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Google Sued Over Deceptive Search Results 246

Posted by CmdrTaco
from the we-come-from-a-land-down-under dept.
biggles266 writes "Internet goliath Google claims to rank search results by relevance, but the search engine engages in deceptive conduct by selling off the top positions to commercial partners, a Sydney court has heard. The Australian Consumer and Competition Commission (ACCC) is taking world-first legal action in the Federal Court against Google Inc over allegedly deceptive conduct related to sponsored links on its websites. The ACCC has brought a two-pronged case against Trading Post and Google — including subsidiaries Google Australia and Google Ireland — for potentially misleading consumers. The consumer watchdog alleges Google does not do enough to differentiate "organic" search results — those ranked by relevance — from sponsored links which appear at the top of the results page."
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Google Sued Over Deceptive Search Results

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  • what next (Score:2, Insightful)

    by oliverthered (187439)
    Suing my doctor because of the choice of meds he offered me happened to match those in the advertising crapola that he got sent.
    • Re:what next (Score:5, Insightful)

      by tgatliff (311583) on Monday September 10, 2007 @11:42AM (#20540611)
      Well if you doctor is getting paid for picking those drugs, then yes, then that would be next to go after... :-)

      Personally, if Google was not specifying that the links were "sponsored", I would agree that is was deceptive behavior and think it was wrong. From my understanding, though, they do seperate their paid for links from the other search results so as a consumer I feel I am well informed... Meaning, when I look as the "sponsored links" section, I am fully aware that these companies paid for these links. That to me is what matters...
      • Re:what next (Score:5, Insightful)

        by tha_mink (518151) on Monday September 10, 2007 @11:56AM (#20540817)

        Personally, if Google was not specifying that the links were "sponsored", I would agree that is was deceptive behavior and think it was wrong. From my understanding, though, they do seperate their paid for links from the other search results so as a consumer I feel I am well informed... Meaning, when I look as the "sponsored links" section, I am fully aware that these companies paid for these links. That to me is what matters...
        And how much is Google charging you for their service again? Oh right, it's free. So....nothing. Maybe you can get your money back.
        Seriously, why a lawsuit? If you don't agree with their policies, then get them to change them through bad press. Why does everybody have to sue for everything that a company does or doesn't do?
        Sponsored or not, the link they provide either works for you or it doesn't. Meaning, you get the content you were looking for or you don't. If you get the content you're looking for, you come back. If you don't (consistently) then you find another search engine. It's that simple. Obviously, Google is better at finding what people are looking for quicker an easier than everyone else. Sponsored or not, I don't care. If I find what I'm looking for, I come back.
        • Re:what next (Score:5, Insightful)

          by sydsavage (453743) on Monday September 10, 2007 @12:16PM (#20541141)

          Seriously, why a lawsuit?


          Here's your answer. [google.com] Note the large number labeled Mkt Cap.

          If somebody can't tell by the colored box around the sponsored links, or hey, the text that reads "Sponsored Links", then what exactly could Google do to make it more obvious that these results are paid for?
          • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

            by bit01 (644603)

            If somebody can't tell by the colored box around the sponsored links, or hey, the text that reads "Sponsored Links", then what exactly could Google do to make it more obvious that these results are paid for?

            The reality [google.com] , not some marketing fiction, is that the majority of users can't tell the difference. That's fraud and the ACCC is right to intervene.

            Answering your question: Google could use a different font, stop using weasily words like "sponsored" instead of "advertising", use more prominent colors

            • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

              by pipingguy (566974) *
              Answering your question: Google could use a different font, stop using weasily words like "sponsored" instead of "advertising", use more prominent colors, use more prominent boxes, use explanatory phrases like "these links are paid advertisements", even put ad's on a separate page.

