The concept of ethics in online advertising is nothing new but as the industry continues to grow, new unethical tactics begin to emerge.
Pop-ups aren’t as pervasive as they were in the ’90s but banner ads still seem to work. According to Nielsen, about four-in-10 people trust online banner ads.
In this article, I’ll be looking at what ethical PPC is, what it entails, and why professionals should conform to the concept.
Is There a Definition of Ethical PPC?
Before writing this article, I wanted to check if anyone had written about ethical PPC or given a definition.
The closest thing I could find was David Trounce’s “Ethics in Online Marketing: Does Brand Morality Matter?” but that covered online marketing as a whole.
There was also GNGF’s “Should I…? The Ethics of PPC Ads” but that didn’t have a definition and looked at PPC from a law industry perspective.
So why hasn’t this been addressed in more detail before?
Trust in advertising is low at the moment, in print and online. Society is more skeptical in a time when we’re all hypersensitive to change.
My only hypothesis is that businesses are making money from people clicking ads and they’re converting so they don’t see a problem unless Google tells them.
But we all have a moral duty to be open and honest in our advertising and that’s why it’s important to define what ethical PPC is and what it involves. So here it is:
“Ethical PPC is the practice of online advertising that promote services or products with expertise, authenticity, and transparency.”
The first part is the essence of PPC – advertising services or products online. But the three accompanying elements are where ethics come in.
PPC – Easy as E-A-T
E-A-T already exists in the world of SEO, and it stands for Expertise, Authoritativeness, Trustworthiness.
It’s a way that Google’s quality raters measure the quality of a page and assessing whether users get correct and helpful information.
But acronyms aren’t just for SEO, so I’ve created a new version of E-A-T for PPC.
Anyone who has a business has some form of expertise in the field.
But remember, expertise is a spectrum and not a binary system and that’s why it’s so important to convey your level of expertise in your paid ads.
It helps to specify but depending on your type of ad, there might be a character limit and you needn’t waste the space with meticulous detail of your experience and expertise.
Let the user know just how good you are but be honest.
And honesty ties in with authenticity. Everything you promote should be real and backed by a relevant governing body. It’s why you don’t see ads for snake oil on Google or Bing.
Just as you have to be open about your expertise, you must be honest about your services or products and what they’re capable of.
You shouldn’t offer something that you can’t deliver (or never had the intention of doing). This, of course, can be accidental.
Dynamic keyword insertion is an advanced Google Ads feature that allows you to insert a keyword into your ad copy based on the user’s search query.
It allows for more specific ad targeting, especially if you use descriptors or particular products. But there are downsides.
If you put the wrong keyword in the wrong place, you could unintentionally be violating trademark laws. There’s also the possibility of accidentally advertising a product or service you don’t actually have.
So be conscious of how your ads read and, again, be honest about yourself and products.
If you look at SERPs as shop windows, your ads are like the classified ads stuck to the glass or, in the case of a department store, the well-dressed mannequins or physical products they’re engaging with.
The window is transparent so you can see what’s on offer and decide to buy. And your online ads need to offer that same transparency. It’s not just the promotion of your services – it can be about brand consistency.
Your PPC efforts should be an extension of your SEO strategy, your email marketing, and direct marketing campaigns. Users can spot a red herring from a mile off and inconsistency will turn them away.
You also have to think of conversions and what your intentions are for your business.
For example, if the goal of your campaign is to grow your email list, while you shouldn’t explicitly say “this ad is for email capture!”, you also shouldn’t pretend it’s for something entirely different.
Help Humans, Don’t Chase Clicks
It’s the responsibility of search engines to provide the information users need without causing harm in any way.
For ad publishers, it’s their responsibility to follow those ethical values and not mislead. But trust in Google and online advertising isn’t as high as either group would like.
Not a day goes by where we don’t see stories about politicians misusing online advertising. Facebook’s response has been sketchy at best while Google has done more but not consistently.
Just yesterday, TNW reported on Google Ads being “infested with investment scams”.
Users trust search engines to give them the correct answers. It’s not always immediate, but what they don’t need are questionable responses that throw them off.
PPC should not lead users down dark alleys for the sake of clicks. You’d be wasting ad spend if you chased clicks anyway.
If over half of mobile users leave sites after 3 seconds if they haven’t loaded, they’ll catch on pretty quickly if your site doesn’t marry up with your ads.
When Google rolled out its SERP design changes on desktop in January 2020 (the changes on mobile went through in May 2019), SEOs went into a frenzy over the visual similarities between paid ads and organic listings.
Organic listings no longer have the favicons but ads still use the black Ad label.
This visual change has been described as a dark pattern by some critics.
At Adzooma, we actually tested click-through rates on Google Ads in the periods before and after the SERP changes to see if it made a difference. (Disclosure: I work at Adzooma.)
The result was a surprise and gave more questions than answers.
But perhaps it tells us something else: that users can see through those alleged dark patterns and assume the top links are ads so they unconsciously scroll down.
Conjecture aside, this shows that any attempt at fooling the user won’t work.
Voodoo Love Spells
A few months ago, I heard a story about a client wanting ads on “voodoo love spells” on Google.
I wouldn’t have expected Google to accept them as they wouldn’t conform to YMYL.
But they did.
Genuine love spells?
Black magic spells?
This is the antithesis of ethical PPC and I don’t understand how this got through in 2019 when, in 2011, Google canceled an ad for an Irish sex worker rights group claiming it “sold adult sexual services” when it was, in fact, a nonprofit campaign for sex worker rights.
They later restored the ad after legal intervention.
Click fraud is “the fraudulent clicking of pay per click adverts to generate fraudulent charges for advertisers” with about 20% of all online ad clicks classed as “fraudulent.”
And that means wasted budgets.
For every $3 spent on online ads, click fraud took $1 and – approximately $18.5 billion was lost to click fraud, according to a 2015 report by the Distil Networks.
But why would anyone do this?
To kill their competitors.
If they don’t have the budget, they won’t be able to bid on the ads you want.
It’s like funneling a competitor’s money into an incinerator while they’re not looking and taking their customers.
One of the most famous sets of technological laws is Asimov’s Laws of Robotics which state:
- A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
- A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
- A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.
Their purpose is to create a stable and harmonious environment for robots and humans, with built-in exceptions, if rules are broken and robots or humans are harmed.
While I don’t see paid ads becoming sentient and potentially murdering us any time soon (thanks, Arnold Schwarzenegger), we should be safe from paid ads that could detrimentally affect our lives.
As Jamie Alberico said about SEOs in her piece on ethical SEO:
“We play with the fabric interconnected knowledge and fuss with the ubiquitous pillars of knowledge shoved in everyone’s pocket. […] It also means we’re on the front lines of the battle for user trust.”
I’d argue that PPC professionals play a part in that too, not least because ads are the first things they see.
There are things to improve in the systems that facilitate PPC, regarding ethics and duty of care to users.
But the ad publishers who use those systems can make the first steps.