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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 :).

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