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How Marketers Use Redirect Ads to Deceive You

Sometimes bait-and-switch is obvious, but the tactics grow sneakier every day

Illustration: vladwel/Getty Images

Note: This is part 3 in a series about what I’ve learned as a Google marketer. Part 4 is here.

“Redirection” is a catchall term for a form of bait-and-switch deception used by Google marketers. A helpful ad on Google will match a searcher’s keywords with a relevant landing page, but redirect ads provide counter-messaging and often alternative destinations that go against the search words.

For example, if you search Google for “iPhone 6S,” you’re predictably going to be shown an ad for the iPhone 6S. By clicking that ad, you’ll probably land on a page where you can buy one. A redirect ad, however, might twist your search and prompt you with something like this for a Galaxy S6 instead:

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A very basic form of redirection through a Google text ad

In this example, Samsung is trying to swerve the searcher’s intent with counter-messaging and is betting the searcher will question their brand loyalty, click the ad, and convert from Apple to Samsung.

It’s one thing to (fairly obviously) redirect an ad in a smartphone search. But what if the redirection was a bit harder to detect? Let’s say the ad and the landing page seemed to validate your expectations and you didn’t realize you’d been redirected until long after you’d parted with your money.

Here are two examples where the switch is tougher to spot:

  • An ad promises Jill neutral information about a new cryptocurrency she’s had her eye on. Instead, her click delivers her to a series of landing pages full of fake news that obscure the advertiser’s actual intention to manipulate the coin’s price.
  • Brad searches “Hillary Clinton is awesome” on Google and then browses the web. He clicks on an ad and ends up on a page containing language that subtly provokes racial and religious tensions. (This is what happened leading up the 2016 U.S. presidential election when redirect ads by anonymized hyper-partisan websites that partnered with Google diverted people who clicked on them to imposter or mirror sites that contained falsified or heavily biased stories.)

Unsuccessful marketers might think the utility of a redirect ad ends with swerving a searcher’s brand loyalty, like in the iPhone example. They may not be thinking big enough to understand that redirection doesn’t necessarily have to (1) wrap up quickly after the initial click, (2) be limited to e-commerce, or (3) be confined to the digital world. Certain successful marketers, however, know that high-profit redirection instead is a long game. It can unfold over weeks or months and cross from online to offline worlds.

For an idea of how much damage an advanced form of redirection can inflict on a Google user, consider what happened to Leasha Ali, who was an alcoholic. At the end of a binge lasting several days, she knew she needed to go to rehab for her drinking. Like a lot of people, instead of telling someone about her problems, Leasha confessed them to Google and was rewarded with a soothing flurry of ads — the modern, digital “there, there.”

Leasha’s results page promised her salvation, but the ad that caught her eye was for a Florida rehab center that suggested beautiful vistas replete with palm trees. When she called the number in the ad, she was unwittingly connected to a third-party call center instead of the rehab site. The rep on the phone sold Leasha on the rehab’s resort-like atmosphere and told her that her treatment wouldn’t cost her anything. The rep wasn’t being truthful but needed to close the deal and get Leasha on a plane before she sobered up. Leasha’s micro-moment (see part 2) was immaterial but no less exploitable.

Within hours, Leasha arrived at the true destination: a run-down, converted motel. The staff she found at the place was incapable of treating her complicated health issues. Leasha faced alcohol withdrawal in a small room crammed with beds and was physically and spiritually stranded. Instead of getting help in a vulnerable moment, she’d fallen victim to a sophisticated deception tantamount to human trafficking — all through a Google ad.

Just as with the locksmith scheme from part 2, the target was exploited when she was confused and emotional. Also similarly, the phone number in the rehab ad was a Google-generated forwarding number. These numbers don’t exist anywhere else, online or offline, so they can’t be traced or checked for legitimacy. The masked nature of forwarding numbers allowed whoever was behind the rehab ad to connect Leasha to the third party and sell them to her as a lead.

