FTC and Google need to crack down on scam review sites

While some claim pending blogger disclosure rules are onerous, the FTC needs to get tough on misleading Google AdWords and Web sites

Over the last 10 years, Web-based advertising has become huge -- a $23 billion business which could eclipse print and television. Despite the rapid growth, Web-based advertising is still an immature industry. There are new businesses being created, ranging from social networking sites and open source ad networks to mobile apps with location-based content. Part of the thrill of high tech is figuring out how to use new technology to help businesses solve real problems. Unfortunately, there also those that will try to game any system to gain an unfair advantage or rip off consumers. We've all seen link farm sites, dubious banner ads, and phishing scams.

When the FTC announced that it would require disclosure of fees and endorsements by bloggers starting Dec. 1, some complained this was overkill. I have several personal blogs outside of InfoWorld, and I don't mind disclosing that I've occasionally received review copies of books, CDs, and the like. I also run Google ads on some of my blogs. All told, the money that comes in is less than the price of a decent guitar, and I dont believe I've compromised my integrity as a writer. I suspect many bloggers are similar; if they make any money, it's to fund their hobby.

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But there is a more serious situation that's arisen over the last few years: the proliferation of bogus review sites. These sites purport to be objective evaluation of products, but they are simply paid advertisements. The sites are either selling the products or receiving a kickback for referrals. If you dig into it, it's not uncommon to see many similar sites with the same content, but slightly varied graphics. I have no idea whether they make money, but the fact that there are so many gives a clue. Even Google is benefiting from the ad words these sites are running.

Doug Marks, who runs a guitar instruction business called Metal Method, has exposed some of the dubious practices in his market. (And I should point out that not only am I a fan of Metal Method, I'm also an affiliate.) Doug has raised the issue to Google but so far, no response. Perhaps with the FTC's disclosure rules, it will get tougher for these scam sites to operate.

But it would be a shame if it takes the FTC to get Google to crack down on sites that are misleading consumers and violating Google's AdWords policies. The same thing is happening in other areas. There are bogus review sites for exercise equipment, language instruction courses, nutritional supplements, diet pills, drop-ship manufacturing companies, and the like. How long before we start seeing bogus review sites for servers and software? You and I might not be misled by these tactics, but obviously some people are. And it sure looks like Google is making money off all the ads.

Whatever happened to "Do No Evil"?

This article, "FTC and Google need to crack down on scam review sites," originally appeared at InfoWorld.com. Follow open source developments at InfoWorld.com.

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