A variety of advertising platforms such as Google AdWords and AdSense play a key role in bringing fresh traffic to WordPress sites as well as in monetizing many types of blogs.

As these platforms grow in complexity so do various ways of gaming them in ways that adversely affect consumers, publishers, and advertisers. There are lots of ways of gaming the system, which, though legal, still raises ethical issues.

AdWords and advertising networks play different roles in helping to drive traffic and monetize blogs. Google AdWords allows a Website owner to post ads that are listed alongside relevant search results, and represents the dominant form of paid search on the Internet. Buying these types of ads can help a site owner to drive additional traffic to a blog. This has evolved into Google’s main source of revenue.

In contrast ad Networks, such as Google AdSense, are used by Website and blog owners to monetize visitors to the blog via advertisements placed alongside blog content. Blog owners can also buy these types of ads to attract visitors from other sites.

Many websites display ads from Google AdSense and other advertising networks, which allows consumers to view  content with no financial cost.  A survey  by W3Tech, a company that provides information about the usage of various types of technologies on the Web, has found that Google Ads is the most popular advertising network (80.9%) followed by Amazon Associates (5.9%), and AdRoll (3.0%).  AOL Advertising represents only .8%.

ZenithOptimedia estimates that Internet ad spending will grow to $121 billion in 2014.  This represents only a portion of the $537 predicted to be spend on all advertising in 2014. The types of display ads funding most WordPress sites will account for $51.8 billion compared with $55.7 billion for  paid search ads, and $13.5 for classifieds. The growth of this business, and the complexity of interconnections has led to a shadow business of unethical, and sometimes illegal practices.

The Underbelly of the Beast

The growth of a rich ecosystem for monetizing Internet content has lead to a wide range of questionable and often illegal practices. These include:

Fraudulent ads which sometimes lead to the dissemination of malware

Ad injection schemes which seek to game the intended business models of ad networks

Customer  hijacking schemes that steal revenues from Websites containing ads

Fraudulent Ads

When bloggers leverage ad networks to monetize their content, they can lose control of the types of ads that are displayed alongside their content. Unfortunately, some bad actors out there can take advantage of this disconnect to sully the blogs brand with unethical and sometimes downright illegal ads. The main advertising networks and other leading ad providers have recognized this problem, and have taken steps to identify and disable bad ads from their platforms.

But bad actors have grown in sophistication and in their ability to overcome these countermeasures. To address these concerns, leading advertising platforms including Google, Facebook, AOL, Twitter, and others have formed the TrustInAds.org consortium to improve their practices for combating bad ads. “They are all fierce competitors, but also understand the need to solve the problem,” said Rob Haralson, Executive Director of TrustInAds.org.

He noted “The overwhelming majority of ads are safe. However there are some bad actors out there, and some  sophisticated ones that are constantly looking to game the system and harm consumers by attracting them to phishing scams, selling counterfeit goods, or sending them to links with malware. Finding them requires a combination of algorithms and manual review of the ads. It is a little like looking for a needle in a haystack. While they are able to capture a significant number, some slip through.”

The group has identified two growing areas of bad ads that have been growing in number and sophistication: tech-support scams and weight loss supplements.

Haralson noted that all of the major advertisers have mechanisms in place that make it easier for consumers and blog owners to report questionable ads that do manage to get through. For example Google now has a feature on display ads called “mute this ad” that allows you to flag a questionable ad if you are suspicious of it in any way. Yahoo!, AOL, and Twitter have created similar straightforward reporting tools.

Tech support scams are designed to encourage users to call up a human, posing as a legitimate technical support expert for a particular problem. The “tech support expert” then guides them along the process of installing malware as part of the “solution.” This scam uses the phone call to break the connection between user and malware that might be otherwise detected by automated software run by the ad platform.

Haralson explained, “All of these companies look at the ad and the landing page. If there is malware on the Web page Google and Facebook will identify it and remove the ad. By taking the scam offline it becomes challenging for Google to figure out which are legitimate tech support services and which are scammers.”

In some cases, scammers merely charge naive people for services without fixing the underlying problem iPensatori, which specializes in identifying and mitigating the impacts of questionable advertising practices, recently uncovered a tech support scammer that had amassed more than $400,000 within a short time. Wesley Brandi, the founder of iPensatori, said, “They target old people, and they use ads to do so.”

Google (along with other leading Ad platform providers) takes bad advertising practices seriously. Last year Google disabled more than 350 million bad ads, blacklisted more than 200,000 publisher pages, banned more than 270,000 bad advertisers, and disapproved more than 3 million applications to join the AdSense network. These bad ads were removed for a variety of reasons:

Over 14,000 advertisers were identified trying to sell counterfeit goods.

Over 2 million ads were for illegal online pharmacies.

Over 5,000 AdSense accounts were found to be in violation of Google’s copyright policy.

Over 1,800 sites and 4,000 AdWords accounts were linked to third-party tech support scams.

Over 400,000 ads were linked to sites hiding malware.

Over 10,000 sites were promoting get-rich-quick schemes.

Customer Hijacking

Another disconcerting practice uses sophisticated customer hijacking schemes, which trick advertisers into paying third parties for click-through traffic. When someone comes to a website and clicks on an ad  the site owner should get paid for that traffic. But this is not always the case, said Ben Edelman, associate professor at the Harvard Business School.

