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Google’s Search Policy for Government Websites and How It Went Wrong

As stated in Chapter 15 of Professor Easely’s book “Networks, Crowds, and Markets, “ keyword-based ads show up on search engine results pages alongside the unpaid results. The keyword-based ads are ads created by advertisers that display the ad on the results page when a user types in a certain keyword. While these keyword-based ads are usually placed higher up on the web search than the unpaid results, there are some exceptions to this rule. Google has policies to prevent ads for “paid products or services that are available from a government or public source for free or at a lower price” (BBC) to be placed on top of the search engine results page.

    However, over the past couple of days, BBC has revealed that Google’s search algorithm does not always abide to this rule. In the BBC News article “Google Takes Down Esta Service Ads – But Many Remain,” the author Chris Fox describes that the top search result for the application form for a US visa is not the official government website. Instead, advertisements paid by commercial websites are placed higher up on the Google search result page. Through the official government website, the US Department of Homeland Security charges United Kingdom travellers $14 to use the Electronics System for Travel Authorisation (Esta) before their visit to the USA. Other than the official Esta website, there are numerous websites that charge up to $99 for the same application. The reasoning behind the high prices is that users are able to get “24/7 assistance” on the Esta application through these websites. Not only do these websites make profit from the overly-priced visa applications, but so does Google since it works on the “pay-per-click” model. As learned in class, each click from the search page to an advertised website brings Google profit. While the BBC News article only discussed the financial concerns of the non-official websites, there are privacy issues as well. By submitting the Esta through a non-official website users are authorizing the website to gain access to their personal data. Depending on the different privacy and data policies of the commercial websites, the users’ data can be potentially misused.

   Google responded to BBC’s article and concerns by taking down the ads that appeared on the top of the search results for the terms “Esta” and “US Visa.” Due to the large number of ads for the commercial Esta websites, the ad removal process took a couple of tries. Google further encourages users to report advertisements that break the advertisement rules.

   A representative from Google briefly explained that the issue arose due to the search results being determined by algorithms. Based on this situation, instead of accessing only the first search website result, it is best to always look at the websites of the first couple of search results to ensure that you are obtaining the best deals and best information. This incident shows that searching algorithms do not always abide to Google’s policies and that they do not produce the best possible results in every given circumstance.





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