Helsinki-based Web Of Trust noted on their blog yesterday that Google has changed its policy to disallow WOT and other website reputation services from showing reputations of the sponsored links shown before the search results.  As lauded in this blogpost on the official Google blog, Google took down or disallowed 130 million malicious ads on their network in 2011 — a 50% increase from the year before.

This is fantastic, but malicious ads do continue to slip through the cracks. In January of this year the BBC reported on Google profiting from ads sponsored by illegal Olympic ticket resellers, as well as illegal services such as fake ID cards, fake passports, and cannabis.

Something doesn’t sit well with Google’s policy change to control what external browser plugins can do with their search results. Google clearly decided that the marginal decrease in user safety was worth the money they could bring in from clicks to websites with a poor reputation on Web Of Trust and other website rating services. How does this fall in line with their “Don’t be evil” mantra?

CEO Vesa Perälä of Web Of Trust did not have any more details about the decision nor had any insight to Google’s reasons behind it. He did let us know, however, that 13.9% of the roughly 36 million sites in WOT have a reputation below 60 on a 0-100 scale — leading to the yellow or red doughnut shown next to the link. The company does not have any exact stats on the reputation of the sponsored links, but they estimate the percentage of sponsored links with a poor or bad reputation is higher than average, and likely somewhere between 15-20%.

Google admits, “…some ads may run on Google before our AdWords Specialists check them,” and dishonest websites still fall through the cracks. For an ad to be accepted, Google uses advanced machine learning to detect and remove ads that lead to malware, as well to be somewhat sure the landing pages meet their standards. If an ad is flagged by their automated system, they then perform a manual review to ensure their advertisements are legitimate.

Gaming the WOT reputation system to show poor reputations for competitors’ links is also difficult to do, throwing out the theory that this decision was made due to intentional harm to sponsored links. Perälä tells us that the WOT system is meritocratic, and designed to statistically analyze each user’s ratings in order to determine their trustworthiness. On top of that, individual users have a very limited effect on a WOT reputation rating as well.

Does Google just wants to hide its reputation as a peddler of dubious sites? Did they really lose that much money due to foregone clicks from link reputation ratings? I’m really not comfortable with the cost/benefit calculation here. Don’t be evil, Google.

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