An ethical lapse, or just not knowing any better?

~ THE EYE ~
Creative Commons License photo credit: KhayaL

Last night I was working on the web site for our local Scout camp.

Lots of Scout troops from out of state visit Glacier National Park every year.

Some of them use our local Scout camp property as a “base camp” for a week or two of treks they make into the Bob Marshall, Glacier Park and elsewhere.

One thing they depend on us for is referrals to quality local businesses for various outdoor adventures. We don’t have the staff, money or licenses to be an outfitter, so we refer them to professionals. Part of that process is providing these troops with contact info.

While looking up some websites to add to the “nearby activities” directory on the camp’s site, I noticed that when I searched for the name of one of the outfitters, a Google Adwords ad for their direct competitor appeared at the top of the page.

“How 1999…”, I thought.

What do I mean by that? It’s a reference to standard (and kinda dumb) stuff that businesses did online way back in 1999.

It could just be a dumb move. Or it could be unethical, which in this case qualifies as both.

Dumb and Dumber

I’ll address “dumb” first.

It could be that this business just doesn’t know any better and thinks they’re being clever by using their competitor’s name as a keyword to place their ad.

The “don’t know any better” thing doesn’t wash with me. Would they buy a Yellow Pages or newspaper ad with the other business’ name in it but put their own phone number in the ad? Of course not. Yet they do it in the hidden keywords of online ads and in their web site’s html source. The ad itself isn’t misleading, of course.

Like the Wild West, whatever you get away with online is legal and ethical, right? I mean It’s online, so the rules are different (if they exist at all), right?

Not hardly.

It’s obvious that outfitter-in-the-ad is advertising their business on Google Adwords using the business name of a competitor as a keyword. It’s equally obvious from the site’s meta info (source code that isn’t visible). The former is subject to discussion. The latter is uncool in any legitimate web marketer’s unwritten rulebook.

If “Joe’s Climbing Wall” had bought an ad to display when “climbing walls” or “climbing walls Glacier Park” is searched, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. But that clearly isn’t the case. And no, this isn’t about climbing walls.

A big deal

You might not think this is worth talking about, so let me elaborate a little.

Imagine Ford’s reaction if every search for “Ford Mustang” resulted in seeing a Google search results page starting with Chevy Camaro ads and links.

Should I expect to see both companies in the ads and search results displayed when I search for “American sports car”? Absolutely.

The key here is that this isn’t what the searcher is looking for when looking for a specific business name.

Yeah, I’m yelling. A little, anyhow. Misuse of trade names – even at this level – will sooner or later get you bit. Misleading people in search results also annoys Google, who wants people to find what they are searching for the first time they search.

Placing Gain next to Tide on the shelf at your grocery is fair game (thanks Shane). It’s obvious to the consumer which is which in that case.

How’s your icemaker?

Even for the ethically challenged, using a competitor’s business name as an advertising keyword is a bad idea.

If someone calls your HDTV store and asks a question about the newest 3D TV models and your salesperson say “Well, our refrigerators all have in-door icemakers”, would you expect that prospect to have a positive reaction? How would you react to a totally out-of-context response like that?

It’s foolish.

Likewise, so is advertising your business using someone else’s business name.

The other shoe

What troubles me most is the signal it sends. It makes me question how the rest of your business operates. It could be an innocent mistake. It could be something the web developer did and didn’t share with the business. Further research indicates otherwise.

When it comes to sending Scouts out into the woods or on the water, that wonder extends to…

  • Whether your safety equipment is up to par, or in another ethical lapse, you just say it is.
  • Whether your staff is properly trained, or in another ethical lapse, you just say they are.

It’s the last thought you want in the heads of folks who funnel hundreds of young, out-of-state visitors to businesses like yours.

3 thoughts on “An ethical lapse, or just not knowing any better?”

  1. Thanks for the credit 😉

    I think there are a lot of issues jumbled up in here. Let me separate them out as I see them.

    BIDDING ON BRAND NAMES

    Scenario 1
    I search for “2011 Camaro” and see an ad that leads me to believe that it will take me to a site about “2011 Camaro.” The ad instead takes me to a competitor’s site. That, to me, is completely unethical. You misled me, the consumer, and you probably lost a customer to boot.

