Googles sponsored-link ads may have helped turn the worlds best-known search engine into a financial powerhouse, but they also are coming under attack for contributing to spyware practices that undermine trust on the Web.
Anti-spyware researcher Ben Edelman this week criticized Google Inc. for playing a role in the distribution of browser toolbars that he says violates Googles own principle about software downloads.
In a research report released Monday, Edelman outlined examples of how Googles AdWords pay-per-click ads are helping to fund software download practices in which spyware is installed on users machines or where disclosures and software licenses are hidden.
He specifically cited the role that Google ads play with the IBIS WebSearch Toolbar, a download labeled as spyware by anti-spyware tools, and with search toolbars from Ask Jeeves Inc., one of Googles major ad-distribution partners. Google shares a portion of ad revenue with its distribution partners.
“Users have more and more of this junk trying to sneak onto their computers, and its a profitable business for the makers of the software because they can show these ads,” Edelman said.
With the IBIS WebSearch Toolbar, Edelman examined the ads that appear when a user enters a search query in the toolbar. The search results page, on WebSearch.com, includes sponsored listings.
In some cases, Edelman traced those listings back to the Google.com domain, but they traveled through a middleman that he identified as Go2Net. Go2Net is a property of InfoSpace Inc., which is also a distribution partner for Googles search-based ads. Google does not appear to have a direct relationship with IBIS WebSearch.
An executive with IBIS LLC, the Boca Raton, Fla., company behind WebSearch, took exception with the labeling of its toolbar as spyware and said the company has legitimate contractual relationships for the displaying of its Web and paid search results.
“We dont track people and are consensual, and were easy to find and remove,” said Robert Bogdanoff, a senior vice president for legal affairs at IBIS. “We dont keep personally identifiable information, and were easily removed by ad-remove programs.”
Bogdanoff said IBIS has attempted to contact Edelman so it can investigate his findings, but so far has not received a response. Edelman said he has not heard from IBIS.
IBIS also is conducting a review of its toolbar distribution, including with third parties, to make sure it is consensually downloaded, Bogdanoff said.
InfoSpace officials were unavailable for comment on Edelmans findings. A Google spokesperson declined to discuss specific ad-distribution partners but said the company takes its software principles seriously.
“Google strongly supports the adherence to our software principles by our partner network,” the spokesperson said in a statement. “Google reviews claims of non-adherence to our software principles and works with our partners to make changes, if necessary, to be in compliance with our principles.”
In the software principles, which Google publicly posted about a year ago, the company frowns upon spyware and software installations that trick users or obscure disclosure. Mountain View, Calif.-based Google states that it follows the principles for all its software and encourages partners to follow suit.
Ask Jeeves already had faced past criticism from Edelman and other anti-spyware advocates about the way its search toolbars are distributed. Google regularly names Ask Jeeves as one of its largest distribution partners for AdWords, and search queries on the toolbars return results that include Googles sponsored links.
Along with its namesake toolbar, the Oakland, Calif., search company also supports toolbars for sites that it had acquired with its purchase of Interactive Search Holdings Inc. Those include the My Search and My Way toolbars.
Next page: Ask Jeeves takes action.
While none of the toolbars track users like spyware, Edelman said that some of the Ask Jeeves partners distributing them use download tactics that are similar to spyware purveyors.
“Ask Jeeves is not spying but is using lousy installation tactics,” he said.
In one case, an Ask Jeeves toolbar is bundled with a peer-to-peer program called iMesh, but users are only informed of the toolbar download in fine print on page 27 of a 56-page license, Edelman wrote in his report.
In the past, the MySearch toolbar also has been included as part of the Kazaa peer-to-peer installation. While it is disclosed during installation, the toolbars licensing terms are hidden, Edelman said.
Ask Jeeves is aware of Edelmans findings and has begun taking action with its partners. The company is working with iMesh to improve the processes it uses for disclosing information about the toolbar download, said Colby Zintl, an Ask Jeeves spokesperson.
“This is a larger industry issue about the need to improve the disclosure and installation practices,” Zintl said. “Its our responsibility, ultimately, to make sure that partners comply with our policies.”
The company previously had severed ties with an unnamed partner that had distributed an Ask Jeeves toolbar download called SmileyCentral through banner ads, Zintl said. Edelman also had criticized Ask Jeeves for promoting SmileyCentral through banner ads that hide links to software licenses.
To Edelman, the larger problem with both the IBIS and Ask Jeeves toolbar examples is that Googles ads help to fund practices that undermine Googles own best practices. Googles advertisers also are often unaware that their ads may appear on sites that are distributing spyware or using questionable practices.
“Googles advertisers are really being led astray here by Google saying, We will show ads on high-quality partner sites and you can trust us,” Edelman said. “Google is showing these ads any way that they can make a buck.”
Google isnt the only provider of search-based ads to face criticism surrounding spyware and adware.
Yahoo Inc. has a partnership with Claria Corp. to distribute Yahoos sponsored-link ads. Claria is well-known for displaying ads through software labeled as adware. Last year, Yahoo faced accusations of favoring adware in its own Anti-Spy spyware-blocking tool before changing default settings in Anti-Spy.
Dave Methvin, the chief technology officer at PC Pitstop LLC, also has observed examples of Googles sponsored listings appearing in places that violate Googles terms with publishers and its principles. He wants the search company to do more to tackle the problem, including demonstrating publicly that it is enforcing its policies.
PC Pitstop, a Dakota Dunes, S.D., company that runs a Web site for PC diagnostics, runs ads through Google AdWords and displays sponsored listings on its site, Methvin said.
“If the only penalty for being caught is a tsk, tsk, then they will just change their name and the next month will be doing the same thing,” Methvin said of spyware and adware purveyors.
Methvin acknowledged that Google would be hard-pressed to catch all examples of misused ads but said that the company could make it easier for its publisher partners and users to report questionable use of Google ads.
“Though Google puts on a brave face, to a great extent its almost impossible to stop this fraud,” he said.
Editors Note: This story was updated to included comments from an IBIS executive and additional comments from Edelman.
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