Beware Web ads in disguise

"Buyer beware" may be a cliché, but any regular Web user knows you have to watch your back when clicking display ads on Web sites.

"Buyer beware" may be a cliché, but any regular Web user knows you have to watch your back when clicking display ads on Websites. However, noted antispyware researcher Ben Edelman has had enough of the misleading ads and is taking action. In a blog post Wednesday, Edelman blasted Yahoo-owned Right Media for shady ad practices that are specifically designed to deceive you. He also plans to take things a step further by filing complaints against Right Media with the Better Business Bureau.

Edelman calls Right Media a 'remnant' advertising marketplace -- basically a bargain basement ad network where companies can place their ads on Websites for a relatively cheap price. You've likely seen these types of ads before: mysterious windows that look like a system message from Windows XP or an ad that camouflages itself perfectly by blending in with the surrounding Website's design. Edelman contends these types of ads and many others are illegal and violate longstanding rules of conduct from the Federal Trade Commission as well as the Better Business Bureau.

That phony system message, for example, violates the FTC's requirement that ads cannot conceal their commercial nature, according to Edelman. Basically, you're not expecting a Windows system message window to be anything but a message from your operating system, so companies should not design ads to make you think you're performing a Windows function when you're actually clicking on an ad.

Edelman says 35 percent of Right Media's Remix Media ads use deceptive practices and the Yahoo-owned company is well aware of this fact. He contends that Right Media had a classification system that places ads in 160 different categories. Among the various types are a set of ads under the heading "deceptiveness," which includes ads with "false buttons" and ads that are "difficult to close or exit." You can find a complete list here.

The list is a little outdated, though. Following an October 2008 report that appeared on PCWorld and other IDG sites, Right Media overhauled its ad categories. The "deceptiveness" category was renamed as "Ambiguous or unclear attributes." However, even though the categories changed, the nature of the ads hasn't. Another worrisome point is that spyware programs that insert ads onto Websites without permission from the publisher often use Right Media ads. While it seems unlikely that Right Media is encouraging this practice, it does highlight a problem with Right Media's current set-up if it is the favorite ad platform among spyware makers.

Practices like this from a Yahoo company are troubling. Former Yahoo CEO Jerry Yang was quoted as saying that he wanted Yahoo to be the "best corporate citizen it can be." However, with an ad company that seems to actively practice deception that is a difficult ideal to live up to.

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Ian Paul

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