Hacker News new | past | comments | ask | show | jobs | submit login
Image Ad Blending Works Really, Really Well (kalzumeus.com)
235 points by tghw on Nov 23, 2011 | hide | past | web | favorite | 199 comments

Is This Evil Or Just Evil Genius?

Once upon a time I was an engineer totally scornful of effective marketing, but I have gradually gotten over it. After thinking it over, this is aggressive but within my comfort envelope. The ad is honest about being an ad, makes a straightforward commercial proposition (“Sign up for a free trial”) to an audience that I think will respond well to that, and is pretty true by the standards of marketing copy. It is designed to catch clicks only from people interested in signing up for a free trial of Bingo Card Creator, and sends them straight to a landing page where they can do just that.

I wish there was a way to dynamically generate the image such that I could provide a more exact star valuation, but in the context of a sponsored placement, “Rated 5 starts by lots” is both non-specific and true. Lots of people have used BCC, and when I ask for star ratings in internal surveys I get something like 4.8 on a volume of hundreds or thousands. I think this compares favorably with “9 out of 10 dentists agree” and other pretty banal marketing copy.

Your ad is obviously designed to deceive the user into thinking that it is an organic listing. Evil.

On one hand I want to say it's "evil" because we've grown up in a place where ads != content. And even though I feel as if I should object to ads being "hidden" among normal content, I don't.

The purpose of going to a website is to seek out a certain type of content. If somebody then paid to have that content delivered to you, what makes it inherently more "evil" than any other content? If it fulfills your need, what does it matter whether or not it were paid to be placed there? In fact, why must we know that they're ads at all?

"Cheating" would be placing a listing that does not accurately represent the content behind it. So if I click on your ad and it isn't what it claimed to be, that's misinformation. But an ad for a free trial of a Bingo Card Creator among other software listings seems equally legitimate, whether or not it was paid to be placed.

It's akin to product placement in movies. A scene requires somebody to be drinking a soda, so a beverage company approaches the director and says "well, while you're in the market for people drinking soft drinks, might we recommend Coca-Cola." The viewer ends up getting advertised to, sure, but the ad still fulfills the role of any other item that would have been there otherwise--it just happened to be paid for.

A good and fair question.

Generally telling the truth to strangers strengthens society. If someone chooses to lie to strangers, society properly should brand that person as not worthy of business and maybe worth imprisoning for fraud. Because future lies are potentially costly, it makes sense for us to watch for (and sometimes punish) lies harshly even when that lie is itself not very costly.

Beyond the straightforward definition of truth though is a larger concept of integrity which means, roughly, that what you say and what you do together form a meaningful "whole." For example, many people believe movies can have artistic integrity--such a movie displays the filmmakers' best guess as to the meaningful truth of its situations. If they were paid to use Coca-Cola or to show the can in a particular way, then the movie doesn't have that integrity, and we maybe should be skeptical of their commitment to the truth generally.

Similarly, sites such as BusyTeacher implicitly purport to rank results in some "honest" (even if not transparent) way. If a particular product, in their honest assessment, should be number 3 and should show that information and should take up that amount of screen real estate, then Patrick wouldn't have to pay for the ad -- the same info would be there organically. If they are showing a paid ad but marking it very clearly as such--there's integrity in that as well. But if they are showing the ad in a way that is misleading, even if only at a glance, then they are compromising their integrity. By the way, to my eye the Google ad looks like an ad at a glance, while the BusyTeacher ad looks like a listing at a glance, but others might disagree, so I'm not really trying to weigh in on the ad itself, just why it might, in theory, be bad.

So although this may be "bad behavior" I also think the costs are small. The advertiser profits, the site profits but loses their integrity (which they probably don't much value), the users are somewhat misled (those who bounce are somewhat harmed; those who end up purchasing are probably not harmed). But in a broader sense, I do think that our community is improved by generally encouraging and helping each other be honest, especially those we do business with (even if it's only an arms-length advertising arrangement).

You are basically right, but when you are talking about a website that is designed and promoted as a sales catalog, you have to be more open to the notion that is OK to have advertising. Unlike a movie, commerce is the visitor's reason for going to the site.

In all these subtle ad cases, anti-ad people can avoid the ads, and people who honestly don't care will ignore the distiction and click the ads. How much coddling can we insist a site do for its mentally-laziest non-paying users, possibly acting against their willingness to view ads?

It says "sponsored placement", which is true because the website put the ad right in the middle of the organic results.

It doesn't matter what it says, it matters what users perceive it to be. It's obviously meant to deceive the users while providing the author (not very) plausible deniability of the deception.

Agreed. The sooner a site I can live without starts using scummy tactics to drop ads the sooner I drop them. Nothing like losing viewers because you're too hard pressed to run legit content.

(Obviously this is my opinion. I understand the whole "if you're not paying for it then you're the product" stuff, I just think its dishonest to lead people on one way or another)

How do you think this compares to google's ads at the top of search requests? That is the comparison this article is making.

Those are deceptive as well

Yeah, thanks to this article I took a critical look at those Google sponsored top result ads and realized how deceptive they were.

Probably not the point the author was trying to make, but I still got a lot of interesting out of it :)

What about things like outbrain? http://www.outbrain.com/getwidget

They have more deceptive ad units at publishers: http://www.cnn.com/2011/11/23/world/africa/egypt-protests/ (Scroll to pre-comment-box or search for "From around the web")

For the lazy, the "From around the web" section looks like relevant articles on other sites and is styled exactly like the links that CNN recommends, but it's actually paid content.

A popup under "What's this" gives the following info:

"Paid Distribution

An Outbrain customer paid to distribute this content. We do our best to ensure that all of the links recommended to you lead to interesting content. To find out more information about driving traffic to your content or to place this widget on your site, visit outbrain.com. We welcome your feedback at feedback@outbrain.com.View our privacy policy here."

As a large publisher who uses Outbrain, I can say that I'd much rather have the Outbrain paid links on my sites than running PPC AdSense with belly fat ads, and Work From Home stuff.

Outbrain actually links to content - often, decent to good content - where then publishers can monetize the click as they choose, but from a publishers standpoint, the Outbrain widget is one of the least objectionable drivers of revenue I've found.

Outbrain ads specifically put the nail in the coffin on seattlepi.com's long slide from legitimacy. It is sad, because seattle PI used to be he leading real newspaper for Seattle.

I would say the same for CNN, but CNN became a worthless organizationon before Outbrain showed up.

Ok then, with the same reasoning, Google's sponsored top-of-the-search-results ads are Evil as well.

I just saw they not only have the same visual appearance, but even have the same behaviour, on mouseover, the ">>" button appears to preview the (ad) page, just like any other search result.

Apart from the tiny "Ads - Why these ads?" text it's quite impossible to tell they're ads. The background colour is #fff8e7 a sort of very light orange-pink, that's real hard to make out (depending on your monitor and eye vision).

I just tried another obvious sponsored search "medical insurance" and I got three ads above the search results. The tiny "Ads - Why these ads?" text is on top of these three ads, so the only way to determine where these ads end and where the real search results start is by squinting to see where the light pink orange box stops--I had to turn my small netbook screen at an angle to be able to see that.

Funny, never really paid much attention to this (I usually ignore everything that tries to sell me something--ad or not), but really digging into this, damn, Google has turned into some damn sneaky evil bastards.

I'm not sure you understand. Users are sheep. Our job is to manipulate, track, addict, and force users into giving us their money. By any means necessary. Mobile social local browser phone cadence tracking combined with snooping on their every webpage visit gives us a direct connection to their "If I see X, I will pay Y dollars" brain function.

If you're still playing nice, you haven't realized the truth of the world yet.

The ethics aren't as notable here as the incredible mental gymnastics undertaken by the author to pretend that this isn't questionable behavior.

Arguably we shouldn't expect advertisers to play nice, but there is still value in highlighting their transgressions lest they think nobody notices or cares.

+1: I think this is a very good satire of common SEO/marketer mindsets.

man, the only satire part is using "sheep". In different circles different jargon is used, though i never heard "sheep". When i was involved for example, the term we used was "horses" - cynical notation for the user's curiosity and the tendency to grant trust easily. (We frequently forget that 9th circle is reserved for ones who betrays the trust. Even when it is just for money and clicks.)