In this case, the marketer pitched the ball — with robust data informing honed redirection — and then stepped back while the rep knocked it out of the park. A marketer running ads on behalf of a rehab typically gets paid a percentage of ad spend (which hinges on the rehab’s close rate). Here, the marketer, the marketer’s client (the advertiser as middleman), and the third-party rep profited nicely from Leasha’s helpless journey that the marketer had set in motion.

If we can swerve a searcher’s product allegiance through redirection, couldn’t we also swerve something bigger? Like a person’s set of beliefs, convictions, and ideology? While redirect ads typically target people in various states of monetizable desperation, there are advertisers in this industry who want to see what happens when redirect ads are shown to people in non-monetizable desperation.

As it turns out, one of those advertisers is Google itself.

The Redirect Method was a Google-incubated project that used redirect ads to deradicalize would-be extremists. In the first eight weeks of 2016, some 321,000 people — all of whom were believed to harbor strong sympathy toward ISIS — clicked on redirect ads that were designed to reflect an interest in extremist content. Instead of arriving at a page that supported their views, ISIS sympathizers who clicked the ads found themselves directed to a playlist of videos debunking ISIS’s recruitment narratives.

Most of the visitors stuck around. Together, they watched more than half a million minutes of video.

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Redirect ads used by Google’s Redirect Method

By Google’s measure, the Redirect Method was a success, but some opponents called this foray into redirection a form of thought policing. Brainwashing the brainwashed, so to speak. The idea initially was an anomaly for the company because to design it, Google used ad tech they themselves had long fought against. From 2003 to 2012, Google had shut down advertisers who tried to redirect people who supported abortion, Scientology, sex worker rights, and the sewage treatment processes of cruise ship companies.

Leading the defense of the Redirect Method is Yasmin Green, head of research and development at Jigsaw, Google’s think tank subsidiary. She argues that “the branding philosophy of [The Redirect Method’s pilot] was not to appear judgmental or moralistic, but to pique interests of individuals who have questions that are being raised and answered by the Islamic state.”

The method uses a psychological operations tactic that the U.S. military has used on its own citizens, where selected information is conveyed to audiences to influence their behavior. Similar methods have been used throughout American history, sometimes in quietude or in the name of the greater good and sometimes with regressive consequences.

Google took the stance on the Redirect Method that the inevitable exploitation of their data could be used for the benefit of the user. Green said that, in doing so, what they tried to do was “not to control content, but to create context.” But as the bar of context inevitably moves, it’s a slippery slope when Google decides for us (1) what constitutes extremism and (2) that we shouldn’t have access to what Google deems extreme.

It’s hard to be cynical about a campaign that tries to deter ISIS — and maybe that was the point of ISIS being the target of Google’s first redirection experiment. But it was not the last time Google would use the Redirect Method technology to alter people’s ideology. Just seven months after the pilot program with ISIS sympathizers wrapped up, Jigsaw quietly announced that it would be using redirect ads to sway the ideologies of the far-right in America.

Today, Jigsaw is working on more puzzles to solve. And they’re encouraging the public to do the same.

If Google’s sudden embrace of redirecting content wasn’t eerie enough, it now encourages the public to try creating their own redirect advertising. With the Redirect Method pilot, Google left behind a step-by-step blueprint that not just a marketer but anyone anywhere can follow to start using redirect ads for their own agendas.

This sounds egalitarian, but it’s not really a good thing. With $500 and a basic understanding of how to create a Google Ads account (free lessons are readily available), anyone can become their own propagandist. In a Slate article, Kieron O’Hara dissected how this problem can affect internet users on a massive level:

Anyone with the money could buy ads to steer people away from Trump, or Clinton, or porn, or climate science, or worries about high crime or immigration. We are being influenced, but not told how or by whom. Without transparency in this area, can we really consider ourselves autonomous individuals, masters of our fates?

When anyone can proliferate their own agendas on any topic, and when they have the same precise targeting tools that marketers have access to, Google’s search results page becomes even more difficult to navigate well.

Whether it’s a marketer, a layman who followed Google’s blueprint, or Google itself pushing their own agendas, the potential for abuse on Google grows riper. The most vulnerable among you bear the brunt of that abuse.

Looking for Part 4? It’s here.

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