Ethical ambiguity in the design of Google AdWords is what leads to conflicting claims about the ethical status of Google's advertising practice. All the more reason we need a system of ethics for making design decisions.
On Monday, I referenced a blog post written by Eric Clemons at TechCrunch. Clemons' post states that advertising on the internet will fail, to which I added "unless it takes its medicine". I also mentioned that there were a variety of interesting points he made along the way. I'd like to highlight one of these today. It's about Google.
Clemons puts a fairly fine point on it: "Misdirection [is] sending customers to web locations other than the ones for which they are searching. This is Google’s business model."
Google itself espouses a serious commitment to not misdirecting its users: "...while we believe relevant ads can be as useful as actual search results, we don't want anyone to be confused about which is which."
And indeed in this case, I wonder whether it really is fair to suggest that Google ads "misdirect" users. Recall that in 2002, the Federal Trade Commission issued a set of guidelines which specified that paid search ads be clearly labeled and delineated from other results. Google, today, indicates paid ads by marking them as "Sponsored," and placing them off to the side of their other search results.
In my mind, the only tenable way to argue that Google's business model relies on misdirection is by reference to the fact that some of its design decisions are manipulative. As any good web designer knows, people don't read on the web - they scan. By indicating that certain links are sponsored (e.g.) in a lighter text color, or off to the top right corner where it is known that the least amount of scanning eyes are prone to glance, etc., Google is "softly" misdirecting inattentive or inexperienced users.
If this argument doesn't hold water, then Google's BM does not rely on misdirection just because the relevant design decisions are ethically acceptable ones.
If that's all true, it is further fuel for the DLB fire. We need a way to decide whether a given design decision is an ethical one in order to bring clarity to a fuzzy case like Google's without relying on polemics. And I for one would certainly count it as fairly good evidence of the need for systematized design ethics if having it enabled us to evaluate whether or not Google "does no evil."