There's little difference between organic and adverts. It's just content that the webmaster has put there. It clearly says "sponsored content", which discloses the fact it's a paid advert.

So personally, obviously it's not evil.

If people were being mislead into clicking, then none would convert to sales.

"It clearly says "sponsored content""

Haha no it clearly doesn't. If it was about doing things clearly he would stick to banners and highlighted ads. It doesn't even matter what bias'd SEO guys with twisted morals think, anyway. The majority gets to decide what's right, and obviously the majority thinks it's wrong. Nobody likes to be treated like a fool.

What if when you clicked on a HN story, a third of the time it were an ad? Maybe we could generate false comments to minimize the difference between organic and adverts... Anyway it'd just be content that the webmaster has put there. With a little warning in the footer, to stay morally sound.

Your hn hypothetical statement sounds a lot like the YCombinator job postings embedded into the main news stories... deceptive but not necessarily bad.

> and obviously the majority thinks it's wrong

Yeah... that's why people are clicking through, and converting to sales :/

Are you saying they click through, and sign up to buy product, and then suddenly feel duped because they didn't know it was an advert they clicked on, and demand a refund???? Are you crazy?

> What if when you clicked on a HN story, a third of the time it were an ad?

I'd say about a third of the time it IS an ad - a YC backed startup with no merit etc.

This reminds me of those newspaper ads that are crafted to look exactly like a newspaper article (columns of copy, headline, etc) but only set out with an "Advertisement" in very small print at the top of their enclosing box. I usually can pick them out because the font isn't a perfect match, but once in a while I don't notice until like a third of the way through the "article" when I'm going, "wtf? What was the editor thinking?"

And that's the real problem here, and the reason I complain to the editor about those newspaper ads: when they are made to look like a regular article (or in this case, organic results), then they implicitly carry the imprimatur of editorial approval. Someone at this newspaper (/website) has vetted this factually, edited it, and I can put the same trust in this item that I put in any other thing I read here (which might not be 100% but is often reasonably high for edited content on a paper/site I'm familiar with).

Ads that are faking their way in violate this assumption and this trust. As a user of that site I'd be annoyed; as an editor of that site I would be furious.

I think they're a UGC site: there isn't a formal editing process., regular users just upload stuff which interests them. The publisher pre-approved the ad.

Even if the content is user-generated, there is still curation by other users, analogous to editing, that this is short-circuiting. I didn't realise the site publisher had pre-approval, or I wouldn't have said "as an editor of that site I would be furious", I'd've said "as an editor of that side I would never approve something like that."

The ad was explicitly approved by the editor. That's how BuySellAds works.


I sell adverts on my sites via https://www.buyads.com/ ( iSocket ), and I decline all adverts which are cheap and tacky, but approve adverts which are tastefully done and will appeal to the sector I'm in.

Point is: I'm in control.

Which is great, as I value my community and it would reduce their experience to take tacky adverts, but if it's something that they want and it integrates well, I'd definitely approve it.

The publisher is in control, Patrick gave the publisher the exact kind of thing that they want. Both parties benefit, as do the users. This IS the way to do advertising, where everyone in the equation is very happy with it.

I'm going to come out in defense of patio11 here. Not because the ad isn't deceptive - it undoubtedly is. But because he fell into the dark side of a grey area and it's worth discussing HOW good people end up there.

From a rationalist perspecive, the ad is justified. He is effectively capturing the majority of the market possible through adwords. So what's next? It makes sense to take your know-how in one market and apply it to another. The problem is that the other markets are filled with sharks. Sharks that will stop at nothing to generate leads for scammy, high-value businesses (for-profit ed, weight loss, etc)

As a moralist, one would turn their nose up at these shark-filled waters at the start. If scammy people advertise through it, why should I?

Personally, I think it's really important to dive in deep to the grey area. Not because you can make more money, but to better understand the inner-workings of the "dark" side of the business. Most of the successful players there use a slathering of evil techniques combined with a wealth of direct marketing experience that whitehat marketers use every day.

It's important to test -everything-, learn as much as you can from empirical data, and then move forward with both your knowledge and moral compass in mind.

I often say I have the full Zynga playbook at my disposal and the judgement to know when not to use it.

I'm curious as to why you'd draw a distinction between AdWords and scam filled advertising. Google's bread is buttered by credit cards, diet pills, and degrees. Search any relevant keyword if you don't believe me. Most of the advertisers I share pages with on the AdWords Content Network are also not pages you'd want your mother going to. The economics of Internet advertising heavily favor scams.

Would it be better for the world and users if a site about teaching activities had off-topic ads inviting people to sign up for weightloss pills (snake oil with a rebill scam) or software which actually makes teaching activities?

Let me clarify - I would much rather a teaching activities site be filled with BCC ads over weight loss ads. That doesn't justify the use of deceptive advertising beyond exploration.

This is the -exact same- line of thinking that goes on at social games companies with viral game features. Good people say: "20% of users respond to this request, it must be interesting to people. Send more!" This is completely oblivious to the negative value you're imposing upon those other 80%. Just because your negative value is LESS negative than a rebill scam doesn't make it positive.

There are potential customers on sites outside of Adwords network. You've proven that. Now capture them in a way that doesn't trick people into clicking on your ad.

So, just so we can be as specific and absolute as possible: you also think that every Google SERP is dishonest. Because the whole premise of Patrick's post is, "here's how Google's ads work; I wonder what would happen if I crafted my ads to fit into pages the same way Google's do?"

The comparison to Google is incorrect, as I said elsewhere.

Google ads are displayed in the right column by default, and you can't simply buy your way to the search results column. Google displays the ad there only when it considers the ad as relevant as a search result, and relevance judgement is something you already trusted Google for.

Patio's ad is pretending to be curated and endorsed by the site where the ad is shown, and it is displaying a fake rating pretending to be from the users of this site. It's also way more similar to the non-ad text on that page.

Do you automatically sanction Google's deeds? I think, they are clearly doing evil in this case.

Do you remember what Google's ad strategy was a reaction to?

I never knew. How can that justify that they deceive many users?

Google's Adwords strategy was a reaction to competitors who literally sold placement in search results.

From my point of view, this is an explanation not a justification.

More or less deceiving visitors is not ennobled because everybody else does it.

When Google announced Adwords, it was with fanfare about how above-board their program was, and they were widely praised for it.

That would have been for the original version - which just had links down the right hand side, not the blended ones at the top.

Just to clarify: I mean the ads (mostly 2 or 3) with light yellow background at the top of the middle-column (search results), not the ads in the right column.

No. Google's initial reaction (long, long ago) to competitors who literally sold placement in SERPs was to not do that, and not have ads at all, and promote this widely.

Later when they got ads and "sponsored results", which they had to do of course because at some point you've got to make money somehow, they were very very careful to distance their ads from search results, because after all they'd just been promoting themselves as "not selling their search results" and of course "Don't be Evil" (which they dropped by now right).

And ever since, their ads have been creeping closer and more visually similar to their search results, right up to the point where, as the OP mentions, some of these ads look exactly like search results, except highlighted. Sure they are marked as "sponsored result" in very tiny light-grey letters but so were some of their search-result selling competitors back in the day.

So yeah no sorry, I fully understand this is the way corporations inevitably go as they get big and successful, but as far as I see it, Google has been distancing itself from this "evil" behaviour at first, and then, after competition was crippled, slowly crept back to--well not the worst examples of this behaviour, but it's still bad enough that if Google had been selling "sponsored search results" in this fashion right from the start, nobody would have bought their bullshit about "we don't sell our search results".

What they're currently doing is only marginally better than silently hiding sponsored links within the search results, as from every approach they're going through lengths to make this ad look exactly like a search result, except they highlight it and tiny letters say it's an ad (the 8px kind that UX blogs will tell you a lot of people have trouble reading).

I even just noticed they gave their "top search result ad" exactly the same ">> Preview" button on mouseover as any other search result! Sorry but there's no question that what Google is technically doing right now, is selling their top number 1 highlighted "search result", misleading people to look exactly like a search result, except in a token-attempt at "honesty" it is marked as an ad, except you know as well as I do that the less computer-savvy people don't even notice that, and just click it if it seems to answer their question, without realizing it is an ad. Just as if it was a search result.

