Google has failed to stop “shyster” websites from advertising on its search engine despite promising to fix the problem, the BBC found.
Ads for unofficial services selling government documents such as travel permits and driver’s licenses violate Google’s policies.
But the BBC found advertisements for expensive third-party sellers every time they searched for a 12-month period.
In a statement, Google said it had removed billions of rule-breaking ads.
What is the solution?
In the UK, changing the address on your driver’s license is free, but Google regularly displays ads for services charging £ 49.99.
Applying for an Esta travel permit to visit the United States should cost no more than $ 14 (£ 10) – but Google has repeatedly allowed ads for websites charging over $ 80.
In Google search results, the ads look like organic results and appear at the top of the list.
Websites like these are not illegal and customers can still get the documents they applied for.
However, some companies charge more than five times the amount of official websites.
“These are not scams, they are crooks,” said Martin Lewis, founder of the Money Saving Expert website.
“They don’t steal your money, they charge you a fee for something that is completely unnecessary.”
Some justify their prices by offering support to anyone struggling with an application.
Advertising of these services is against Google’s own policies.
What did the investigation reveal?
In October 2018, the BBC brought several advertisements to Google’s attention that violated its rules.
A month later, Google told the BBC that it had developed a machine learning system that could prevent ads from reappearing.
At the time, it only banned advertisements for third-party services that charged more than the official government website.
However, in May 2020, it changed its policy to prohibit “advertisements for materials and / or services that can be obtained directly from a government or a delegated provider”, including “offers of assistance for obtain these products or services ”.
Since that change, the BBC has repeated the same set of Google searches seven times over a 12-month period.
Each time there were advertisements for expensive third-party services when searching for:
Some websites continued to appear in advertisements even after being flagged to Google with its reporting tools.
Why didn’t Google fix the problem?
“Machine learning is great when you have a clear goal in mind,” said Professor Sandra Wachter, of the Oxford Internet Institute.
But trying to catch rule breakers is a cat-and-mouse game, as companies can change tactics and reappear.
“Consumers trust Google. We expect what is happening on Google to be legitimate,” said Professor Wachter.
“If they know there are certain problems there, they have to take more care.”
Travel permit ads aren’t the only ones slipping into Google’s systems.
Earlier in April, the news website This Is Money created a bogus online investment company and was able to advertise it on Google.
In May 2020, the BBC discovered that an alleged scam store had exceeded Google’s search and purchase results for weeks, encouraging customers to pay for the technology via direct bank transfer.
Last week, the BBC found another bogus gadget store at the top of Google’s search results when customers searched for gadgets like the iPhone 12, Samsung S21, and Sony headphones.
Google has since removed the store from its results.
What did Google say?
In a statement, Google said, “We have strict rules governing the types of ads and advertisers we allow on our platforms. We only allow governments or their delegated vendors to advertise. for official documents or services. “
He said he was using machine learning and human reviews to spot issues and had removed 3.1 billion ads that violated his policies by 2020.
Additionally, it started checking advertisers on its platforms in January 2021.
Where can I find reliable services?
“When using the major search engines, including Google, you should always look for the wording ‘ad’,” Lewis said.
“If there’s a little box that says ‘ad’ on the left, the only reason they’re where they are is because they paid to be there. Scroll down under all the ads and find the natural search winner. “
If you are looking for any of the government documents mentioned in this article, you can find the official websites below.
UK driving license
It is free to change the name or address on your driving license at gov.uk/change-address-driving-licence.
Fees for other changes are listed on the gov.uk/driving-licence-fees website.
United States Esta
An Esta costs $ 14 (£ 10) and is available at esta.cbp.dhs.gov
The Electronic Travel Authorization (ETA) application costs CAD $ 7 (£ 4.10). The official website is canada.ca
The Electronic Travel Authorization (ETA) application costs AUD 20 (£ 11.15). The official website is immi.homeaffairs.gov.au