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Ethics of Search Engines in Web Advertising

Baidu is the most popular search engine in China, with over 400 million users. Regarded as China’s Google, Baidu is reported to control around 80% of Chinese online search market. When Western marketers think of entering the Chinese market, it is often the first marketing channel they consider, especially for paid search marketing. Similar to Google, Baidu utilizes the paying per click model for advertisers to display their advertisements Рthe advertiser is only charged when a user actually clicks on the advertisement.

As discussed in class, PPC model is widely used as it provides quick return and valuable customer data. Thus, the amount that advertisers are willing to pay per click is often surprisingly high, which generates massive revenue for the search engines themselves. At the same time, ethical issues arise: lack of regulation on search engine marketing leads to the low credibility of the advertisements, and fraudulent information prevails. Taking Baidu as an example, the company has set aside 1 billion yuan ($153 million) to compensate victims of fraudulent marketing information. In the past few years, it has been at the center of a controversy over how accountable Internet firms are for the search results they provide, particularly after the death of Wei Zexi, a young man in his early twenties who was suffering a rare form of cancer.

Wei, a student from the central province of Shaanxi, died of synovial sarcoma on April 12, 2016. Before his death, he wrote a long post on a Chinese website that detailed his experience seeking medical treatment. In his post, Wei stated that he learned of a hospital in Beijing that offered treatment for people with his condition in a promoted search result on Baidu. He went through four treatments at the hospital, spending a huge amount of money with his family, but the treatments proved unsuccessful in the end. Wei denounced the hospital for claiming high success rates for the treatment, after realizing the medical information provided by Baidu was fraudulent.

China has strict laws against false advertising in medical products, but there is no clear guidance on how those laws should be applied to the online search results. This incident ignited public fury over fraudulent informations, and in a broader sense, over the ethics of search engines in web advertising. Nowadays, billions of net users rely on search engines, and the company is therefore responsible for the trust and is obligated to taking up their social responsibilities. It is understandable that imposing stricter regulations may not be easy. However, companies that were involved in sensitive and serious topics, including medical treatments that deal with human life, should be particularly conscientious of their duties when conducting their businesses.


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