I mean, hey I think it's bullshit, sure they're allowed to do this, but let's not pretend Google is not selling (top) placement in their search results, and that this top ad is not desperately trying to look and behave exactly like a search result in a deliberately misleading way. They are no longer any better than the competitors whose ad model they were so against back in their early days.

You're reduced to arguing that, since you offer a good product, it's okay to use the same dishonest tactics that the bad guys use.

I suppose you're right. Better that a user is tricked into clicking onto Bingo Card Creator than a herbal Viagra affiliate. It's just not a very high moral position to take.

Can we just note again here that in your construction, "the bad guys" include Google themselves? The tactic we're talking about is, as Patrick notes at the very start of his post, the same one Google uses at the top of every SERP.

No. Only if Google included barely distinguishable paid placements in their organic results would it be a fair comparison.

I'll concede that some minority of users might not be able to distinguish paid results from organic on Google, but no one could do it with these "blended" ads -- that's why he's getting such a high CTR. Users are being tricked.

The Google ad that I note-for-note copied has a CTR in excess of 20%. It should - it is exactly what the user was looking for, presented in a way that makes that obvious.

[Edit to add: I thought I might have been exaggerating, so I looked it up. Nope, 21.3% this year for [bingo card creator]. For [bingo creator], which is not a brand term, it is 18.5%. [printable valentine's bingo card]? 8.7%. Do people get the picture?]

Ugh. Can we get some intellectual honesty here? Of course you have a high CTR to bingocardcreator.com when people search for "bingo card creator".

Yes, but look at the other terms he mentioned, which are not at all brand specific. What that tells me is that many of Google's users take that ad to be Google's suggested best result.

Do you know what a "high CTR" is? Did you read the sentence that followed the one you're citing? Why are you so eager to jump on everything he says? I wish you'd stop. Please. You're sucking the oxygen out of the room.

No, it's not "presented in a way that makes it obvious [that this is what the user is looking for]". It is pretending to be curated and endorsed by the site where the ad is shown, and it is displaying a fake rating pretending to be from the users of this site.

For comparison, Google ads are displayed in a right column by default, and you can't simply buy your way to the search results column. Google displays the ad there only when it considers the ad as relevant as a search result, and relevance judgement is something you already trusted Google for.

You are supposed to know this, aren't you a SEO / AdWords expert?

In Google's case it's also much more obvious that they are displaying an ad and not a regular search result. If you claim otherwise, why don't you copy the yellow background and "Ad - Why this ad?" text in your advertisement and tell us where the CTR goes?

I've seen you say that Google is evil and claim a moral high ground a number of times, and now you are justifying something with "but look, Google does it too"? Even if you were correct, which I've shown you aren't and you know it, this would means you are just as evil as Google.

Did you read the article? Was maybe Patrick too subtle about the point that many (probably most) of Google's users perceive the paid placement at the top of every SERP as a search result?

These "blended" ads are labeled as sponsored results as well.

Ironically, I view the paid placements atop Google's SERPs as legitimate search results. I find myself doing Google searches just to click on the ads and see what kinds of products my web-enabled colleagues are explicitly advertising to people with my needs.

And I don't think it's at all foolish that people subconsciously believe that those highlighted results at the top of SERPs are "the high-quality results". They often are! They lead directly to well-designed product pages that tell you just what you are looking for and that have refreshingly direct BUY NOW buttons.

Whereas the top non-paid search results are, as often as not, either duplicates of the paid content at the top (by no coincidence, companies with great SEO often know about AdWords as well) or passive-aggressive advertisements-in-disguise. (Give me a straight sales pitch instead of all that tiptoeing around.)

Google is basically the equivalent of all those trade magazines: If you're in the optics business and you need to know who sells lenses, you subscribe to Laser Focus World specifically for the ads and the product reviews. Or the local alternative newsweekly: I leaf through those to look for new restaurants or clubs. Or a coupon book. I can afford to laugh at coupon books, but people do read and use those things.

Ok sure if Google is now supposed to be the equivalent of an ad-stuffed trade magazine or a coupon book then yeah, I can't disagree.

To bad though, remember when it used to be a pretty good Search Engine?

Seriously, if that's what Google wants to be, or apparently is, then that's fine I'll just not go there anymore since 99% of the time I'm looking for information, you know, researching things on the Internet, not trade magazine ads or coupons.

(actually personally it's not the ads but the fact that their real search results have been increasingly inaccurate over the past few months, that I'm actually starting to use other SEs like DuckDuckGo and Yandex as my first choice, more often. That DDG doesn't have sponsored results and makes user privacy a priority is a nice bonus)

He wasn't too subtle, he was just wrong. The comparison between Google's separate/distinct paid results and these ads inserted into organic results is completely absurd.

Notice that he didn't have to write "Spot it yet? Hint: it’s the row without the Facebook button." when referencing the Google paid ads -- only the "blended" ones.

Please stop grinding this axe. You're not even bothering to respond to comments anymore; you're just repeating the same point over and over again. "Completely absurd"? It's the exact same tactic.

I couldn't possibly think any less of you after these comments. What do you think you're accomplishing by writing this way?

It's not personal -- I'm a fan of Patrick's. My only problem is with this obvious intellectual dishonesty, on display in his post and both of your comments.

These ads are dishonest and pretending they're not is really absurd. I don't think he even truly believes that, hence the signification rationalization in the post.

I'm doing what I would to any friend of mine: calling them on their bullshit. You may want to consider whether you're impulsively defending a friend or actually agree with him.

I will stop commenting on this though. I don't have anything more to say and I'm not trying to be negative. I don't think Patrick is a bad guy or anything -- just wrong on this.

That's why I find advertising such a ridiculous business model for a search engine. Let's spend all this time and money and invent the most amazing technology to find the best results for any search and then... let's sell the top spot to the highest bidder.

I don't have a better business model to offer, but I do think the world would be better off if Google were more honest about ads and made it more obvious that they were ads.

I don't get it: the ads I see on Google have a clearly different background color. How are they not obvious?

They're barely distinguishable on my screen.

Without those ads the amazing search technology wouldn't exist.

Google's search engine predates the ads by quite a few years, actually. You'd be correct to say, "without those ads, Google would necessarily look very different than how it does today," but then, that's nearly a vacuous statement.

True, but it's constantly evolving, the technology as we know it today would have been given nowhere near the resources without a large source of income attached. Given that as it stands it is an arms race with ever evolving SEO strategies I don't think it's to big of a leap to suggest that Google Search without the resources it has would be less equipped to keep up.

> No. Only if Google included barely distinguishable paid placements in their organic results would it be a fair comparison.

Well that is what they are.

The only distinction is the 8px letters that say "Why this ad?" which are hard to read and widely ignored.

> I'll concede that some minority of users might not be able to distinguish paid results from organic on Google, but no one could do it with these "blended" ads -- that's why he's getting such a high CTR. Users are being tricked.

Let's call it the majority of users except for programmers hackers and other computer-savvy folk, and I'd say you got it about right.

Have you ever seen a kid use Google? An elderly person? Your parents? Shoulder-surf a random non-coder in a coffeeshop or a library? These are the kind of people that type "google" into the browser search box to go to google. I work with 8-12y kids that come specifically to learn about websites and computers, and among those already savvy interested kids there's only about half of them that understands what the difference is between a paid ad on Google and a search result. They'll just click it if it appears to lead them to whatever they were looking for.

I agree that these ads are "blended" way more than Google's paid highlighted top search results/ads, more deceiving, but it really is the same thing. The "blended" ad also clearly mentions in a very tiny font that it's a sponsored result.

I would also think the only way that we're able to more easily recognize the Google paid highlighted top search result/ad is because we use Google every day, we expect it's there, and from previous usage we know that search results that look a bit different are probably sponsored. The "busyteacher" website is only different in the sense that its users have no known expectations about the site because they only use it rarely.

How about twitters new advertising that places promoted tweets directly into the feed? I had to double take a few times before I realized they weren't regular tweets from those I follow.


Hint: it’s the ones without the Facebook button.