              Huh? If people are too dumb to be able to tell the difference between "sponsored" links and relevant sites returned from a search inquiry, then maybe they should ask someone else to find things for them. Google's ads are pretty
            • Re:what next (Score:4, Insightful)

              by JacksBrokenCode (921041) on Monday September 10, 2007 @07:49PM (#20547167)
              Since when has "sponsored" been a weasel word? When a sports team or race car has sponsors' logos all over their gear, does anyone doubt that there was a business arrangement? When a TV program has an announcer's voice saying, "Sponsored by Brand X", does anyone doubt it's an advertisement? Even if "sponsored" does not explicitely mean that money changed hands, it does mean that those results are there as the result of a sponsor, meaning they are not the product of the Google search algorithm. That isn't fraud just because some people are illiterate.

              If changing the background color and adding a border to segregate sponsored links from search results is not enough, why should we assume that using a different font will make a difference?
        • Why does everybody have to sue for everything that a company does or doesn't do?

          Because our legal system is broken. Very, very broken.

          I for one have lost faith in modern jurisprudence. The simplest of cases take years to resolve. Big corporations routinely beat unmonied opponents into submission. Bar associations have complete monopolies over the legal services. Rhetoric and hysteria dominate court decisions, and the sway that the media have over judges and juries is such that in a lot of cases, in effect

        • by timeOday (582209)
          What do you have against truth in advertising? If a link is sponsored, it should say so. This gives consumers more information so the market can be more efficient. Even google sees it this way, which is why they label their sponsored results. At least I hope so. If they are really selling their non-sponsored search results, I would want to know.
          • by tha_mink (518151)

            What do you have against truth in advertising? If a link is sponsored, it should say so.

            It's not about that at all though. It's about Adwords and how Google allows someone to purchase adwords that are trademarked by other entities. Which by the way is the same thing that millions of domain registrars have been doing for years. If I register your trademark for something, anything really, then it should be me who suffers the consequences and not Google for allowing me to do it. Really, how can Google KNOW that some car dealership in East Bumblefuck exists while trying to process their billi

      • It is a shame. They are off to the right of the page and have the heading of sponsored links over them...
        This is right up with the cups at Atlanta Bread that have the waring, "Hot drinks served hot".
    • by misleb (129952)

      Suing my doctor because of the choice of meds he offered me happened to match those in the advertising crapola that he got sent.

      I don't think we're talking about mere coincidence here. If you could show that your doctor was taking money to prescribe specific medications (and not using his own medical judgement), I suspect there might be a lawsuit in there somewhere. I know I'd be pretty pissed. As it is, there is only an indirect association between what you are prescribed and the advertising crapola from

    • by timeOday (582209)
      Could you have picked a worse example? American medicine is corrupted [slate.com] by advertising dollars.

      If I ever find out I've been taking the second-best medicine so my doctor can get free trips, yes, I would sue.

      • While not necessarily disagreeing that American medicine is overly influenced by advertising of one flavor or another, your wandering into diatribe land and not making much sense.

        "Second best medicine" would be defined how? Hmm, maybe large placebo controlled studies. Too bad they exist for relatively few medications and determining "best" would be pretty difficult. Maybe "a bit better" or "about the same". Usually it's a treatment vs. no treatment. Perhaps the sugar pill was better.

        Even in that case

  • Are they talking about the "Sponsered Links" section at the top? They're clearly marked. Or are they talking about the normal results?
    • by Laebshade (643478) <laebshade@gmail.com> on Monday September 10, 2007 @11:31AM (#20540383)
      Ok, so they are talking about the "Sponsered Links" section. Well, it's in a beige background, different from the rest of the results. It does say "sponsered links", but granted, that is off to the right of the results.
      • by Blue Stone (582566) on Monday September 10, 2007 @11:47AM (#20540667) Homepage Journal
        Any of the 'sponsored' links Google serve up on a search results page are a damn sight easier to discern from the normal results than those 'advertisement features' that appear in magazines - which try as hard as they can to emulate the look and feel of legitimate features, with the only concession to those who value the truth being a small 'advertisemnt feature' tag placed as discretely as possible somewhere on the page.

        I think I'm pretty astute at recognising that sort of deceptive practice, but these things have caught me out more than once.