He explained, “The most successful perpetrators of ad fraud manage to sell advertiser traffic that appears to be legitimate, based on advertisers’ standard metrics. Often that means convincing advertisers that the ads led to sales. How to do that? One typical strategy is to find the customers who were about to buy ads from a given advertiser–like showing Dell ads to a user already at (or trying to get to) the Dell site.  This can be done with paid search, display, affiliate, or video advertising, and it can be done through adware, typosquatting, ad injection, or a fair number of other methods.”

Some of these perpetrators have grown quite large. eBay recently sued two affiliates that were collectively earning more than $10 million per year. It was alleged that the perpetrators used these schemes to earn commissions on sales that eBay would have already made.

Edelman noted, “These schemes are broadly unlawful under contract law as well as wire fraud statutes, laws prohibiting unfair and deceptive business practices, and more.  That said, few advertisers bring such claims.  They seem to perceive that the claims are more trouble than they’re worth, and often they blame themselves for failing to stop problems they could, in principle have prevented.  That’s a shame, in my view.  The essence of a successful fraud is to trick the victim, so the fact that advertisers were tricked doesn’t mean they’re not meritorious victims. ”

Ad Injection

Another growing problem surrounding advertising platform ecosystems have been the development of schemes for replacing ads that were intended to be placed on a Website with others. This can lead to loss of click-through revenue for Websites, damage to brands, and loss of sales opportunities for paying advertisers. iPensatori’s Brandi said, “Publishers lose because their revenue stream is being taken away and given to the injectors.”

Scammers have found various ways of injecting new ads, including via questionable agreements with ISPs and malware deployed on client

computers. Ad injection is not just limited to scammers either. Police in the UK have found ways to replace the ads displayed on sites affiliated with promoting the illegal distribution of copyrighted material.

Some of these ad-injection schemes are funded by questionable advertisers who would otherwise be banned by the larger advertising networks. But in other cases, established brands get caught up in paying for ads delivered via ad-injection by a convoluted trail of third-party advertising agencies.

iPensatori’s Brandi explained, “By dealing with intermediaries and disconnecting one’s self form the origin of the traffic, publishers are able to throw their hands up in the air and proclaim ‘but I didn’t know I was buying malware/injector/invisible traffic!,’ which is most likely true but it matters not, since it’s the advertisers that lose and this is unacceptable.”

The legality of some forms of injection schemes has not been clearly established. But Brandi argues that many of these players are aware their practice is unethical, just by the fact that they are trying to conceal the workings of their practices.

He explained, “For near on a decade now I’ve analyzed many instances of this form of abuse. From empirical evidence, injectors themselves know what they are doing is wrong. What gives them away is that they launder traffic, i.e., they present traffic as having come from source A (which looks legitimate) when in fact the traffic comes from source B (an injector). Why hide/launder traffic if you are doing what you at least believe to be right?”

The Ethics of Brand Poaching

Advertisers are also finding creative ways to poach each other’s brands as well, noted Patrick Coutermarsh, Fellow in Business Ethics at the Markula Center for Applied Ethics. In these cases advertisers buy up AdSense keywords that include the brand name of competitive products. Initial legal rulings on these schemes have found it legal in a court case between contact lens companies.

Coutermarsh said, “I see this as a problem with perverse incentives. It is possible but difficult to place ethical demands on people to not follow their economic incentives. This leads to an arms race, and questions whether it add value for companies. The potential actor to solve this problem is Google, but the problem is that Google has an incentive to allow this behavior because it raises the prices bid on AdSense.”

Many website owners have succumb to click-fraud in which they simulated traffic from real users in order to boost revenues. But schemers have also employed click-fraud schemes to defraud competitors of legitimate advertising traffic. There have even been reports of a Russian company that has recently begun promoting a new service for draining competitors AdWords Budgets.

The Downside of Complexity

All of the complexity around advertising is leading to a backlash against Internet advertising in general with many consumers now installing ad blocking software which can adversely affect the revenues of Websites. Irina Raicu Director of the Internet Ethics Program at the Markula Center for Applied Ethics said, “My inclination is to say it is say it is ethical for consumers to install ad blocking software. It is a response to the arms race imposed on consumers and the way businesses have created this whole ecosystem without any kind of transparency. And it’s not just the ads, it’s the tracking involved with the ads. To expect people not to be shocked by that and to try and take back some control is unrealistic.”

At the same time, many content providers depend on advertising revenues in order to provide their content for free. But Raicu questions what free really means. “If you say it is free, you cannot blame consumers for not wanting to pay with their data. In general, the ad delivery process on the Internet has become so invasive to consumers, that I can understand why they are trying to protect themselves.”

Above and beyond consumer concerns, Raicu believes that the web of Internet advertising networks have grown too complex to protect publishers, advertisers, and consumers from the effects of unethical behavior. She explained, “The biggest ethical issue is the lack of transparency. Internet commerce is so complex to the point where on every Website, the site owner is not aware of what is happening. There are so many subcontractors and relationships that nobody claims to understand how the whole system works, and that is an untenable way to continue this.

“In the physical world we have developed social contracts in our day to day lives, such that you stand in line while waiting for a ride rather than jump to the front. We need to develop social contracts for online as well. Those will not develop as long as it lacks any kind of transparency.”

George Lawton has been infinitely fascinated yet scared about the rise of cybernetic consciousness, which he has been covering for the last twenty years for publications like IEEE Computer, Wired, and many others. He keeps wondering if there is a way all this crazy technology can bring us closer together rather than eat us. Before that, he herded cattle in Australia, sailed a Chinese junk to Antarctica, and helped build Biosphere II. You can follow him on the Web and on Twitter @glawton.

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