I don't know how to get any good data on this, but I think saying "Google's bread is buttered by <undesirables> ..." is at least accidentally misleading. Google supports a tremendously diverse ad ecosystem, some of which is questionable. However, at least in my experience, very few of my search queries involve such ads. The perception (if not provable fact) that they're mostly a class act is a big part of their enduring brand value.

Of course, it's possible that the "typical" user gets a much larger fraction of "scam ads" than I do. I don't know how to evaluate this empirically without knowing something about the overall query distribution.

Still, at least for my search patterns, there is a very large difference between AdWords and "scam filled advertising". This is in sharp distinction to my average experience on, say, Facebook (never mind other fairly mainstream web behaviors like gaming forums).

I think when he was talking about ads for weight loss programmes etc he was talking about what comes up on the Content Network, not what is seen on Google's results pages. The Content Network is what you're in if you display Adsense adverts on your website.

It's possible that's what he meant, but I find it unlikely. He specifically suggested searching for keywords, and, as you point out, the content network is known as AdSense, not AdWords (both officially and in common parlance).

I would agree that AdSense has a less pristine reputation than AdWords, particularly since they started offering image ads. I imagine that Google has less market power in image ads, and so they tend to "pander" to advertisers more than they do in search (I can't imagine the DoubleClick acquisition helped in that regard). Still, AdSense has clear quality guidelines and actual enforcement, however imperfect. I don't think I would agree with describing AdSense as "scam filled", even though I could do without another "Learn one weird trick for X" ads.

This actually is not a gray area at all. It is specifically against Adsense TOS.

See here under 'encouraging clicks': https://www.google.com/adsense/support/as/bin/answer.py?answ...

Nor is this a new idea. Google addressed this issue back in 2007, and specifically warned publishers not to post images next to ads. I know because I was one of them. Here is a snapshot of my earnings from a site I ran back in 2007. Note the big drop in CTR around Feb 7th. http://i.imgur.com/Kwbgw.jpg.

In my defense I was a brash 18 y/o at the time, this was a hobby, and I wasn't thinking long term. And ofcourse I did remove the images after Google clarified their TOS.

But at some level, even then, I knew that what I was doing was morally wrong. Technical loophole not withstanding.

These are not adsense ads, so adsense t.o.s. do not apply. The ads are served up by buysellads.com. (see last line of the blog post)

Fair point. Didn't see that line earlier and made the assumption it was adsense as the author talked about how Google serves up ads.

HOW good people end up there

patio11's post tells us right up front where he learned this particular technique: Google taught it to him.

I'm not even speaking metaphorically. Google invented this technique, they use it on every search-results page where there's any money to be made with it, and they published an educational page that explicitly teaches the technique to everyone else, a page which Patrick links to and quotes.

Those of you who rail about the evils of advertising in general, or this technique in particular, are entitled to your opinions, but do please aim your rage at the appropriate target: Google.

"Those of you who rail about the evils of advertising in general, or this technique in particular, are entitled to your opinions, but do please aim your rage at the appropriate target: Google."

Let's be clear - I'm not at all railing on the evils of advertising. I'm as much of a marketer as I am a product designer and programmer.

Google does not put faked user-generated content (review stars) next to their ads. This is functionally equivalent to me putting an ad on Facebook with the text "5 of your friends like this" embedded in the image. It's a deceptive lie aimed at blindly increasing CTR without regard to click quality. I would be 100x happier with the ad if he had simply left out the stars.

I think he is entitled to put some form of stars if he has actually done the research and got those results. Your right though that having them appear to be as part of the website is dishonest.

This is at least a productive comment. It's the review stars that bother you? If he took the review stars off, replaced them with some other element, you'd be fine with the ad?

I'm never a fan of advertorials, despite their occasional efficacy, because I think they devalue their surroundings. I'm particularly bothered by then when substantial effort is made to make it difficult for even keen-eyed observers to recognize their existence.

If he took the review stars off, replaced them with some other element, you'd be fine with the ad?

Actually, yes.

I was looking at the ad and trying to figure out what bothered me about it. I know on an intellectual level that this isn't very different from what Google does yet the ad here slightly offended me in a way that Google SERPs do not.

I think removing the phony star ratings would have made it more palatable (to me, at least).

Do you have any reason to doubt the veracity of his internal polling which he mentions getting 4.8 out of 5 for? Calling a 5 star rating "faked" is a bit strong.

They do it on their own site, not on someone else's site, which is what Patrick is doing here. Edit: have read that this ad was approved by the publisher.

Patrick makes a good point when he points out that people filter out spammy looking ads so blending, more even than relevance, is necessary for click through. The most surefire way to get folks to click on your ads is to put them on Google, but half the folks on Google don't even realize that they are clicking on ads. Spammy text ads really just don't work.

On the other hand, Patrick's ad here blends just a smidgeon too well for my comfort. I didn't realize that it was an ad until Patrick mentioned it in the text. That's saying something because I was expecting it to be an ad. (I'm a little drowsy today so I'm not as sharp as I usually am.) It looked too legit. I'd have given it a yellow border or slightly different color scheme. I think then it would still attract the viewers attention without feeling like a trick when the user clicked on it.

I can't believe we are calling this stuff patio did as dark side and someone else brought up "ruining the internet". And bringing up "morals". Go spend some time on "dark side" seo forums. Some of that shit is what's ruining parts of the internet.

The guy made an ad that blends into reality. Who cares? There's a fat label that says it's sponsored. Is Apple evil because I watch House on television? Oh, did you notice they like to use Apple computers on that show. Glowy Apple logos everywhere. Did you see what they did there? Watch the credits. Sponsored by Apple.

Or go to CNN.com. Go to From our shows. See a show not like the rest? It's called "Advertisement" in small grey print.

This stuff isn't evil. He simply took advantage of something he could take advantage of and played by the rules. The site needs it's advertisers, and the people to keep this valuable resource of a site going for free needs it's advertisers. If the teacher's site doesn't like his product or how he represents it they can not approve the BuySellAd.

If people don't want to buy the damn Bingo software after they click the ad for it, they won't.

> There's a fat label that says it's sponsored.

Are we talking about the same screenshot with "Bingo Card Creator", five stars and "rated by lots" ?

Cause all I'm seeing is a tiny 8px light grey label that says "Sponsored Placement".

Is there also a big fat label that I missed somehow?

The title of the piece is "Image Ad Blending Works Really, Really Well" not "Image Ad Blending Is Really, Really Ethical."

I'm not promoting it, but take it for what it is. Adapt it to your best judgment.

That said, the stars saying "rated by lots" is both genius and evil :).

Warning: This type of behaviour may be illegal.

For the US see the FTC guidance:


(the FTC has bought prosecutions on this topic recently)

It's also illegal in the UK and presumably a lot of Europe.

You can't make an ad look like an legitimate endorsement, it's as simple as that. In this case the small "sponsored placement" text could easily be taken to be about the following ad which looks like an ad.

What about when some site is raving about a product, and pointing users to the product's website using an affiliate link. No disclosure at all. Is that also illegal? Because I think it would be great if it was.

Yes. That's a clear violation of the FTC guidelines. If you're presenting a review as an independent opinion without disclosing the fact you're making money from it, that's pretty much exactly what the FTC guidelines are designed to tackle.

If you're just providing links without specific endorsement it's probably fine.

Here's an easier read analysis of the FTC guidelines by the Washington Post:


Why should that be illegal? We already have laws in place for fraud. The situation you've described could be perfectly innocent.

Well, what's the difference between making an ad look like a legitimate endorsement, and endorsing a product even though you're financially benefiting because of the affiliate link?

It should be noted that the author of the article has moved to Japan; this may complicate any enforcement action, unless his company is incorporated in the US.

American law is unusual in that's it globally binding. If you violate an American law while abroad, even if it's legal in the country you committed your actions in, you can still be prosecuted in the US.

It's how Dmitry Sklyarov was prosecuted even though his actions were perfectly legal where he performed them in Russia. More recently foreign nationals involved in operating non-american gambling websites have been arrested while in transit through US territory for violating US anti-gambling law.

