Companies that deal in shady free gift card offers have managed to game Google's sponsored search results so they can pass themselves off as representing the official sites of such huge brands as Walmart, Best Buy, McDonald's and Hooters, among others, PCWorld has found.
Google shut down the accounts responsible for the deception when PCWorld approached the search giant this week. Google representatives wouldn't disclose how they were tricked into accepting the ads, which violate their guidelines. But a source within the advertising industry familiar with this type of scheme said he suspects that the rogue company or companies involved knew the Internet Protocol addresses used by the Google employees charged with checking the validity of new ads. (The source asked not to be identified to protect his position in the industry.) Using that information, the company could show Google employees one site, while anyone from the general public who clicked the sponsored link woulf go to a different page. (Click the image of the bogus Best Buy-sponsored link below to see the free gift card site that it led to.)
The failure of Google to detect the bogus ads should disturb consumers, says online marketing expert Ben Edelman, an assistant professor at Harvard Business School. "These ads are clearly attempting to deceive the consumer into thinking the offers are from Best Buy or whatever the brand," Edelman says. "A free gift card scam is innocuous relative to the harm that could be done by spoofing a financial institution." But, Edelman says, "If Best Buy can be spoofed, why can't Bank of America?"
Google spokesperson Jim Prosser says that several advertisers' accounts had immediately been shut down as a result of PCWorld's inquiries. "We have engineering teams and systems that work to proactively prevent violations of our advertising policies, and we work quickly to review, suspend, or remove ads when we are notified of potential violations," Prosser says. "That's what we've done with the accounts you've mentioned. We also take strong action to inform authorities, and have taken legal action ourselves against scams that attempt to trick users."
PCWorld attempted to contact the companies listed on the gift card offers that we found over the course of this investigation. The companies listed on the ads were Better-Gifts.net, DirectSurveySolutions.com, Tester-Rewards.com, eSolutionsMedia.net, FoodCritic101.com, I-Deal Direct, and Top Notch Media.
Only Top Notch Media--which was tied to free gift card offers associated with bogus Google ads for the brands Hooters, Ikea, and Whole Foods Market--replied to our inquiries. The company's e-mail response states: "We have identified this traffic partner and subsequently terminated this traffic source to all of our Topnotch-media.com websites. Please note this ad placement is in violation of our traffic agreement and we do not want traffic generated in this manner." The company did not identify the "traffic partner" involved.
Why are free gift card offers a danger to Web consumers? Because they're often used to convince people to give out valuable personal information--data that they sell to marketers who use it to inundate the unlucky consumers with targeted advertising. In many cases, the consumers never receive the gift card that they thought they were in line for. If the offers come from large brands that people trust, individuals are likely to be more inclined to participate.
Google specifically bans free gift card offers from sponsored search ads, Prosser says. The Better Business Bureau has warned consumers about them, and Walmart tells its customers that such offers are a "scam."
The gift card deception took advantage of a common practice by big retailers. The marketing companies know that many Web users who don't know the exact address of a company's Website will search for it in Google, using the company's name as the search term. To ensure that searchers find their main site, reputable companies like Walmart or Best Buy may pay Google to have a sponsored link to their site appear at the top of search results for their name.
For instance, Visa purchased the top Sponsored Link when you run a search for "Visa" on Google, delivering an ad that reads "Visa Official Site." Clicking the ad takes you to Visa's corporate home on the Internet.
But this past week, similar queries on Google's search engine for major brands delivered sponsored ads that claimed to link to official big-brand sites, but in fact led to sites that had no connection to the brands listed. For example, when I searched for "Best Buy" on Google from Boston on Monday, the top sponsored ad accompanying the search resuls was headed "Best Buy Official Site" and displayed its URL as "www.BestBuy.com"; but when I clicked the ad,I was taken to a site called Tester-Rewards.com, which used the Best Buy logo to promote a "free" $1000 Best Buy gift card promotion not authorized by Best Buy.
Search results varied depending on where the person submitting the search request was located. PCWorld spotted bogus Google Sponsored Link ads through searches in a number of different East Coast cities. Identical searches undertaken in other parts of the United States didn't deliver the same results. Advertisers can target sponsored links shown in Google search results to certain areas of the country or the world.
Best Buy says that Tester-Rewards.com is not affiliated with it in any way. Tester-Rewards.com did not reply to repeated requests for comment for this story. In the fine print below the Best Buy offer, Tester-Rewards.com offers this disclaimer: "Tester-Rewards.com is not affiliated with Best Buy..."
Clearly the ads would not have been allowed if Google had understood how they operated. Prosser says that it's impermissible for a Google AdWords ad to claim to be the link to an official company Website and then deliver you to an unrelated site.(Click the image below of a bogus Walmart Official Site ad to see the gift card page that it led to.)