      • by MyLongNickName (822545) on Monday September 10, 2007 @11:47AM (#20540669) Journal
        "sponsered links"

        Ahhh! Now I see the problem. Google misspelled "sponsored". You'd think they could afford a spell checker.
      • by Nazlfrag (1035012) on Monday September 10, 2007 @12:01PM (#20540911) Journal
        The article skims the details of those involved. The ACCC is one of the few worthwhile government departments, who basically prosecute breaches of consumer rights like false advertising. The Trading Post is the most popular classified ad newspaper and website, of which the majority of ads are for cars and motorbikes. It is very likely that the ACCC will get their way, which probably means the Trading Post gets charged for fraudulently posing as an affiliate or representative of the dealerships. It is far from clear how Google will be affected, but already google.com.au seem to have pulled the sponsored links from the top.
  • by ColinPL (1001084) <colin@colin.net.pl> on Monday September 10, 2007 @11:29AM (#20540359) Homepage

    Google does not do enough to differentiate "organic" search results -- those ranked by relevance
    Google search results are ranked by popularity, not relevance.
    • by ajs (35943)

      Google does not do enough to differentiate "organic" search results -- those ranked by relevance

      Google search results are ranked by popularity, not relevance.

      This is incorrect.

      Google's results take popularity into account, but they also look for your key words in the body of the page, assess where they are in absolute terms, and relative to each other, and also perform some nebulous other analysis on relevance (e.g. articles with your terms in the title are ranked somewhat higher, though title-spamming has limited the usefulness of that).

    • by jafiwam (310805) on Monday September 10, 2007 @01:01PM (#20541971) Homepage Journal
      Google's ranking specifics are top secret.

      Anybody claiming to know them that doesn't work for Google is full of shit.

      Anybody who tells you them who says they credibly know is lying about their employment with Google, or will be very shortly fired and then sued.

      There are LOTS of NDAs involved the specifics of how Google works.

      That said, Google uses all the methods for determining ranking that are easy to guess, keywords, links to the site, relevance, people who clicked on them, etc.

      Rest assured however, the rankings in the main search list on Google are not paid ones, but the result of whatever top secret process they use.

      Anybody confused by sponsored links vs. search results on Google is a goddamn idiot and should sue their parents for hitting them in the head as a child too many times instead.

      Google is WAY better about disclosing their ads, as in the past (and possibly now) Microsoft, Yahoo, Alta-Vista, Ask, and a bunch of others have been caught selling unlabled rankings mixed in with results. That's why they suck, and that's why most people don't use them.

      Go sue Yahoo instead morons. For all the stuff people have to say that might be a valid complaint against Google, hiding paid results in the search results sure the fuck isn't one of them.
  • by ucblockhead (63650) on Monday September 10, 2007 @11:30AM (#20540367) Homepage Journal
    So they should do something other than giving them a different background color and adding the text "Sponsored Links"?
    • You're also forgetting the different format of the result. In reality, if I've ever confused the two, it was several years ago. I find this suit ridiculous.
    • by Alsee (515537)
      So they should do something other than giving them a different background color and adding the text "Sponsored Links"?

      Yes. According to the law, unfair and deceptive trade practices are about the perceptions and understanding of common public. You cannot say something that, while technically true, is likely to mislead or deceive members of the public of "average" intelligence and perceptiveness.

      Google needs to put the sponsored results in red/blue flashing text on a green/yellow flashing background and a Ja
  • Sponsored Links (Score:5, Insightful)

    by pembo13 (770295) on Monday September 10, 2007 @11:30AM (#20540379) Homepage
    Don't Google's sponsored links say "Sponsored Links" right next to them? They also have a different background which is visible even on my low contrast display. Anything more would make it look obnoxious I think.
    • Don't Google's sponsored links say "Sponsored Links" right next to them? They also have a different background which is visible even on my low contrast display. Anything more would make it look obnoxious I think.

      Indeed. I work for a small company who happens to pay to be within the top entries, but i thought that much was common practice. At the time i learned that the results were no different than the regular results.

    • by misleb (129952)

      Don't Google's sponsored links say "Sponsored Links" right next to them?