I think where the ad "crosses the line" here is the faux star rating; the other (unpaid) listings have been user rated/ranked and Patrick's ad is misusing the trust that users of the site potentially put into the ratings.

I think that if the stars were removed, or, say, greyed out with the "Rated by lots" on top that would be absolutely fine.

Agreed, though it depends on how the other ratings are established.

Communication is ultimately about the semantic information conveyed and not the specific words used. If you intend to convey the wrong information, even by using technically correct words, that still counts as lying to me.

Since the other items say "rated by 1" I'm inclined to believe it's a small community that self rates the items. Hence, patio11's co-opting of the styling conveys the information "lots of members of this small community rated BCC 5 stars" rather than "lots of some random group of people rated BCC 5 stars".

I agree that graying out the stars would make it more honest.

Patrick is falling into what, I call, the marketing trap. I like some of Patrick's advice, but I wouldn't follow this... ever.

Patrick has a nice little niche business but that's all it is, a niche. Niches, by definition are really small, focused and low in demand.

In a niche, the stream of new customers eventually dries up and the temptation is to move further and further over to the marketing dark side to keep the ship afloat.

Deceptive marketing tactics work, but they shouldn't be necessary. If that's where this is headed, then just go full darkside into scamming and call it a day.

Grey and black hat techniques are a bad as crappy products, terrible service, bad systems and stolen ideas. If you wouldn't think of using any of those, then don't use scammy marketing.

If you find yourself pursuing deceptive tricks, it's a sign your niche is not big enough and your product is not high enough in demand.

This is the most common trap analytic/scientific minded business owners fall into.

Many people on HN have voiced concerns that the current crop of startups are increasingly using deceptive practices to boost their businesses.

A well planned business should not have to do this.

It's one thing to decide to be purposefully evil, but rationalizing it as necessary is amoral and possibly illegal.

And you are falling into the "if I build it they will come" trap.

He definitely has a niche business. Many of us do. For most of us, our niche is tech. Patrick's niche is education.

In the tech/startup niche, often the extent of marketing that is required is posting to HN and getting featured by TechCrunch. Trying to expand our niche outside of this is probably a bad sign, and most likely ineffective. I hold this thread as a prime example of how much we hate advertising.

The education niche is quite different. You don't reach them by getting coverage for raising a round of financing or writing a blog post on SEO that casually mentions your cloud based retro encabulator. This "deceptive" marketing may be an effective way to raise interest in different segments of his target market.

Traditional online advertising is increasingly ineffective because of all the bad ads in that form. Would we be so quick to ignore all ad-like content if we hadn't been tempered with the aversion therapy of flash horrors, scams, and weightloss/white teeth/work at home? The end result is even advertising that might serve a useful purpose can't exist in that environment, so, like bacteria after the invention of penicillin, it has to adapt and change and find a new way to continue. If only "good" ads make the jump, then I think we're better off as a whole. If bad ads make the jump, we'll soon get pretty good at filtering them out as well. Honestly, if scam ads can blend seamlessly into a page, what does that say about the actual content?

Firstly, I was not saying businesses do not have to do marketing. All businesses have to (or should) do significant marketing/pr/advertising to reach their market.

However, there's a massive difference between good marketing and deceptive/illegal marketing.

Apple does great marketing. Grifters, scammers and spammers do deceptive marketing.

Second, education is not a niche. Education is a sector, one of the largest in the world. Primary school teachers are a market, and bingo cards is a niche.

Technology is a sector, Web developers are a market and version control is a niche.

Boxing yourself into a niche that's too small with a product that's not particularly attractive makes marketing much more difficult than it needs to be.

Look, I'm normally pretty easy going, but it's just like to say it's people like YOU that are ruining the internet. I really wish all the SEO-cretins would just go find something else to do with their time.

I disagree. I would rather ads blend in and disappear than be flashing in my face. If I click on something that sounds interesting and it turns out to be an ad, then they did a good job with it, because clearly it's something I'm interested in. If I'm not interested in it, the back button is easy to get to.

The issue I take is when they're blatantly trying to makes ads look like legitimate content.

what do you mean by "legitimate content"? Something that someone posted out of pure altruism and with no intent to make a profit? We can argue about how big of a percentage of the internet that is

I understand, but when you say "ruining the internet", I would prefer deceptive ads that blend in than those that make my eyes bleed, which is often the case with banner ads.

The difference is I can't adblock text.

If the inability to block an ad is the primary determinant of "ruining" the internet you probably need to re-evaluate your sense of entitlement.

I adblock all youtube comment divs. It's quite effective.

Huh? The ad is an image. It can easily be adblocked.

Patio11's ad is an image, and would be blocked. But you're still right, in that the closer one gets to mimicking unpaid content (such as Google or Reddit's sponsored ads, which are text) the harder it is to programatically block.

Or, people like HIM are PAYING for the Internet.

Personally, I think it's people who like to tell other people how much they're RUINING the INTERNET that are RUINING the INTERNET, but I spend a lot of my Internet time on message boards, so I'm probably biased. It's probably bad recipe sites that are RUINING the INTERNET.

Here's why I say ruin. Remember when you could do a search for product reviews, and actually get product reviews, instead of a million template link bait sites?

This is like pining for the old days when all the world's microcomputer hackers fit into the same room at Stanford and you could ask Steve Wozniak to teach you how to solder.

Sure, when Google was new and had relatively low traffic and relatively few people were trying to game it and the web was orders of magnitude smaller than it is today (largely because Google itself was a force that made the web much larger) the SERPs were different. Arguably better. But we can't go back there. Time marches on.

If it were easy to go back there Google would have more effective competitors.

You can try to simulate the old days by creating a smaller network of trusted friends or sources and only following links from them. This is a hot strategy now; we call it "social networking". But I wouldn't assume that social networks, even those limited to your immediate family, are immune to commercial "SEO". Experience suggests otherwise. Just wait until a family member starts shilling for Amway or Cutco, or (less annoyingly) your teenaged nephew comes to your house selling band candy or magazines.

The social-network spamming has already started. On my last trip to the cinema I saw a teenager get a discount on her ice-cream in exchange for posting something on Facebook.

What does Patrick's advertising technique --- really, think about this --- exactly what does it have to do with Google SERP pollution?

Nothing, in and of it self. My rant was more at this whole group of grey/black hat SEO, a group he most defiantly IS in.

If you think Patrick is a black hat SEO, you don't really know what a black hat SEO is.

It's defiantly at least gray. He openly admits to trying to trick visitors into thinking the ad is organic content. That's well over the line in my book.

I think, as respectfully as I can be on what I think is a thoroughly stupid thread, you are "defiantly" naive about what it is that black hat SEOs actually do. "Tricking visitors into thinking ads are organic content". Heh.

Black hat SEO is so much worse than anything we ever talk about on HN threads about advertising.

At least get your terminology straight, this has nothing to do with SEO.

Another trick that works: break your website.

When I ran a somewhat large music site(100K uniques/day), we'd make significantly more money from adsense when our streaming server went down.

Why? Because when hitting the play button on the player didn't work, people start clicking on the ads.

Sadly, also effective are having an ugly site and not fully solving the problems of your audience.

Reminds me of a company I worked for back in the dot-com boom days. MostChoice.com planned on being some sort of meta insurance company, but that failed and the hundreds of pages of content they'd generated about insurance and financial planning, etc. stayed on the web. I would check on them over the years (to laugh at the fact my code still existed) and it seems they made more money as a static site just on AdSense clicks than they did with the original business idea. Insurance clicks are very nice.

It looks like they've redesigned the site now and taken down much of what I wrote. Too bad. I was a sophomore in high school and it was exciting to me to have my financial planning calculators out there on the internet.

That is terrible and hilarious at the same time.

Have you thought about trying the yellow background as well based on your comment about how some people think it's the best result?

I have to admit I'm split on the ad. On one hand, I feel that it's deceptive, because I expect ads to look like ads. When they start to blend too much, I feel it's "cheating". Similar in a way to how I feel when a crafted-to-become-viral video ends up being an ad for something.

On the other hand, I'm thinking "why not?". The site allowed you to have such an ad and people are looking for a product similar to yours, so…

It's definitely skirting the line…

I watched that Mixergy video too, and was inspired to try something similar :)

BSA is great, but if you need more inventory, you can get this strategy working on Google AdWords, too. You just need to create a new ad group, and use "managed placements" to specify the sites you want to target.

