Whenever we come across particularly suspicious-looking ads in the course of our monitoring, we flag them for investigation. These ads often turn out to be affiliates cloaking their links, laundering their referers, or running a questionable script on their page.
One key warning sign is any mismatch between the domain of an ad's Display URL and the domain of its destination URL. This explicitly violates the AdWords Display URL policy as well as Bing's Display URL policy. Bing's policy states the following:
The display URL should be either the actual destination URL or a shortened version of the destination URL (for example, the top-level domain of the landing page URL).
Is this policy perfectly enforced? According to a small sampling of suspicious ads that we've found recently, the answer is "No." Although Google returned zero Display URL violations, the Yahoo Bing Network turned up a number of examples. These sample ads range from honest mistakes to what seem like intentionally misleading tactics.
The Essentially Harmless
Are Display URL violations always an indicator of blackhat intentions? Certainly not. Take, for example, this ad that was placed by Lego. The ad shows "lego.com" in the Display URL, but actually leads to chimaonline.com.
As the ad indicates, Chima is a video game subbrand of Lego. There's no deception intended here. Instead, it seems that the manager of Lego's PPC account changed the ad copy and destination URL of the ad that was previously running—and simply forgot to modify the ad's Display URL. This would also explain how the ad made it through Bing's approval process. Since the previous version of the ad had already been approved, the updated ad may have been allowed to run while the changes were pending review.
But does this really matter? There's little—if any—impact on the user experience here. After clicking the ad, the user is still taken to a Lego-owned domain featuring the game that was mentioned in the ad. By and large, brand integrity remains intact.
This example is less clear-cut. Here are a few facts to help piece together what's going on here:
- The Blue Man Group is currently performing on a nightly basis in Las Vegas.
- It distributes some of its tickets through Ticketmaster.
- It also sells tickets directly to consumers on its own website.
Everything about the ad makes it seem like it was placed by Ticketmaster. But instead of taking the user to Ticketmaster's site, the ad actually points to the Blue Man Group's own website. By clicking on the ad, you end up on this page.
So why did this happen? Did a PPC agency simply mix up two of their accounts? Or alternatively, was a PPC marketer for the Blue Man Group trying to grab some additional traffic from Ticketmaster's branded keywords? The answer isn't perfectly clear, but this sure seems less accidental than our previous examples. The keyword "ticketmaster las vegas" implies that the searcher is interested in attending an event in Las Vegas but hasn't yet decided on what particular show to see. This searcher would probably be open to ideas. That creates an opportunity for advertisers to propose some options—and interestingly, we see this ad doing exactly that.
The mismatch between Ticketmaster's domain and the Blue Man Group's domain is rather obvious. Although it may be against the Display URL rules, it's probably going to be clear to users that they ended up on a different site than they expected. But this distinction isn't always so evident. Take, for example, this ad and landing page that showed up for the keyword "oldnavy.com coupon":
It isn't immediately clear that this site is owned by someone other than Old Navy. Although the plaintext logo in the upper left of the page could be a giveaway, the rest of the design manages to create a decent cover. The logos of Old Navy and various other Gap brands are spread across the top navigation, "Old Navy" appears more than 10 times in the "Categories" section, and the social media buttons link to Old Navy's official accounts. Upon my first inspection of the site, I actually thought this could potentially be a spinoff site owned by Old Navy.
After checking DomainTools, old-navy-coupons.com returns "Domains by Proxy" as its owner. For comparison, Gap properties such as gap.com and oldnavy.com specifically mention the Gap Hostmaster in their WhoIs records. From that, it seems highly unlikely that old-navy-coupons.com would be owned by Old Navy (or Gap). Furthermore, the site appears to operate as a "click-to-reveal" coupon site—just without any active coupon links. If you try to click on the "Sale" or coupon code links, you won't actually be taken to oldnavy.com. It's unclear why, but could be because this site was in Old Navy's affiliate program at one point and then got removed for non-compliance.
Implications of These Display URL Violations
It's interesting that we only found these issues on the Bing Yahoo Network. That could be a result of sample size more than anything else, but may be an indication that Google has taken additional steps to clean this up. At the same time, these findings should underscore the persistence of Display URL issues on the Yahoo Bing Network. These violations are very significant for advertisers, and can lead to many forms of brand misrepresentation and fraud.
Unfortunately, it seems that it's up to the brand to monitor and stay on top of such forms of abuse. Furthermore, it can be rather difficult to uncover such abuse through manual investigation. Dozens of clicks may be needed to detect the first violation. Those clicks will not only cost the brand some of its PPC budget, but they can also be rather time-consuming for the investigator. To avoid these issues, it may be useful to employ an automated monitoring system.
If anyone has seen additional examples of these violations, we'd be very interested to hear from you. In particular, we'd love to know about any recent Display URL mismatches on Google.