      I wouldn't know. I block all ads which includes Google sponsored links, you insensitive clod!
  • Give Me a Break (Score:4, Insightful)

    by cromar (1103585) on Monday September 10, 2007 @11:31AM (#20540391)
    Thats utter bullshit; the results are only ambiguous if you can't read.
  • Does anyone here have trouble telling the difference between paid ad placements and non-paid search results on Google?

    Since when does a website legally have to tell you what is an isn't an ad?
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by ShieldW0lf (601553)
      Does anyone here have trouble telling the difference between paid ad placements and non-paid search results on Google?

      Yes. Lots of people.

      Since when does a website legally have to tell you what is an isn't an ad?

      Couldn't happen soon enough for me. I think advertisers should be tortured to death, personally.
  • I hate to say it (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Vexor (947598) on Monday September 10, 2007 @11:34AM (#20540447)
    but if you cannot tell the difference between those adds and the "results" you probably shouldn't be on the internet.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by CodeBuster (516420)
      It is not as easy as you might think. Advertisers have been doing the same thing in print magazines for some time now. They try to mimic the layout, font, and look of an actual magazine article with pseudo-content related to some impartial product comparison or industry problem and how their product (the one being advertised) was proven "superior" in a battery of tests or in "interviews" with experts or some such bull. The entire goal of this "stealth" advertising is to trick the unsuspecting reader into be
  • by Herkum01 (592704) on Monday September 10, 2007 @11:35AM (#20540471)

    Obviously the consumer cannot tell the difference because it is not a "Flash" ad moving wildly across the screen saying "Spank the Monkey, Spank the Monkey!"

    I guess using Google does not qualify your ability to understand the search results.

    • by bittmann (118697)
      I certainly agree. Having results returned, sequestered as they are in an area with a colored background along with a label that (very deceptively) states that these are "Sponsored Links", most certainly gives the user no indication that these URLs are in any way special.
  • ACCC should (Score:2, Insightful)

    by jointm1k (591234)

    turn off "SafeSearch filtering". That ought to give a more representative result on what consumers want.

  • by johndiii (229824) * on Monday September 10, 2007 @11:36AM (#20540487) Journal
    One appears to be the sponsored links section, which seems like it ought to be obvious to anyone looking at a results page.

    The other issue is that Google appears to have sold the names of some local car dealerships as AdWords to a competitor. That seems to be a trademark violation, at very least. It does raise a question of responsibility, however. Is Google responsible for checking all uses of AdWords, to make sure that they are not trademark violations? Many cases are clear (as this one is), but others are more ambiguous. Clearly, Trading Post is in the wrong, but does Google share that responsibility?
  • by Kazrath (822492) on Monday September 10, 2007 @11:38AM (#20540527)
    Here we go again. Let us keep adjusting society based off of the dumbest individuals and not the average individual.

    I read the article and decided to try to get some sponsored links to appear. Doing a search for "Digital Camera" resulted in some pretty obviously highlighted results that have the words "Sponsored Links" in the highlight. Who the hell is this not clear enough for? I am not an advocate of mass murder but we really need to figure out a way to weed the gene pool.

    • by pembo13 (770295)
      Easily done: stop putting obvious warning labels like "don't put your hand in the electric socket" or "don't swallow this bottle of drain cleaner" or "don't put this piece of plastic into your mouth".
    • by rts008 (812749)
      Yeah, I tried the same thing with "Helicopters" and the top link was Google's own for "images of helicopters", next was Wkipedia's page on helicopters.

      I'd have a hard time believing that Wikipedia paid Google a bazillion dollars to get at the top of the search page.

      And yes, the Sponsored Links where in a separate column with a different background color, as usual.
      I don't get it...this part of the deal seems a non-issue.
    • by argmanah (616458) *

      Here we go again. Let us keep adjusting society based off of the dumbest individuals and not the average individual.

      I read the article and decided to try to get some sponsored links to appear. Doing a search for "Digital Camera" resulted in some pretty obviously highlighted results that have the words "Sponsored Links" in the highlight. Who the hell is this not clear enough for? I am not an advocate of mass murder but we really need to figure out a way to weed the gene pool.

      You do realize that doing a search on google and looking for the phrase "sponsored links" is a pretty dumb way to test how easy it is to recognize sponsored links right? If you're consciously aware of the distinction and looking for it, it in no way simulates actual usage.