Since you probably don't want 100 ad groups, you have to get a bit more generic with your ads, but there are plenty of ways to do that and still get the "this is useful information, not some off-topic ad" effect.

Here's another tip: Once you have an ad that exceeds about 0.2% CTR, you'll often get much lower cost-per-click by switching the campaign to CPM bidding.

For example, if you're bidding $1 CPM, and getting a 2% CTR, your effective CPC is only $0.05! In CPC mode, you'd often have to bid $0.30 CPC just to show up.

Wow, that's a very valuable insight! Do you need a %0.2 CTR in order to switch to CPM (e.g.: is it disabled before that?) or is it that your bids will not be as good if you don't have at least that high a CTR?

Every time I experiment with adwords, something in their policies seems to drive me off (last time it was that I couldn't use the terms "iPhone" or "iPad" in the ad, even though we have a legal license from Apple to use them.

This time, the costs seem really high the ads don't seem to run often, and I'm getting outbid even on terms where no ads show up when I do searches.

Between google having a mysterious cut, and taking on the roll of "optimizing" the experience, they make it very opaque for people who aren't add placement pros to use their service... and very hard to make it cost effective, which means, we don't use it. A real shame.

CPM might make adwords viable again...we still have the incentive to produce a good add to get more clicks for our Mille.

If your ads aren't showing up for certain word choices, you might want to rethink the type of words you're using to ensure that Google knows your content is appropriate.

Irony of ironies... all the images on his page are blocked by adblock.

Apparently, an URL like


is blocked by the rule


This is a false positive and a surprisingly broad rule.

It is a broad rule and I gave on the article because I could not see any of the image. I was about to white list the site when I realized that using Ad Block Plus and NoScript for years has resulted in me experiencing a significantly different Internet.

So much of SEO simply does not apply to people like me.

But in fact I do spend a lot of money on-line, but the I spend on content. Even if it's a funny shirt from a web comic, something trivial and designed to have shallow commercial appeal, it is still content.

So there's things that are hard to distinguish from content, and then there's things that are real content which you can buy.

And NoScript and Ad block have never kept me from the latter.

I think I'll skip the white listing.

I actually don't use adblock and the like (although I do actively block flash) for that reason: as someone developing for the web, I don't want to experience a different internet. I want to see it as my users do.

Also, if a site is covered in ads, I click away. If I kept reading the site the person reading the analytics of the site would think I approve of what they're doing. I'm not going to get into an arms race with my content providers. I'd rather find and support better content providers.

I suppose it's similar to the GNU 'don't use non-free software even if you pirate it' stance although I'm by no means dogmatic about it.

I use adblock for one reason: Youtube started playing audio ads without user interaction, on tabs that had been open fo quite some time. Every other site is collateral damage, I'm afraid; it's not worth my effort to figure out how to switch chrome adblock from a whitelist to a blacklist model.

I was wondering why I couldn't see his examples. I forgot I was running ad block.

In related news, AdBlock Works Really, Really Well.

Love the fake 5 stars. All that's missing is mimicking the scammy copy those ads always have: "See this weird trick a mom learned about bingo cards"

I think the most jarring part of this ad is something that isn't patio11's fault: it's juxtaposed against an ad that completely stands out as an ad, which makes the 'blending' that much more 'blendy'. Without that other ad in the adjoining slot, I think the visual difference between patio11's ad and regular site content would be more stark, putting it at about the same shade of moral gray as a Google search ad.

Oh. I had assumed that the blatant ad was a fake, tacked on by patio11 for just that reason.

There is a clear distinction between what Google is doing and what Patrick is doing. Respect diminished.

What is it?

As a user, I really, really dislike this sort of deceptive advertising. I'd like to explain why.

The defense I've seen so far starts by "Well, Google does that too, so by your definition they're also evil." Here's the first problem with that defense: appeal to authority. Do you really expect anyone to say, "Oh, Google does it too? Shucks, then, I retract what I said, because we all know Google isn't evil."

Second, there are significant differences between how Google "blends" their ads and Patrick's example. The background color distinguishes the ad from the rest of the search results. You might argue that some users have crappy screens or poor vision, but the fact is that the background color is different. The intent was to distinguish the ad clearly. In Patrick's example, there is no such intent.

Another thing that has been downplayed is the "Ad - Why this ad?" text. On its own, it probably would have been less noticeable. But when you spot the different background, you automatically look for other differences. The "Why this ad" text is one of those differences and it's prominent not by virtue of its size, but position: it's separated from the rest of the information in the ad.

But really, it's not just about the background and the "Ad - Why this ad?" text. It's also about the fact that Google always puts this stuff as the first result, whereas in Patrick's example the ad was snuck into the results.

The fake rating is another problem. People try to defend it by saying "It's not fake, it was based on real data." Nobody said the data was fake. The rating is fake, because for every other result the rating was computed by the site, based on the data the site has, while here it was supplied by the advertiser. By the way, if I'm wrong about this, if it is also generated by the site, please let me know.

Finally, I'm perfectly happy to adapt to the way Google presents their ads: they're sort of my "doorway" to the rest of the Internet. I'm not as happy to have to research and adapt to every site's unique way of "blending" ads. But this is really a minor point for me. The most important point remains the fact that Google has made at least some effort to distinguish their ads from the content, whereas in Patrick's example the effort was invested in doing the opposite.

He is comparing to Google, but I think there is a huge difference. It's not an Ad blended like a content. It's an Ad faked in a content style. He is copying the exact same style, the same kind of content (title, description, category, photo, rating) and not even mentioning it. There is no way to find out if it's an ad or a real post.

Is this just a ruse to get us all to disable AdBlock for his site? :)

I had to do exactly that just to see what he was talking about. (I didn't click any ads)

I thought about where exactly patio11 crossed the line into evil territory, and I realized that there is no line.

All ads are deceptive, because they are all trying to steal your attention by showing up when you are looking for something else. That we've developed the ability to ignore most of them doesn't change the basic principle. But the degree of deception can certainly vary.

By running ads, you are pawning off the user value of your site. The more effective the ads, the more value they are losing. It's a zero-sum game.

Ads are clearly not a zero-sum game, any more than links offsite are a zero-sum game. Transfers in attention are like transfers in money. It is entirely possible for both sides of "I give you money, you give me a banana" to end up better off. Similarly, if you're looking at a list of ways to teach kids subtraction, "I give you thirty seconds, you show me subtraction bingo" leaves both sides better off.

But with advertising, the attention transfer is involuntary. The user is always trying to spend their attention on something else, and they aren't getting what they pay for. If attention is currency then advertising is clearly bait-and-switch fraud.

The user is exchanging some portion of their attention to receive whatever service the publisher is providing.

If you want to watch this football game, you give some portion of your attention to our advertisers. If you want to view whatever the regular content is on the site patio11 advertised on, you give some of your attention to patio11.

There's nothing involuntary about it. If you don't like ads, don't watch TV shows, or view websites that show ads. The only part that's different from a normal transaction is that you aren't very strongly forced to give up the attention the publisher is asking from you. You can get up during TV ads, run an ad blocker, or develop ad blindness on sites. This extra ability of yours doesn't change the face that you agreed to possibly give up some of your attention to an advertiser to use whatever service you're using.

But we don't agree in advance to give up our attention in exchange for things. Nor do advertisers feel obliged, per se, to give us something in return for looking at ads. It is simply assumed that we don't own our attention, and it is up for grabs to anyone who can get their hands on it.

We expect to see ads in many situations, but only due to past experience, not because we ever made a deal with anybody.

And the most effective ads, the ones that advertisers strive to create, are those that are the most unexpected.

I'm not so sure. Road-side billboards are typically pretty obvious ads. They stand out by shape, colour and presentation generally. What patio11 is doing is more like putting up a billboard styled with police colours or reminiscent of a "Bingo Fun - 12 miles" in white text on a green background, copying distance and direction signs. I believe signs emulating the blue-white checked police signs we get here in Australia are illegal or at least very heavily discouraged.