    Scenario 2
    I search for “2011 Camaro” and see an ad telling me why I should check out the 2011 Ford Mustang. I’m wholly in favor of that for two reasons.

    First, it’s directly related to what I’m searching for (a new sports car). Second, the ad isn’t misleading in any way. Even if I have no interest in the Mustang, I can appreciate their efforts and it didn’t cost me anything.

    BIDDING ON COMPANY NAMES

    Your statement “this isn’t what the searcher is looking for when looking for a specific business name” isn’t always true — in fact, I might argue that it’s usually not true.

    I can’t think of a single case where I would be in the least bit upset if I searched for one company name and saw ads that were clearly for a different, competing company. In the cases where I really want that specific company, I will find them and ignore the ads. Almost always, though, I’m open to suggestions — plumbers, bakeries, restaurants, specific websites…you name it.

    BIDDING OUT OF CONTEXT

    If I search for HDTVs and get an ad for ice makers, I’m immediately bummed for the marketer who clearly didn’t mean for that to happen. I don’t view it as unethical, though, just not very smart.

    If I search for a brand name or company name and get an ad for a competitor, though, that’s absolutely in context, and I don’t see why that’s wrong as long as the ad is clearly marked.

    THE GROCERY STORE ANALOGY

    As we discussed earlier, I think it’s very analogous to items in the grocery store — though 140 characters on Twitter wasn’t enough for me to be clear 🙂

    Let’s say I’m shopping for Tide. Sun Products Corp, makers of all®, knows that a significant number of people don’t really care much which detergent they buy, so they pay the grocery store to get more prominent positioning than any of the other detergents. I went shopping for Tide, but now all® is in my face.

    I don’t think that’s unethical, nor does it bother me. If I want Tide, I can still get it easily, and I’m not going to accidentally pick up a bottle of all®. To me, bidding on brand terms is no different — again, as long as the ads are clear.

    Note:; All of this is just for AdWords. Hiding brand names in your pages in order to try to rank for those terms is something else altogether.

    1. BIDDING ON BRAND NAMES

      Scenario 1
      I search for â??2011 Camaroâ? and see an ad that leads me to believe that it will take me to a site about â??2011 Camaro.â? The ad instead takes me to a competitorâ??s site. That, to me, is completely unethical. You misled me, the consumer, and you probably lost a customer to boot.

      ** MR: We agree – and that isn’t the scenario here – meta source not withstanding.

      Scenario 2
      I search for â??2011 Camaroâ? and see an ad telling me why I should check out the 2011 Ford Mustang. Iâ??m wholly in favor of that for two reasons.

      First, itâ??s directly related to what Iâ??m searching for (a new sports car). Second, the ad isnâ??t misleading in any way. Even if I have no interest in the Mustang, I can appreciate their efforts and it didnâ??t cost me anything.

      ** MR: I agree that the ad isnt misleading. Ive talked to enough folks who confuse the sponsored box and real SERPS enough to think that the ad would be the #1 SERP. You wouldnt think so, but…

      BIDDING ON COMPANY NAMES

      Your statement â??this isnâ??t what the searcher is looking for when looking for a specific business nameâ? isnâ??t always true â?? in fact, I might argue that itâ??s usually not true.

      I canâ??t think of a single case where I would be in the least bit upset if I searched for one company name and saw ads that were clearly for a different, competing company. In the cases where I really want that specific company, I will find them and ignore the ads. Almost always, though, Iâ??m open to suggestions â?? plumbers, bakeries, restaurants, specific websitesâ?¦you name it.

      BIDDING OUT OF CONTEXT

      If I search for HDTVs and get an ad for ice makers, Iâ??m immediately bummed for the marketer who clearly didnâ??t mean for that to happen. I donâ??t view it as unethical, though, just not very smart.

      If I search for a brand name or company name and get an ad for a competitor, though, thatâ??s absolutely in context, and I donâ??t see why thatâ??s wrong as long as the ad is clearly marked.

      **MR: Thats kind of my point. Its a mix of not very smart and unethical. Is it as unethical as other behaviors? Certainly not. The meta stuff shows intent. The funny part is that the keywords they should have focused on….have no ads.

      THE GROCERY STORE ANALOGY

      **MR: We agree on this as well – shelf space provides no illusion.

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