Yahoo, Google and several other major web sites and companies (including Search Engine Watch's publisher, Jupitermedia) have been hit with a lawsuit saying they carry online gambling ads in violation of California law. This comes after two of the major search companies earlier this year made moves that were supposed to remove online gambling ads entirely.
While online gambling within California may be illegal, it seems unclear whether just carrying ads for online gambling that are seen by those within the state is illegal. The lawsuit asks that this be deemed the case:
By this action, plaintiffs seek to have defendants' paid advertisement of Internet gambling in California declared illegal, seek to enjoin defendants from advertising unlicensed Internet gambling businesses to persons in California.
As I've written before, removing ads won't prevent access to such material through editorial listings. That plaintiff who lost money could have just as easily gotten to an online gambling site through a non-paid listing on a search engine. The only difference is that the search engine itself would have earned no money off the click.
The filing attempts in one place to make ads for "illegal gambling" seem different because of the "astounding" clickrate of $12.97 shown in one instance compared to "modest" prices for other products and services.
Of course, terms like "mesothelioma" and "structured settlement" have consistently hit Overture's $100 max price per click for months. Ironically, law firms looking for clients have driven up those prices. So high price, fair to say, does not indicate the illegality of a product or service.
Both Yahoo and Google were to have removed ads for online casinos by the end of April, after apparent pressure from the US government. Nevertheless, they continued on -- and still seem to be appearing.
The lawsuit documents some example. Posts within our Search Engine Watch Forum also support this, as do the examples I've found shown further below in this article.
In reaction to the US government pressure, a new lawsuit just filed on behalf of Casino City seeks claims that online gaming advertisements are protected by First Amendment free speech rights.
Google's current guidelines say:
Google is dedicated to providing relevant and high-quality ads that contribute to a positive user experience. Therefore we do not permit ads for online casinos, sports books, bingo, and affiliates with the primary purpose of driving traffic to online gambling sites.
So why do ads still seem to appear there? Google gave me this statement:
Google does not permit advertising for online gambling. The issue of ads for online gambling is the subject of pending litigation and we are not able to share additional information about that policy.
So again, why do ads still seem to appear, if that's the policy? One reason is that there's a lag time between when an ad is automatically put online by an advertiser and when a human editor at Google reviews it. So, some ads slip through this way for a short period of time.
Another reason is that the ads may not actually be for online gambling even though they show up for that term or related ones. For example, a search for "casinos" on Google yesterday gave me ads to find casino locations via MapQuest or to learn secrets of beating slot machines. Neither were for online casinos.
A trickier situation shows up in a search for online gambling. That gave me an ad for a "Banned Casino Guide." Clicking through and visiting the site, it promises to give provide information for "reputable gambling sites" via email or by clicking on those words, which are a big, fat link at the top of the page. Do that, and you're directed to a site called "Compare Online Gambling" that lists online gambling locations.
That pretty much seems to violate Google's policy -- and this forum thread suggests it's a tactic used by others. But if the advertiser is questioned by Google, perhaps they are arguing successfully that their informational site does not have the "primary" purpose of driving traffic to online gambling sites.
As for Overture, its current guidelines for the US say:
Overture does not accept listings for online gambling sites. Online gambling sites are those that have online gambling as their central theme. Among such sites are those that accept wagers or require payment in exchange for the chance to win prizes, as well as sites that offer both information and links related primarily to the promotion of online gambling.
So what do we find in a search for online gambling at Yahoo, which carries Overture listings? As with Google, some ads that appear for gambling-related terms don't actually pitch online gambling. No violation, in these cases. But also as with Google, violations do slip through.
For example, a search yesterday brought up an ad called "Is Gambling in an Online Casino Legal." That leads to an informational page that seems to argue legal facts that support online gambling.
Of course, one fact conveniently lists the URL of a place where someone is said to have won over $200,000. It's not a live link -- but there's no reason the actual site has to be named as part of the fact.
More damning is the pop-up the page produces, which definitely DOES list online casinos. Aren't pop-ups banned by Overture, I hear you ask? No -- just "discouraged."
Another listing I looked at just before filing this story today was for an "Online Casino and Gambling Guide." Here, the ad seems to be flat out against Overture's policy, since the page it brings up offer lots of information and links related to the promotion of online gambling.
As with Google, Overture couldn't comment on the current lawsuit against them. But they did offer this statement about online gambling ads that may appear in violation of their policy:
Overture does not accept listings that promote or link to online gambling but we do allow informational listings that include content such as playing tips, strategies and books. However, should we find listings that violate our guidelines, we will remove them immediately.
Want to comment or discuss this story? Come join in at our forums in this thread: Gambling Ads On Search Sites.
Meet Your Favorite Search Engine Watch Contributors
Many of SEW's leading expert contributors will be at ClickZ Live, the new online and digital marketing event kicking off in New York (March 31-April 3). Hear from the likes of: Thom Craver, Josh Braaten, Lisa Barone, Simon Heseltine, Josh McCoy, Lisa Raehsler, Greg Jarboe, Dan Cristo, Joseph Kerschbaum, John Gagnon, Eric Enge and more!