The rise of the Web and digital mediums is one of the most revolutionizing events in the world’s history. Internet today is all pervasive—from keeping you updated on the latest national and international events to giving you the inside scoop on major political matters to even keeping you abreast with the new developments in your industry, it has slowly but steadily moved on to become the one-stop destination for all sorts of information. And then there are the digital learning sessions, e-commerce, online review sites, consumer forums, and virtual shopping zones—there is nothing that the Web does not have an answer for!
Internet is indeed powerful and if I may borrow the famous quote from Spiderman, “With great power comes great responsibility”. So what then is the responsibility of the Internet marketers, online businesses, digital strategists and the other inhabitants of the online space? Media, whether it is the newspapers, magazines, radio or the TV news channels, has always maintained a clear distinction between information and advertisements. And the same stands true for the digital media too.
The Rules are That “There are no Rules”
While the online medium is well established, the concept of advertising and selling on the net is still at a nascent stage. However, given the reach and “impact” of the Internet, it becomes critical to have the ethics and regulations put in place. And when we talk about ethics in selling, the following are the top contenders (or offenders?):
1.) The Advertisements: Advertisements are definitely an important source of information for consumers, and therefore it is expected that brands indulge in honest and ethical advertising. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. The display ads used by Orbitz (way back in 2002) got them a lot of flak, as these ads would direct a user to another site merely when the cursor was moved over them. Similarly, the concept of contextual link ads, wherein hyperlinks are concealed within editorial content are also considered unethical. The issue here is not just of ethics but also of user experience.
2.) Pop-ups and “misleading” dialog boxes: The concept of popup ads was introduced to minimize the obstruction that a viewer faces. However, businesses tend to go overboard with the use of these ads, leading to a user inadvertently clicking on it. Similarly, dialog boxes that look like warning text from the computer also mislead users. The in-app ads on mobiles are another example of accidental click-throughs. While this can make some quick bucks for the advertiser, it is not a good experience for the site visitors.
3.) Search Engine Optimization (SEO): All digital marketers and publishers recognize the power of SEO, and use it as a single best tactic to organically drive visitors to their site. While search engines are quite strict with their evaluation metrics and keep rolling out updates that curb such malpractices, some webmasters use black hat tricks to unethically raise their search rankings. The ban on the BMW website is one of the worst penalties faced by any business till date. Caught using doorway pages stuffed with keywords, the site was completely removed from Google index. It is imperative that Internet marketers act more responsibly and in the best interest of the visitors at all points.
4.) Content as bait: Review sites, online forums and generic content based sites are meant to be a gateway for consumers to gain more knowledge about a product, service or brand. However, publishers use the sponsored content concept and even paid reviews to manipulate user opinions. If the content is “salesy”, biased or strongly opinionated, it should be categorized as an advertisement—in this case, the rules of digital media are same as that for TV or print. Businesses are now also leveraging the power of social networking platforms and using them as grounds for “viral” advertising.
There is a lot that can be labeled as unethical and misleading in the business of Internet selling and advertising. And even with the constant pull and push from the regulatory authorities, advertisers keep finding new ways to con the crawlers and visitors.
Taming the Unethical Practice
The new technologies and advanced digital techniques are constantly transforming the advertising and online sales landscape. Today’s consumer is digitally connected to a variety of Web-based and mobile platforms. There are a large number of Web associations and regulatory authorities such as The Institute of Advertising Ethics (IAE), Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB), etc. that have laid out clear terms for Web marketers and online businesses to ensure the online space stays clean and trustworthy.
The Institute of Advertising Ethics (IAE) lists some concise and pertinent rules that advertisers must follow when selling or marketing on the net. Some of these are:
- All forms of advertising material must share the common goal of maintaining truth and should be a means to serve the public
- They should maintain a clear distinction between corporate communications, press releases, sales collateral and advertisements
- A publisher must disclose every condition upfront and clearly, as the asterisks (*) and fine print at the end of the document can sometimes go unnoticed by the consumer
- If there are cookies being used to track and detect a user’s settings, personal record and online activity, then this must be clearly stated before the user begins browsing your site
- The placement of ads should in no way obstruct the user view, neither should they be disguised as editorial content
- Finally, whether you are selling on the online platforms or offline, advertisers must abide by the federal, state and local advertising laws.
However, these are just guidelines and parameters to make the business of Internet selling more upright. But there is a clear lack of standardization! Publishers/advertisers find quick workarounds to all rules, so much so that practices like page-takeovers, push down formats, etc. have been accepted as standard norms, even though the user experience in such cases is compromised.
Why Should an Internet Marketer Care?
The debate on ethics in advertising primarily revolves around one question: should brands focus on providing a better user experience at the cost of profits? While there is no quick fix available to this problem, we can surely work together to put some basic standards in place. Advertisers must understand that intruding a user’s privacy for the success of their upsell and cross-sell initiatives will not bring them long term results.
As a digital marketer as well as an active online user, I know that unethical advertisements or paid content or even the black hat SEO tricks can only give your traffic an initial boost, but such traffic does not convert. As they say “you can’t win’em all”! This also affects your brand image, since a consumer who dislikes your ad or the way you present it, will extend that dislike to your brand as well. Not only random visitors, but news and media sites too are being increasingly selective about the quality and messaging of sponsored content that they display on their site, since brand image is of paramount importance today.
In the world of wireless connectivity, virtual shopping malls and real-time communication, it is clear that Internet will be touching more lives than ever before. And as the number of online businesses grow, the difference between “good” and “bad” will be difficult to judge.
It is high time that a standard code of ethics for Internet selling and advertising is implemented globally, and compliance to these rules should be made mandatory. Adherence to these standards must earn brownie points for an advertiser, encouraging others to follow suit! In the long run you need a loyal customer base, one that keeps coming back to your site for the service/products and above all the “experience” that you offer.
Agreed that advertisements are a major source of revenue for the search engines and we should not stop Internet advertising that drives online sales… but the monetary benefits can never an adequate justification for deceptive advertising.