Is Pay for Placement Ethical?

Last week, a diet-products company filed suit against some search engines that permit pay for placement, the practice of inserting certain listings near the top of search results pages for payment.

Underlying the suit is the presumption that users are led to believe that search engine results are ranked based on the site’s best guess at relevance. I believe that’s a fair assumption. I think most people assume those numbered results are based on their query, not a payment schedule.

Imagine Billboard placing unpopular music in its Top 40 chart if studios paid them to do so. Or, a major ad publication selecting an “agency of the year” based on special favors. It would certainly be deceitful, if undisclosed or disclosed in a unobvious way. Would it be illegal? That I can’t say.

Is It Ethical?

I can speak to the ethics. They stink. Obviously, these sites are pulling the wool over the eyes of their users. But advertisers, too, are complicit in the corruption.

I liken this to doing business in a corrupt regime. I’ve worked in ad agencies with offices in countries that accept bribery and kickbacks as part of normal business procedure. Over time, corruption becomes so ingrained that it sucks the vitality out of a market. Initially, such payments might give one company an advantage over another. Eventually, the whole system becomes bogged down in a bureaucratic layer of payments that really doesn’t position one party over another.

Advertisers who encourage clients to pay for listings are contributing to just such a system. The advantage is temporary, and it isn’t ethical.

Ethical Pay for Placement

I do think pay for placement can remain honest. We need to insist that sites provide disclosure as to why a listing appears where it does. There’s nothing wrong with purchasing the top spot, so long as we don’t encourage the search engine to lie to users, implying the ranking means superior relevance.

Back in the late ’90s, a couple of search engines experimented with pay-for-placement listings. I remember them coming into my agency’s San Francisco office asking for our opinion. They talked in hushed tones. After a brief experiment (in which we didn’t participate), they shelved the program. The sudden recovery of their business ethics may have had something to do with the fact that their efforts were well publicized. Several competitors made an issue of it during a critical time for consumer market share. I’d like to think our withholding advertising dollars helped, too.

Today, I see many agencies not weighing the implications of pay for placement. To many, it’s just another way to buy media. I’m not holding my breath for a sudden reversal of these programs, but we can hope that better user awareness will make these programs too expensive once they begin losing users. That would lessen the corruption in the market and benefit us all.

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