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Ethics for Search Engines and The Advertisers Who Use Them

Image from iStock.com

Image from iStock.com

This week’s topic in class was on Ethics in Search Engines. I will expand this post to Advertising ethics using search engines as well. I never knew until a few days ago that when I used to hide keywords on website using the same color text as the background that this was considered unethical in the world of search engines and that you could be severly punished. I had no clue. I also found out that I was right in telling my client not to used 200 pages of keywords in the meta tags section of his website. I refused to do it. I was also right that it as nuts to use vague keywords and ones that had nothing to do with his industry in the meta tags.

Before I read the articles this week, I knew a little bit about Search Engine Optimization with websites including using metatags, keywords, descriptions, alt tags for images, and other little things to enhance the chance that my websites will be seen by search engines. I also knew I could pay a lot more to have special companies optimize my websites for me. I have also paid for sponsorships and entertained paying for higher results in search engine placements. I had not known the extent of the search engine ethics issues and the extent that advertisers go to for better placement.

I see search engines as a service but they need to support themselves so they sell ad space or search results placements to advertisers. I don’t see this as being any different that an advertiser paying for television ads on TV. The TV station has to pay for its programming through the sale of ad space to sponsors and these sponsorships generate over $3 billion a year in revenue (NPR clip). However, to those that can’t afford the ad placement they would not rank very high on search engines. This can be a problem since 70% of users don’t go past the first page of search results. This doesn’t seem fair to the little guy but my design company can’t afford a search engine sponsorship but I’m not upset that I don’t get the top page placement for web designers. One of the problems with paid inclusions is that 60% of search engine users cannot tell the difference between a paid link and an unpaid link. Of these people, 80% felt that search engines should disclose which results as paid inclusions and sponsored results. (McLaughlin, 2002)

Search Engines don’t help the situation by either obscuring which links are sponsored links but sometimes not even disclosing which links are paid for and which ones are not. If they do disclose which links are sponsors it is in tiny type or a light grey type. I do not feel that paid sponsorships and inclusions are unethical as long as they are clearly marked that they are paid advertisements. They don’t have to be bright red in big bold type, I think that having a light grey small font as long as it is readable would be good enough. The paid inclusions should be separated from the other search results in it’s own section that is clearly defined. (Wouters, 2005)

An article I came across from iProspect, Search Engine Marketing Ethics,  gave a good list of Ethics an no-no’s for advertisers using search engines, they call is spamdexing:

• Using keywords that aren’t related to your website

• Causing search engine results to display your website more than once in the same search

• Submitting multiple pages of your website instead of its entirety

• Hiding keywords using the same colored text a the background

• Page-swapping, swapping our one page for another after a high ranking is achieved with the first page

• Page-jacking, stealing a competitors page and swapping out your page for theirs once you attain their rankings

• Keyword stuffing, reapeating the same keywords in hidden areas of the site

• Trademark hijacking, stealing competitors keywords and slogans and hiding them in your site

• Redirecting pages too quickly, after achieving the high rankings, redirecting people to another page

Does anyone have any thoughts on the ethics of search engines and the advertisers who use them? I had never thought about before this week.

For more reading on these topics, see:

Search Engine Marketing Ethics by iProspect (download the PDF)

The Straight Story on Search Engines
by Laurianne McLaughlin

Search Advertising (audio)

Still in Search of Disclosure by Wouters

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