Maybe it’s not exactly click fraud…but it poses just as big a threat to PPC advertising.

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At Marketing Experiments we have done plenty of research on the topic of click fraud.

Companies hire low-wage surfers to click on competitive ads, thereby spending the competition’s budgets on useless clicks. Software is developed to do the same thing. And then there are the content publishers who get people to click on ads on their sites, to increase their ad revenues.

That’s the kind of fraud we think about when we talk about click fraud.

But there is another kind too.

This “fraud” is when marketers mislead their readers.

A recent Business Week article talks about various aspects of PPC advertising, and features a campaign for the Honda Element. Here is an excerpt:

The current Element campaign features the vehicle “talking” to sundry animals — a platypus, a possum, a burro, and a crab — in cartoony spots. Honda’s agency, Rubin Postaer & Associates, bought those keyword terms and uses search ads as invitations to “see the platypus in its Element.” That link leads consumers to elementandfriends.com, which features Element ads and a related game. RPA also bought variants of “funny video” and “funny commercials,” which, says Mike Margolin, RPA’s vice-president/associate media director, are search terms that have demographic profiles compatible with likely Element buyers. In many cases, the search terms cost just 10 cents or 15 cents per click, he says, and drew about 40% of the Element’s Web site traffic. “It seemed a little quirky, but the more you thought about it, the more it seemed to resonate well with the campaign,” says Tom Peyton, Honda’s senior manager of marketing.

Let’s think about this for a moment.

Google, Yahoo! and other PPC providers position their ads as being contextual. One of the benefits they talk about is that a contextual ad delivers value to a searcher or site visitor, by serving an ad which helps them find what they are looking for.

So I go to one of these search engines and type in “platypus”.

I then see a PPC ad that invites me to “see the platypus in its Element.”

I’m interested in the platypus, so I click the ad. What do I get? A sales pitch for a car.

This may not be click fraud in the way we usually perceive it. But as someone using a search engine I have just been hoodwinked and misled. A supposedly contextual ad has proved not to be contextual at all.

Maybe it’s not fraud. The only thing I have lost is some time.

But here’s something to consider.

What if this same kind of thing happens to me a few more times?

What if I lose all trust in these supposedly “contextual” ads?

What if I start seeing PPC ads and hesitate before clicking, because I am no longer confident that I’ll be taken somewhere relevant to my search?

Genuine click fraud may well be a problem for the PPC advertising business. But losing the trust of the people viewing those ads may prove to be an even bigger threat.

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2 Comments

  1. Anthony Julian says

    Interestingly enough, I think that your blog post about this subject and pointing off to Honda is EXACTLY the type of real public relations they are looking for by pulling a stunt like this.

    Had I seen the platypus ad, one might have merely clicked back. But, with us blogging about it they are sure to have mention a hundred thousand times that they do not need to pay for.

    I agree that this is a bad ploy but alas, they won.

    Thanks for the Post,

    Anthony J Julian II

  2. Matt Wier says

    Another deceptive click-fraud-like practice is the creation of clone sites single site landing pages, where the paid search results look like there are different advertisers, but all lead back to a common website. This tactic can be used to block out competitors from the top paid search ads. If the consumer clicks all of the ads, they will quickly realize that all of the ads are really sponsored by the same advertiser using a deceptive tactic. My Google Adwords reps have said that consumers determine what is relevant by voting with their clicks. Additionally the economics of the perpetrator help regulate tactics like this. I believe this tactic erodes advertiser relationships with the media supplier and will ultimately damage user confidence in search engines.

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