      Sure, even as a novice user, if you submit a search to google, and when you look at the results, you're consciously trying to pick out which links are sponsored links, it's easy. But that's not how people operate. When you search on

      • Hmm, okay. So you think google should start of their search results with a few flash-based advertisements, 'blink' tags, and hide the real results somewhere in a small corner? Sorry, that's been tried, and it wasn't helpful.

        Yes, people might get confused by the top sponsered links. If they get more experience with the tool, that might change. If it doesn't change, they should apply for a Darwin award.

    • by Jack9 (11421)
      In some countries, you can't just put wild claims on a poster and not live up to them, to the letter.

      I think this is a GOOD THING(tm) as it's the difference between a culture of deception (marketing) and a culture of virtue. Of course, as you astutely point out, a culture of virtue leaves society looking 98% dumb and ugly. //Still pissed my Incredible Hulk sneakers didn't give me the ability to leap over cars.
    • I'm not sure how this is insightful, as it seems to have missed the point completely. It has nothing to do with labelling sponsored links, and everything to do with misleading adwords/links.

      For example: clicking a sponsored link for Apple products that directs you to a Microsoft sales page.
  • by Cracked Pottery (947450) on Monday September 10, 2007 @11:41AM (#20540575)
    FTFA, one of the complaints generated involved searches that produced sponsored results that linked to a party with no commercial affiliation to the object of the search. Given that a user understood that the link was sponsored, they might wrongly assume a relationship with the business that does not exist. This could be benign, or damaging to the reputation of the business. It's more complex than whether users know whether a link is advertising or the genuine algorithmic results of the search.
  • Anyone who uses Google can figure out that the search results are not simply a blind mathematical formula. Google has always said that their aim is to provide the most relevant results. Not the most fair or unbiased. The most relevant, and they fudge the numbers to give people the results they are expecting. There is a reason that Wikipedia always shows up in the top two or three results. As long as the results that Google returns are what people are looking for, I fail to see how they generating those
    • There is a reason that Wikipedia always shows up in the top two or three results.

      Yeah, it's because everybody links Wikipedia for just about everything. The cumulative PageRank of a billion links from blogs and commmentaries and rants has got to have made Wikipedia into some kind of monster.

  • it's legit (Score:5, Insightful)

    by tomstdenis (446163) <tomstdenis@@@gmail...com> on Monday September 10, 2007 @11:44AM (#20540643) Homepage
    Here's what their complaint states [in simple terms]. Company B bought adwords that included the trademarks of company A. Company B is paying Google so that when you search for company A it gives links that point to Company B instead.

    E.g. a google for [say] Pepsi brings links that *say* Pepsi but instead go to Coke when you click on them.

    Since Google is selling this service they have no rights to use other peoples trademarks (making the distinction between this and their non-profit web search).

    This is akin to company B buying ads in the local paper that say "Come to Company A's new sale, located at 123 Front St." and when you get to 123 Front St, you find Company B selling the same products. They're using the name (which is presumably trademarked) to draw attention. Trademark law says you can't do that.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by pembo13 (770295)
      So Company A needs to sue Company B for trademark infringement, regardless of the advertising medium.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by mungtor (306258)
      That's great, but does trademark law make the local paper responsible for checking your ad first?
      • I wonder about that. For the most part, Google is providing an automated system. If someone's misusing a trademark, I would think that the entity that bought the ads would be most liable. Google does catch prominent trademarks, but it would seem unrealistic to expect them to block all trademarks, including those held by obscure companies.
    • E.g. a google for [say] Pepsi brings links that *say* Pepsi but instead go to Coke when you click on them.

      Is this really the case? I just did a search for the trade-marked term "HP-UX" and the sponsored links section did not contain the word "HP-UX" anywhere in that portion of the results. Even when the results do contain the search term, it does not appear to misrepresent the link as being the official website for that term.

      Seems to me that what Google is doing is returning search results that are related to the given search terms but are not misrepresented as being the official site. So, to continue with

      • If you RTFA the complaint is that a rival car dealership bought adwords containing the trademark names/terms of a competitor. The idea being to trick users into going to their website.

