.

  5. Pinero Says:
    February 20th, 2011 at 12:26 am

    Those top couple of paid for hits with a slightly different background colour and the sponsored sites down the left side are are all blocked in my neck of the woods.. and that would include 450 odd schools.
    So all the kids here are learning that it’s a waste of time clicking on those sponsored links because they just go to a useless ‘This site has been blocked’ page.

    Problem solved for us and future generations I think.

  6. Davey Winder Says:
    February 20th, 2011 at 11:19 am

    Erm Craig, did you miss the bit where I stated “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” by any chance?

    My post was about the assumption that a paid for search result is going to be somehow more trustworthy than an organic one, and a warning that is simply not the case for some very compelling reasons.

    I’m not going to revise my summing up, no.

    If small business, or any business for that matter, wants the hits during a recession or at any time then appearing at the top of organic search listings is the way to go…

  7. Craig Dunn Says:
    February 20th, 2011 at 2:44 pm

    Sorry Dave, but you clearly are missing the point on the small business side. How does a small business compete on keyphrases in which larger businesses are spending 100’s and 1000’s on SEO work to maintain their natural search? They simply can’t do it. So they go for easy to measure ROI routes like Pay-Per-Click.

    And your closing statement – the point I take umbrage with – urged your readers to ignore these sponsored search results. A statement, that I maintain, is dangerous on a number of levels.

    And more importantly, one I believe you’ve made without taking all the implications into account.

  8. Jordan Russell Says:
    February 20th, 2011 at 5:03 pm

    I agree with Craig, what a narrow minded view. I also believe it shows a lack of knowledge of the fundamental basics of SEo and PPC.

    PPC ads, as the name implies, cost money every time someone clicks on one. The majority of advertisers can’t afford to bid on non-relevant terms as it’s not going to generate them any sales. Big companies like Amazon and Ebay are the exception and will bid on anything, but they can afford to do that because they make so much money partly from being a recognised and trusted brand.

    Many natural search results are spammy. If you know how SEO works you’ll know that inbound links to domains or pages mean everything. As a result, a lot of websites or their dodgy SEO agencies engage in spammy link-building tactics. Google is currently coming under a lot of fire for the lack of quality in its natural results right now. Their search algorithms just aren’t doing a good job of detecting spammy backlink profiles. of course I am not tarring every site or SEO agency with the same brush. Far from it.

    You have also used a single vertical as an example, and this happens to be an area where spammy sites are rife. Sure the natural results are reasonable here because it is a very technically focussed area and webmasters of other technical sites and various techie blogs, forums etc. will mean the backlink profiles of these websites are stronger. This is one vertical where spammy sites find it more difficult to rank naturally for this reason.

    I don’t believe for a second people expect the paid ads to be more appropriate. A lot of people always have and always will disregard them. However, often the natural results are so bad and generic to the search query that there’s a good chance the paid ads will yield greater relevancy and should not be ignored. Someone is paying for that add, there’s actually a greater chance it will be relevant (particularly if you’re shopping).

    Please Google for the article in the NYT called “The Dirty Little Secrets of Search”. It should teach you a lot about what you think you know about Google’s organic results.

    Your ill-informed advice does no one any good and could actually hurt businesses and also searchers at the same time who may now be terrified into not clicking on ads.

  9. Nick Says:
    February 21st, 2011 at 9:25 am

    I deliberately block the sponsored links and those on the right. Being honest, most days I find Google returns shopping comparison websites over actual results. Often I skip straight to page 10 to start finding anything remotely like information.

  10. Anna-Leena Says:
    February 21st, 2011 at 1:47 pm

    Hi Davey and others,

    Thank you for the interesting article and discussion.

    Sponsored links and links on email newsletters often go through third-party tracking services, which record your click and then redirect you to the advertised website. The WOT add-on shows you the reputation for the website that your browser starts loading when you click the link and not the reputation of the site you are redirected to. Sometimes these third-party tracking services have an unsatisfactory reputation rating if the service is abused by spammers, for example.

    Safe surfing,
    Anna-Leena from Web of Trust

  11. clemenzina Says:
    February 24th, 2011 at 7:24 am

    I do not trust Web of Trust – looking below the surface reveals that ratings can be influenced by very few ‘voters’, and I suspect that rivals may register malicious ratings, whilst positive ratings can likewise be maliciously registered.

    I used to use Finjan Secure Browsing, which prescanned websites (when it was allowed access) and at least gave a ‘green light’ to sites that could be visited without risking malware invasion. However, Finjan is not compatible with Firefox 3.6 and in any case has been taken over by M86, who have yet to fulfill their stated intention to release their ‘Secure Web Gateway’ free for personal use.

  12. Gindylow Says:
    February 24th, 2011 at 11:22 am

    Google are already the cause of a great deal of malware infection through their adverts displayed on googlemail. The offending ads sit directly atop the googlemail controls and are designed to look like part of the mail application and fool less technically minded users into their validity.

    Google should work harder to isolate such advertisers and ensure that no adverts or malware can be allowed to appear part of the Application space.

    Instead they are allowing advertising $£€ to take priority over integrity. So no, I am often sceptical about google and trust them as much as any other money making corporation.


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