Canadian Politics from Canada's Centre

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Ethical Dilemma Facing Google Adsense Publishers, Bloggers

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There's an inherent ethical dilemma with Google's Adsense service. It encourages bloggers (and all other Adsense publishers) to trick their readers into clicking on ads they may not otherwise click on. Also, it encourages publishers to decrease the value of their site to readers by putting ads in the website's most-viewed areas.

How I came to writing this:

I was reading a post on optimizing Adsense ads, over at . Well-respected ProBlogger Darren Rowse analyzed PBS' use of Adsense ads and suggested that since they stuck out like a sore thumb, and weren't in a prime position, they wouldn't perform to their full money-earning potential.
Studies have shown that Adsense ads work best when their colours blend in with the rest of the site they're on. Also, placing the ads in the upper left part of a site gets more people to click on the ads and thus earns more revenue for the website publisher (Adsense revenue is mainly based on clicks).

Here was my comment on the topic (material in [] was added here, after posting on Problogger):
"Of course this probably would take the blending thing too far for PBS who are obviously trying to walk a fine line between raising money and retaining their values," [wrote Darren Rowse.]
That's the core of the problem with Adsense "optimization." You're tricking your readers to click on an ad by making it look like something natural to the site.
I've tried to optimize my ads on Centrerion Canadian Politics to the extent that I've tried to make the colours similar, so I'm not an angel in this respect.

But I feel that it's a severe ethical disadvantage to Adsense that for it to perform well, you need to use psychological gimmicks aimed at fooling someone into making a subconscious association between your content and the ads, based on colour. [The point of blending the ad colours with your site colours is to make the ads look less like ads.]
For better or worse, my ugly blog design prevents the blending to work too well.

The topic had a fair number of comments, but Darren's post wasn't explicitly about the ethics of Adsense blending. What do you other bloggers and Adsense publishers think?

My Ethical Debate and Dilemma
To be fair, Google has a line of text above all their Adsense ads saying that the following are "Ads by Google." So it would be possible to argue that if someone clicks on an ad and didn't realize it was one, it was their own fault for not reading the fine print (and it truly is fine print, being smaller relatively to the text of the ads themselves).

In response to that, however, it would be equally possible to argue that the blending of ads is a 'predatory' business practice. The Adsense publisher is taking advantage of his readership's trust and leading them into thinking that the ads they see are genuine content. In children's words, it's being sneaky.

My conclusion:

There's a boundary between having relevant ads on a site and fooling the reader into thinking those ads are actual content from the website the ads are being hosted on. So what's my response to this ethical dilemma? Until I have time to get back on the right side of the boundary, I'm removing the Google Adsense ads from Centrerion Canadian Politics. Mea culpa.

So PBS hasn't "optimized" their ads... hopefully, they'll "retain their values," as Darren has written, and not optimize them. I learnt a lot from watching PBS as a kid, and it seems I'm still learning.

Note: I'm not attacking Darren's ethics or those of other publishers who blend the ads. For all I know, there's a sound bit of ethical reasoning that can defend blending ads with content. I just don't see it.

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