E-commerce leaders move to fight deceptive online ads

The Alliance Against Bait & Click is focused on keyword advertising

E-commerce leaders have joined together to try to protect Internet users from deceptive online ads.

The Alliance Against Bait & Click (AABC), announced Tuesday, hopes to raise awareness of "bait and click" advertising, the practice of luring users to potentially dangerous sites with unauthorized and unaffiliated brand names in scam ads.

Members of AABC include 1-800 Contacts, Intercontinental Hotels Group (IHG), Marriott Hotels and Resorts, Starwood Hotels and Resorts, Northwest Airlines, Rosetta Stone and Cyveillance. Experts on IT and business strategy, including Eric Clemons, a professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, and Benjamin Edelman, a professor at the Harvard Business School, have also joined the effort, the AABC said.

The group wants to make users aware of the practice of keyword advertising, through which advertisers buy another company's trademarked brand name from search engines to trigger their own ads. With keyword advertising, when a user types in a particular brand name, ads appear for companies unrelated to the owner of that trademark.

"When the brand name is entered as a keyword in a search, the [scam ad] appears -- hijacking the consumer to the competitor's site," the AABC said in a statement.

Getting a user to click on a scam ad not only wastes the user's time, it can also be risky for the user. According to the AABC, those kinds of links to sponsored ads often lead to sites with spyware, or to sites that send spam or make false marketing claims. In addition, the group said scam ads also charge consumers for questionable or unwanted services.

"There are deceptive ads that promise 'free' credit reports that are not free and others that promise 'free' ring tones that cost $10 a month," Edelman said in an interview. "My sense is that there are an awful lot of scams out there online, and more and more of them are reaching users through search engines. It seems like a better design for the future of the Internet to have search engines step up and take greater responsibility rather than for users to have to take such great precautions with real costs -- [like] the costs of getting victimized and losing money."

Edelman said he doesn't think Google, in particular, is putting any effort into protecting users from scam advertisers.

A Google spokeswoman directed Computerworld to its various advertising policies including its policies on the use of trademarks in keyword advertising. According to the policy, Google acts as a provider of space for advertisements and is not in a position to arbitrate trademark disputes between the advertisers and trademark owners. Google said advertisers are responsible for the keywords and ad content they choose to use.

"Accordingly, we encourage trademark owners to resolve their disputes directly with the advertisers, particularly because the advertisers may have similar advertisements on other sites," Google's policy states. "As a courtesy to trademark owners, however, we are willing to perform a limited investigation of reasonable complaints."

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However some trademark owners like American Airlines have sued Google over its practice of allowing other advertisers to buy and use its trademark in their ads. American abruptly dropped its lawsuit last month, leading experts to believe the company reached a deal with Google over the matter.

"For us, getting involved was to help create additional awareness about the issue," said John Gustafson, director for distribution and Internet strategy at Northwest Airlines. "We're approaching the issue on a number of fronts, and I'm sure the other participants are doing whatever they can to protect their trademark terms. We are doing that by engaging with the search engines themselves in addition to getting in touch with, and communicating directly with, those people we see violating those trademarks. So this was just a natural fit with the other activities we're doing to protect our trademark."

In addition to providing tips and tools to help users spot and avoid scam ads, the AABC Web site features a petition to the Federal Trade Commission calling for tighter controls. The AABC is also encouraging users to contact search engines directly to report scam ads and request tighter filters.

"We encourage consumers to look before they click and avoid ads that look suspicious. The less people click on bogus ads, the less money the search engines and fraudulent advertisers will make, and the quicker the [scam ads] will go away," said Jarrod Agen, spokesman for AABC, in the statement.