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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