Matt Cutts Criticizes Deceptive Ads, Doesn’t Realize Google Is The One Serving Them

Yesterday over on Danny Sullivan published a post titled, Of Misleading Acai Berry Ads & Fake Editorial Sites. In the article Danny discuses a rising trend of deceptive marketing practices involving fake news sites, the way they rip people off with products they are selling, and the fact that authority sites such as the LA Times are the ones carrying these ads, lending them some credibility in the public eye. Danny states in the post that the ads showing are being served by Zedo, and that he wishes the ad network should raise it’s standards and not allow such blatantly misleading advertising:

Personally, I’d like to see Zedo up its standards for the type of ads it will accept. This type of junk shouldn’t be allowed. – Danny Sullivan

He’s right, too, the ad networks should be policing this type of deception, by all means. Matt Cutts, Google’s head of the web spam team, agrees. He tweeted about the story, and also commented his take on the matter in the post itself:

My favorite part of the disclaimer for those type of sites is “This website, and any page on the website, is based loosely off a true story, but has been modified in multiple ways including, but not limited to: the story, the photos, and the comments.”

Oh, so I can trust the website except for the story, photos, and comments? In other words, the entire website?

And if you read the disclaimer carefully, most of these sites promise a “free trial” with $1.95 in shipping, but actually set your card up with a recurring subscription. The “one weird old tip” ad that I clicked from the L.A. Times mentioned this in the fine print: “If you do not cancel within seven (7) days of the date that you enroll in the Program, we will charge the same card you provided at enrollment the non-refundable one-year membership fee of $149.95”. Then they also start charging you $12.95 a month. Grr. – Matt Cutts, on deceptive “flat belly” ads

Grr, indeed.

Danny also mentions in his post about how “The ad, unlike Google’s ads, doesn’t report what ad network is delivering them,” which if they did would be a form of disclosure. And Danny is right… except for one thing. Danny derived the fact that the ad was being served by Zedo by examining the url. However, if you view the source on the LA Times article and go to the spot on the page where the ad is showing, you don’t see the Zedo ad network code. The ad itself is being generated by Javascript that is being pulled from yet another ad network:


Doubleclick is the real culprit


The actual ad network that the LA Times has a relationship with, and the ones responsible for what ads show on their site, is Doubleclick. And who owns Doubeclick, you might ask? As most of you probably already know, Google does, since they bought them back in 2007 for $3.1 billion. So obviously not all of the ads Google delivers disclose what network they are from.

It gets better. AdSense, Google’s flagship advertising network, serves what are known as “contextual ads”, where in theory the ad targeting is based on the context of the page contents where the ad blocks are placed. Danny uses AdSense on his site, with one of the blocks being at the very top of the page. Due to the various feeds in the sidebar, the content of the article, and the title, “Acai Berry” is mentioned 8 times on that same page. Therefore it is only natural, of course, that this is what we see when we look at the ads being served on the top:


The worlds most resilient bittorrent site.
(click to enlarge)


Now, can you guess where that ad leads? That’s right:


The worlds most resilient bittorrent site.
(click to enlarge)


It’s a fake news site identical to the one Danny is discussing, with the same text, layout, and even images embedded in the “story”, with the only variation being that the one Danny landed on is “News 7”, and this one is “News 8”.

What makes this story particularly interesting is that recently Matt Cutts visited Washington D.C., lobbying the FTC about Google’s integrity, trying to convince them that they don’t require government oversight, and how they could be trusted to police themselves. Google also happens to be in a very unique position to help clean up these kinds of abuses. Not only could they pull these ads from their own vast array of properties, and require their third party partners to do the same, but they could also warn publishers who use networks that continue to promote scams that their sites rankings could suffer, in the same way that they have punished websites in the past for what they said was deceptive marketing, in the form of undisclosed paid links. Instead, they themselves appear to be participating in the problem, not the solution.

So, Matt, are you willing to back up your testimony to the FTC about Google’s integrity, and lobby within your own company to help eradicate deceptive marketing from the web? Do you feel that websites that allow deceptive advertising to be shown on their sites should have their trust revoked?

22 thoughts on “Matt Cutts Criticizes Deceptive Ads, Doesn’t Realize Google Is The One Serving Them”

  1. “So, Matt, are you willing to back up your testimony to the FTC about Google’s integrity, and lobby within your own company to help eradicate deceptive marketing from the web?”

    I’ve always lobbied both internally and externally to make sure that Google doesn’t help such companies. Back in 2003 I pushed hard to make sure that Google didn’t monetize scumware. We ended up terminating a contract with one company and establishing these software principles to help prevent similar things from happening in the future:

    When the “Google Money Tree” scammers started using Google’s name without permission, I supported strong efforts against that scam so that people wouldn’t be tricked into thinking it was a Google-sanctioned program. A member of the webspam team ended up on the news educating people about this scam. See or for more info about these “negative option” scams.

    Google has tried very hard to keep jerks like this out of our ads systems–and we’ve had very good success–but it can be hard to keep every single affiliate out completely. For what it’s worth, I’d already noticed that advertiser and reported them within Google hours before you did this post. If it makes you feel better, here’s the first sentence from the email I sent to two people in the ads team at 8:30 this morning: “Hey guys, not sure who would be the right person for this, but Danny Sullivan just did a piece at about some really deceptive ads, and I’d like to make sure that we don’t have any of these scuzzballs advertising with us.” and I went on to highlight the same AdSense advertiser you noticed.