        The complaint ISN'T that google does this for every company, or that Google did it on purpose even (note that doesn't limit liability).
    • by KevMar (471257)
      This whole thing is messed up. They target google because of the big pockets people think they have.

      the first issue about Sponsored Links that say Sponsored Link is silly.

      the second one about letting others use competitors brand names in search results is a little more complicated. But the fault should be on the people using those keywords and any fines google receives should be passed on to the offending sites.

      If i registered a blog on blogspot and wrote hate speach on it. is google at fault? it is there
      • No, they're suing because google is profiting from the misappropriation of other peoples trademarks.

        Should I be able to open stores called K-Mart just because I feel like it? Then why should google be able to run pay-per-click ads using trademarked names they WEREN'T GIVEN PERMISSION FOR.

        As for the "hate speech" line ... unless they're a common carrier (which blogspot is not) they are liable for all of their published content. Let's go over a basic concept of reality. Just because something is possible d
    • If they what you describe, that is problematic. If however, a search for "Pepsi" brings up a link that is for "Coke", but the link isn't labelled "Pepsi" I've got no problem with it.

      Kirby

    • Since Google is selling this service they have no rights to use other peoples trademarks (making the distinction between this and their non-profit web search).

      Whether or not they sell something has nothing to do with using a trademark. They can use it within the bounds of the law.

      This is akin to company B buying ads in the local paper that say "Come to Company A's new sale, located at 123 Front St." and when you get to 123 Front St, you find Company B selling the same products. They're using the name (whic
  • If they can't tell a link is sponsored, they might accidentally purchase the wrong brand of toothpaste and die early from cancers. Lords knows, not enough morons are breeding or making it into middle management in this world as it is.
  • I hope the jury awards them all the money they paid to Google as fees do the search.
  • If TFA is right then i think i can sense some wrongness in this. Selling adwords that points to some business or market to their competitors is a bit shady. I always cringe when i search for something Linux and for example Microsoft shows up. It should never be possible to buy misleding adwords. That takes away any usefullness of the whole adwords thing for the users. Myself i never look at them anymore because i know they are so skewed. I think google need to think about how people should be able to buy
    • by _Sprocket_ (42527)

      If TFA is right then i think i can sense some wrongness in this. Selling adwords that points to some business or market to their competitors is a bit shady. I always cringe when i search for something Linux and for example Microsoft shows up.

      There's a difference between Microsoft saying "we are Linux" and Microsoft saying "if you're interested in Linux, you should check out Windows."

      I think the cringing you're feeling is from other aspects of Microsoft's campaign against Linux. :P

  • Because the heading "Sponsored Links" is just simply too confusing.
  • Why? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by flynt (248848) on Monday September 10, 2007 @12:11PM (#20541059)
    Why would Google "owe" any of us anything? Couldn't they just do whatever they want, I don't think I ever signed a contract with them specifying what behavior they are bound to?
    • by FauxPasIII (75900)
      > I don't think I ever signed a contract with them specifying what behavior they are bound to?

      No, but they signed one with your government. It's called a corporate charter.
  • I wasn't aware I paid Google to do anything. In fact, it seems I'm using a free service. It's odd that apparently I am paying Google for a service and apparently they have some kind of responsibility to me?

    On what basis do these idiots think Google has some contract with me or anyone else _except_ their advertisers to show any kind of search result in any kind of order at all?

  • Not doing a enough to differentiate their sponsored links? Of all the search engines around, they're the ones who differentiated it the most with a different font and background color. It seems strange to accuse them of this when they (at one time) were the only search engine to bother making the difference obvious. Interesting to note though... After reading this article, I checked google and there are NO sponsored links anywhere.
  • Has anyone here even searched some common stuff like opening a business.

    All it gets you is spammed commercial businesses.

    All the hype that google gets is undeserved.

    There is no more clean uncommercial information on google search. It's all been tainted.

    This is what you get for believing using links on websites as indicators of quality results.

    Time to find something better. Turn off that firefox auto google search too while your at it.

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