I'm sure there's a discrepancy relating to a public space and a private site, but at best this is a grey area and I'm surprised that patio11 would do this as anything other than a discussion point or temporary experiment.

Or, you're converting the nebulous "value of the site to a user" into cold, hard cash. The game isn't zero-sum, it's closer to an IPO (or some other stock-issuing event) in that sense: theoretical value becomes real value, but now you don't have "control" of everything anymore.

The site gets cash, but the user loses value and doesn't get anything in return.

If you're a teacher, and you're at a site looking for how to teach a lesson on subtraction, and I tell you bingo cards do that, and you pay me money for bingo cards, you're saying in the most explicit way that people know how that bingo cards were exactly what you were looking for.

Why not submit your site to that community for review (assuming it's as relevant as you say) and get a real star rating in the process? Your listing would look the same as your current ad and you presumably wouldn't be paying to advertise (unless the site accepts only paid submissions).

Because BCC's landing page / free trial is superior to the experience of the organic site, for both teachers who want bingo cards and for me. If it were one of the organic listings, I'd have to manually create 8 cards or whatever and then upload them. They'd go behind a signup wall. People would then be asked to signup to the site to download the eight cards. Very few of them would buy BCC. Instead, they should sign up for my site, where a) they can create more cards and b) the ones who experience a lot of value from classroom bingo will actually pay me money.

If you're getting 100% conversion then I guess you can do no wrong. But anyone who saw your ad and didn't buy was looking for something else. No matter what you put in your ad, it's not going to be more valuable than the content it displaces, save for strange and rare accidents.

anyone who saw your ad and didn't buy was looking for something else

What an astonishing statement.

Let's disregard the fact that some of the most popular entertainment in history first appeared as advertisements (everything from the annual, ephemeral crop of Super Bowl ads, to the 72-years-old-and-counting "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer", to arguably every music video ever). Let's disregard the clear evidence that people deliberately search for popular TV commercials in YouTube. Let's ignore the philosophical debate about whether every one of 37Signals's blog posts is also an "ad" for 37Signals products, or whether every one of my HN comments is also an "ad" for YCombinator. [1]

It's still obvious that an ad can be valuable without leading to a purchase. If I go out to buy an electric guitar, I don't do so by clicking on the first guitar ad I see and then pressing the green BUY button. Instead, I do some kind of research. At the very least, I go to a store with a bunch of different kinds of guitar and stare at their packaging and styling. More likely, I visit the sites of a bunch of guitar makers and then choose one. But just because I chose to buy a Strat rather than a Gibson Les Paul doesn't mean that I didn't derive value from viewing Gibson's website, or reading their blurb about Les Paul.

Similarly, just because I'm ultimately not going to buy bingo card creation software doesn't mean I don't benefit from knowing that such stuff exists.


[1] Yeah, but we're discussing a cheap little low-class interstitial ad on a website, right? Should I even try to compare it to a whole fancy thirty-second spot, or a music video?

Maybe, because a 140-character ad is better for many purposes than these bigger ads. It certainly takes less than thirty seconds to read.

The problem with all of these common justifications for advertising is that they are all despite itself. Yes, the occasional ad is more entertaining than the content, and occasionally an ad will give you exactly the information that you need.

But fundamentally, ads do not exist in order to entertain or inform you. They exist to distract you from what you want to see, towards something someone else wants you to see. In general, content is always more valuable than advertising.

If looking at ads is the cost of looking at content, so be it. The point is that it is a cost, not a gift.

The user gets to use the site for free. How is that nothing?

Tactics like this are utterly immoral. I hope browser plugins like adblocker become massively mainstream and people start to learn to actively oppose this kind of rubbish. People that spend their "careers" advertising; contribute FUCK ALL to humanity.

This is the kind of attitude that's bad for the Internet overall. Take someone like me, I probably spend more online than most 'casual' users. Yet I use noscript and adblock, so I don't see any ads or SEO crap. I spend money wisely on sites that deserve it by providing good content. The SEO people lose out on the bigger share of the pie, and instead they all go 'dark side' over trying to get as much of the tiny slice as they can.

You don't know what "SEO" means, do you?

No it doesn't. It's an awful, deceptive move.

You know why? It's because Google makes it easy to spot the sponsored link if you spend more than half a second on it before clicking. A yellow background and text that says 'Sponsored Link' is way less deceiving than the lack of a 'like' button.

The devil is in the details. And the significant amount of justification you do in your post shows that you're trying to convince yourself as much as us that it's OK.

Scammy. This could fool me if I were in a rush and adblock didn't filter it.

Since it works, I'd consider using it (in venues where users aren't as likely to be outraged+vindicitive about being tricked, or even notice being tricked).

Thanks for sharing.

I always appreciate Patrick's willingness to share information, but won't be using this deceptive tactic. Sad to see it voted to the top of HN.

Ads that look like content work well.

FB's sponsored stories, Twitter's sponsored tweets, Adwords, brand sponsored content on demand media's properties -- it's all the same shit.

Let's not jump on our high horse here.


1) I'm uncertain as to their thought process. Typically, when people sell me stuff at a particular price, my mentally model is "Hmm, they couldn't sell that same stuff to somebody else for more money." Just for a comparable, I generally advertise on remnant inventory at CPCs below a dime, not at a quarter, so I think it is possible that BusyTeacher understands their unit economics a bit better than your guesstimate does.

2) Ask a simple question, get a simple answer: Alexa is clearly wrong.

No wrong done here in my opinion.

The content of your post has brought up a topic I have been thinking about recently, which is intensely devoted sponsorship advertising. For example, if you (Patrick) want to write this piece about your positive experience with BuySellAds, then you could write the entire blog post with heavy mention of the product that YOU TRULY LIKE AND PROMOTE.

The trust factor will go a long way in helping you. I have watched "This Week In Startups" on Youtube and noticed they use a similar approach. They stop the broadcast so that Mark Suster could talk about how X product has helped him.

Most of that is off-topic, but your blog post got me thinking...which it is supposed to do, right? :)

How else can you pull this off unless you design to image to be as close to organic results as possible ? But I wonder what happens if the site owner decides to change the styles, the image would then foolishly look fake.

The rating stars however are a different story and are definitely in the dark gray area (say at #333). The "rated by lots" will make users draw a comparison with the other unpaid listings without realizing it is fake, atleast in the sense the other stars arent fake.

It's actually kinda crazy that I looked at this image


for about thirty seconds and literally did not see the ad, at all. I am now impressed/scared of my mind's ability to completely disregard probably unimportant information.

Its funny that there is an almost exact same thing in audio processing called masking, where a loud signal will hide a quieter signal similar in frequency.

Maybe this is the visual processing equivalent?

It's "search satisfaction", I think. People expect to look for (and dismiss) the obvious stuff.

This is similar to the notion that having the TSA check for liquids at airports is dangerous, because when they find a bottle of shampoo, they stop looking for other stuff.

Are you kidding me? I knew the TSA was security theatre, but holy crap, Batman.

The terrorists not only have won, but they have all the cheat codes!

Images don't load in this post.

I am available for consulting in adjusting your Adblock regexp at my usual day rate.

You probably have AdBlock on.

Do you have any solutions for dealing with slight browser rendering differences? E.g. antialiasing on one browser but not another, slight font size / padding differences, etc. What browser are you "targeting" with the image?

My vote is evil, not evil genius.

There's a million ways of tricking customers, and a million ways to rationalize it. But if you have ethics you won't go down that path.

If you care about money more than your character, then by all means though.

So why does image blending for ads work better than contrasting ads, but contrasting (usually red) sign up buttons convert better than blending buttons?

I think a fairly important point is that BuySellAds requires the site owner to approve the advertiser. So in effect, the person providing content on the site has agreed that Bingo Card Creator is not so reprehensible that they cannot accept money for what is then essentially a paid/guest listing on their site.

OTOH were this Google adwords instead, and there was no human approval, I have to say it would be pretty sketchy.

Funny. I didn't realize that I had Adblock Plus installed until the I noticed the images in the blog post were missing.

(Apparently, Chrome syncing will actually install Adblock for you when you switch computers(!), but will leave the default lists set. I had it on without any lists, and just blocked the egregious stuff... except now I suddenly blocked everything.)