    So when you ask whether I’m willing to “lobby within your own company to help eradicate deceptive marketing from the web?” The answer is yes, and I already have for years.

  2. How about people:

    A. Mind their own business and stop worrying about other advertisers.


    B. Read the fine print.

    There are commercials on tv that are just as misleading.

  3. @IsDark – “other people are doing it” is no excuse for slimy behavior.

    @Matt – Thanks for replying. It is good to know that you already reported them, but reporting one advertiser at a time doesn’t seem like it would be that effective. I know it has to be difficult, but this type of deceptive advertising is rampant. You see it everywhere, from weight loss to teeth whitening to make money from home ads. Us as users reporting them doesn’t seem to have much effect either. I reported this one to Google for trademark violations a week ago, they are still up:

    If Google wanted to they could easily have contacted GoDaddy, where they are hosted, and gotten them suspended for some tos violation by now, much easier than any of us common folk could, but they haven’t bothered. Search Google for [make money online], and you will see sites that have banners pointing at these scam sites that are exact closes of that one above. Do you think that should Google be penalizing sites that promote (ie. advertise) scams like these Matt?

  4. Another kind of ad, again one running straight through AdWords on Google search. Type in [work from home], the very top ad is pointing to a page on, which is a free classified ads site, and the page is, again, a fake news site:

    Online News 12 – Your Local Consumer News Source

    This is a relatively high competition phrase and yet AdWords approved a free classified ad site as a landing page? That seems like it should have set off all kinds of red flags.

  5. Michael, I clicked the arrow buttons to find every Acai advertiser on Danny’s post. I also reloaded Danny’s post multiple times. That was the only advertiser like that I saw when I dug for several minutes, so that was the one that I reported.

    Google has fought *very* hard to tackle “work from home for Google” scams even though they have nothing to do with Google. We’ve had considerable success; scammers claiming bogus ties to Google lost a $29.5 million dollar settlement back in October: But it’s not a surprise that finding and shutting down every single scammer using Google’s name without our permission is hard.

    I dug into the scammer that you just mentioned and found a good lead: does a redirect to . So instead of blaming Google because some scammer happened to use the word “Google” in their make-money-from-home scam, why not contact Izea and see if you can find out more about their sponsored promotion program that redirected to this page?

  6. It is worth noting that (in spite of Matt’s internal pushes) the AdSense ad program has an entire ad category for “get rich quick”

    Someone on the ads team decided that they were comfortable letting those ads (and the entire ad category) run. And Google thought those ads can be filtered on the publisher’s end if the publisher wants to. Google stepped in when the scammers put Google’s brand in the product name, but outside of that the category remains and is still fine to run.

  7. I will do that. I’m not just picking on Google, but they wield way more power than I do, and with great power comes… well, you know. 😀

    While I am on it, do you happen to know the guys who created From what I understand it is a couple of ex-Googlers, Bindu Reddy, the former head of product management for Google Apps, and her husband Arvind Sundararajan, the former tech lead for AdSense. Their service is promoting links like in people’s tweets, which redirects you to another site claiming to help you “make a fortune with Google,” . Maybe someone from the company that they used to work for can help them understand the importance of vetting their advertisers better. The fake tweets even mention Google by name, hard to miss that in whatever approval process they are using, since they used to work there:

  8. Part of the problem is that sites that work with Doubleclick get unknowingly opted-in to ‘backfilling’ unsold impressions with who knows what via ad exchanges. Sales of “remnant inventory” are pretty hard to police, even for Google/Doubleclick as there are so many layers and companies involved, right down to the CPA affiliates running these ads and landers.

  9. “Michael, I clicked the arrow buttons to find every Acai advertiser on Danny’s post. I also reloaded Danny’s post multiple times. That was the only advertiser like that I saw when I dug for several minutes, so that was the one that I reported.”

    Matt, shouldn’t you, as a Google employee, be able to browse ads through a backend system internally?

  10. I wonder how many people get burned out after seeing/acting on such advertisements. Even though I am fairly knowledgeable about internet in general but I also got burned out by the “Make money from Google” kind of ads. The money lost was minor but I also lost adsense account after following some of the questionable practices promoted by this shitty courses. Strange but I got more respect for google after getting the adsense account banned as I knew they really try hard to keep the ecosystem clean (But it would have been better if they had sent a cleanup warning before just banning the account outright).

  11. Bojan, they have a mechanism in place to do that, but it’s even smaller fine print than the ads that rip off your credit card. On the ads that actually announce themselves as Google AdWords (the ones that are not Flash driven, anyway), if you click on the tiny “Google” in the lower right corner it brings you to a “Contact Support – AdSense Help” page. Underneath 2 very large ads, one inviting you to sign up for AdSense and the other for AdWords, if you scroll down underneath the fold you will see a dropdown under the words “Report a policy violation regarding the site or ads you just saw” with the option of selecting either the site, or the ads. If you select the ads then you are given a link to a page with another form on it, and supposedly if you fill out that one and the couple of pages of forms that follow it they will review the ad.

  12. i would say internet is now 50/50 scams don’t you think? 🙂

    thanks google. matt can i borrow 20 dollars. i will gladly repay you with an email of a pretty spider

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