Google Criticized Over Misleading Gov't Ads

John Lister's picture

Google has been accused of failing to do enough to tackle rip-off ads. The issue involves advertisers who mislead customers into paying for government services that should be free of charge.

The accusation comes from the BBC News site and involves a series of services such as applying for driving or travel permits. While the official costs vary from country to country, such services often have little or no cost from a government agency.

Third party sellers run websites that are vague about their status and then charge users inflated fees to apply on their behalf. Such sites are often legal as they are technically charging a convenience fee for making the application, but users are often unaware this is what's happening.

While such sites may be legal, Google changed its rules a year ago to stop running ads for any "documents and/or services that can be obtained directly from a government or a delegated provider." (Source:

This also includes services for applying or paying for such services. The ban doesn't apply to professional consulting services such as tax preparation or immigration advice.

Ads Still Appearing

In theory the ban is significant because ads appear at or near the top of Google's rankings. That can override its search algorithms which are designed to favor authoritative and reputable sites, for example by assessing the number and credibility of links to the site from elsewhere.

The BBC says it has searched for 11 terms relating to travel and driving documents on seven occasions over the past year. In every case, all the terms produced results including ads that should have been banned under Google's new rules. In some cases ads still appeared after being reported to Google. (Source:

Auto-Vetting Inadequate

Google says it removed more than three billion ads last year and that it uses a combination of human review and machine learning to vet ads.

The problem seems to be that the sheer number of ads Google runs is too big for human moderation to be effective, but automated processes only work for a short while before the advertisers figure out a way to beat the system and get the ads promoted.

That means it may be a smart idea for users searching for official sources of information to ignore any search result which carries the (admittedly small) ad label on Google results.

What's Your Opinion?

Do you think people are misled by such ads? Should Google do more to vet ads that could be misleading? Should it more clearly distinguish between ads and normal search results?

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