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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.




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