MediaMedia BuyingIs Pay for Placement Ethical?

Is Pay for Placement Ethical?

When the almighty dollar owns the top slot of search engine results, does anyone win?

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.

Related Articles

Five ad tech upstarts to keep an eye on

AI Five ad tech upstarts to keep an eye on

3w Al Roberts
The State of Media Transformation

Digital Transformation The State of Media Transformation

4w Chris Camps
5G: The next great media disruption

Media 5G: The next great media disruption

1m Luke Richards
How brands can integrate live video into their marketing strategy

Content Marketing How brands can integrate live video into their marketing strategy

5m Rebecca Sentance
Facebook goes after clickbait headlines - five tips to maintain reach

Content Marketing Facebook goes after clickbait headlines - five tips to maintain reach

5m Tereza Litsa
How brand advertisers are fighting ad fraud

Blockchain How brand advertisers are fighting ad fraud

3m Al Roberts
How QVC is managing to survive and thrive in the Amazon era

Ecommerce How QVC is managing to survive and thrive in the Amazon era

4m Al Roberts
What is intelligent content, and how can it future-proof your content marketing?

Content Marketing What is intelligent content, and how can it future-proof your content marketing?

4m Rebecca Sentance