Random note: AdBlock blocked the images in the blog post. Screenshots of ads.

Definitely a darker shade of grey IMHO. Reminds me of the SourceForge ads shown on the download pages that have a big green "download" button. The ads usually display before the actual download button appears, and more than once I have accidentally clicked on it.

I end up angry and remembering NOT to deal with whoever was responsible for the ad.

However the difference I see to patio11's tactic is that in his case, people are searching for something educationally related and he gives them something related. That's different than me expecting to download a Java library and getting an anti-virus software page. So, still deception and therefore dark-grey, but not as blatant of deception as the ads on SourceForge.

just try looking at the subtle colouring on a slightly tilted laptop display. It just looks white!

I don't understand who still sees ads. It's apparently a huge majority of Internet users, but I don't understand where they come from.

I often set up computers for family and friends and installing AdBlock is one of the first things I do.

Who is computer-savvy enough to buy and install their own computer, and yet not computer-savvy enough to get AdBlock?

Or do (most) people actually like ads?

I don't understand who still sees ads. It's apparently a huge majority of Internet users, but I don't understand where they come from.

This is like that quote for "How could X have won the election? I don't know anybody who voted for him."

If you learn one thing from me, learn that male twenty-something techies are not the golden normative standard for all forms of behavior. Some people actually do like ads, a lot. (Even twenty-something techies love some ads. I watch more Old Spice commercials than I watch actual TV!) Most people just don't care enough one way or the other to change the channel.

I encourage everyone to see how real people actually use these devices which we're trying to convince real people to use.

> males, twenty-something, techies, etc.

My parents are 80 years old. That includes my mother, who is not male (or else I was lied to about EVERYTHING!) They are not techies by a very long shot.

I installed Adblock for them on Firefox and Chrome.

Sometimes they use IE by accident; inevitably they complain to me that the blocking of ads is broken or inconsistent because they just saw ads all over the place.

You're right to say that I'm basing my observation on people I know, but you're wrong to assume they're all male, young and tech-oriented, or that I lend them my own preferences.

For example, I'm not on Facebook and will hopefully never be (if that's possible, which is not certain); but everyone I know is on Facebook and they even kind of like it.

But the opposite is true for ads.

It would be interesting to look at statistics for Adblock. I really don't see why it should be a "male" thing...?

- - -

Edit: I'm actually a little more annoyed by your answer than I should, because it tries to make me look stupid, without actually saying "I think you're stupid". I was raised by Jesuits and know one when I see one.

There are hundreds of situations where you don't personally know people who are of one opinion, but where you're aware they exist because they make themselves heard. I don't think I've ever met a vegetarian but I'm very much aware of their existence.

But ads? Who ever speaks publicly in favor of ads (who isn't, like yourself, an advertiser)???

But ads? Who ever speaks publicly in favor of ads (who isn't, like yourself, an advertiser)???

Have you ever had the after-the-Superbowl conversation? Or, take a look at the Youtube stats / comments / etc for e.g. Real Men of Genius or Old Spice Guy or Angry Birds or whatever. Or, watch HN when a new Google Doodle comes out. Or, talk to people who read trade press. Or, talk to people who read fashion magazines or bridal magazines or other things where every page is paid for. Or Steve Jobs keynotes. Or...

People love to buy things and they love to be sold things, at least some of the time.

> Have you ever had the after-the-Superbowl conversation?

I'm not American and don't live in America, so no, I've never watched the Superbowl or talked about it, or its ads, afterwards. Over here when there are very popular sporting events (the World cup every four years, or maybe tennis every year) people talk about what happened during the game, not about the ads.

But fashion magazines, yes, point taken. But as you say, there's nothing but ads in them; people buy them just for that. Ads are not interfering with other content in fashion magazines.

Anyway -- in my experience, once people know about AdBlock they can't do without it. Therefore I'm wondering what's going to happen when everyone knows about it (which will happen eventually).

What you're saying is that many people actually like ads; you may very well be right.

Given that I have met many people who enjoy discussing Super Bowl Ads, it's not a hypothetical. Many people enjoy some subset of ads. Many also love the movie trailers that play before movies.

I don't have adblock installed, because I want things that I spend time reading online to make some money, and because I've learned about a number of great services when I've taken the time to look at the banner ads on technical sites.

I don't understand who still sees ads.

I've been working in IT for over 15 years, with hundreds of highly proficient people. I've met one person who runs AdBlock.

Or do (most) people actually like ads?

I saw a statistically significant survey a couple of days ago that said ~25% of people "liked" or "liked a lot" ads on mobile devices. Over 40% were undecided, and ~15% "neither liked or disliked" mobile ads. only ~20% "disliked" or "disliked a lot" mobile ads.

The effectiveness was another thing altogether - interestingly, they didn't seem to be any less effective for people who disliked ads.

> interestingly, they didn't seem to be any less effective for people who disliked ads

Well, if people who dislike ads install AdBlock, ads are very ineffective for them, but stats don't tell that because impressions are not even counted...

I find the ratio that only one person in "hundreds of highly proficient people" installs an ad blocker hard to believe, though.

Well, if people who dislike ads install AdBlock, ads are very ineffective for them, but stats don't tell that because impressions are not even counted...

No, this was a survey - they went and actually talked to the people. Even some people who said they disliked ads said they had bought things after being exposed to them via an ad (and the proportion of people who bought was roughly the same for those who liked and those who disliked ads)

I find the ratio that only one person in "hundreds of highly proficient people" installs an ad blocker hard to believe, though.

shrug. Do you read Reddit by any chance? I've noticed that there seems to be a high correlation of AdBlock users and Reddit readers (and believe it or not, most people - even highly technical people - don't read Reddit).

I could install AdBlock, but I choose not to. I don't particularly like most ads, but I recognize that my attention is the price that the website owner asks of me in return for providing the service.

If the price is too high, I can find an alternative, walk away, or negotiate, but I don't have the right to not pay the asking price for a product or service and still get the benefits.

It's not so much that people like ads, as that they are so inured to them that they don't even see them enough to get annoyed by their presence. Sometimes I set up a new computer and forget to install AdBlock for a long period, simply because I can't tell the difference between a clean page, and a page filled with ads I just don't mentally register.

Well, yes, ad blindness works for banner ads, but recently it seems many sites (newspapers in particular) insist on having a big ad front and center that you have to manually dismiss in order to access the page. You can't ignore those.

I think I installed adblock once and never bothered reinstalling.

I dont like ads, I just dont dislike them enough to care, if they bother me that much I dont use the website.

If you want to see the ad 'in real life' you can find it here:


<PickyMode> Head link looks slightly bolder, and a couple of pixels to the left of where it should be.

Stars are 1/4th-1/5th of a star to the left.

Text seems slightly lighter.

Have to admire the concept!

Typically, when a site pulls that kind of thing, I cease to use the site. I'm not interested in buying anything, and by distracting my eyes from legitimate content with your "get a foot in the door" ads, you earn a big red X from me.

The site owner is probably grateful for that mindset. Development time, servers, bandwidth, these things all cost money. Neither your page view nor your "screw your costs where's the free shit?" attitude pay the bills.

Bah. I pay for the Economist, and I've paid for LWN in the past. I think a subscription model for premium content is more respectable than deceptive advertising.

So let me get this straight. Critics of this tactic want to get rich doing their own startup, while using the very techniques they just renounced to generate traffic and conversions? Seems a bit hypocritical to me. Wake up folks - business success can be 'seedy' sometimes. As long as your product creates more value than customers are charged, then it's a win-win for everyone.

What if these so-called 'seedy' techniques represented the difference between success and failure for your own startup? I'll bet your position on the white/grey/black hat continuum would shift quite promptly.

Well done Patrick, and thanks for sharing the details about another valuable marketing tactic that people can try.

If you want to do naughty things then by all means do them. There's not much harm done when people are slightly deceived into clicking onto a legitimate product. Big deal really.

Just for the love of god don't lie to yourself about it or try to rationalize it.

Registration is open for Startup School 2019. Classes start July 22nd.

Guidelines | FAQ | Support | API | Security | Lists | Bookmarklet | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact