Posted by & filed under PPCChat.

Behaving ethically is one of the important aspects of paid search. This week’s session was focused on the same. Host Julie F Bacchini sought experts’ views on the biggest ethical gray areas in PPC, how do they handle clients in this regard, have PPCers ever faced an ethical dilemma in their PPC career, and more.

Q1: Is “Ethics in PPC” something you ever think about? If so, in what way(s) do you think about it?

It’s something I think about a lot. Especially when I audit an account where the agency in change is doing something shady or unethical. @CJSlattery

I never think about it in a separated manner for PPC, or really even business in general. Ethics is ethics. But there are specific ways that’s manifested in paid search, I guess! @gilgildner

I think about ethics in PPC a lot. I am a really big “just because you can doesn’t mean you should” person. I think about my own professional ethics always and also do my best to guide clients to act in ethical ways with their advertising. @NeptuneMoon

It’s definitely something I think about, and client often ask about ethical vs legal obligations. I am NOT a lawyer, so it gets tricky fast. @JuliaVyse

I’ve been thinking about this a lot over the past year, but I’ve always had weird pangs of various types throughout my marketing career. I think this year was where I went “Why am I acting unethically?” @ferkungamaboobo

I think about it all the time! It’s the central pillar to my outlook on life: do well by doing good. This means: 1. Be transparent with your clients, team, and bosses. 2. Don’t say yes to business you can’t do right by. 3. Empower others always. @navahf

David Ogilvy said, “Never write an advertisement which you wouldn’t want your family to read. You wouldn’t tell lies to your own wife. Don’t tell them to mine.” So, when it comes to ethics, I follow that rule. @stevegibsonppc

Ethics in PPC is something I think about a lot. We are an unregulated industry. The way some people and agencies conduct business, the way Google is predatory with their support, the way some people don’t give conversion data in reports. All food for thought. @amaliaefowler

I think their definately needs to be some ethics in PPC. There are agencies out there who will lie or over promise results to get clients. This just ruins it for us agencies who want to see clients as our partners. @tiffanyjshears

I think you have to – if you aren’t questioning + pushing yourself to do the right thing by your clients, by your employer/agency and by you (personally), then I don’t think you’re doing your job. @DigitalSamIAm

Ethics are important in every aspect of life. Of course I use them with my PPC efforts as well. @robert_brady

It also tends to crop up a lot when I’m taking over an account. Either in the way the previous provider behaves or set things up (who owns the account for instance). And also seeing things that were good for the agency and not really for the client sets me off. @NeptuneMoon

All that said, I do think we live in a world where pragmatism has to shape our ethics. Getting too caught up in whether something is right/wrong, and failing to act will only doom you/your clients to inaction and entropy. @navahf

Cont’d: As a manager I always think about ethics in hiring in PPC. I try to look at where things may feel unsafe for individuals who have different life experiences than I do. I also look at what we’re putting out there as marketing campaigns. @amaliaefowler

As advertisers, we are in a position that we could take advantage of businesses and we’ve seen how our clients have been burnt by this. Working with SMBs, it’s so important to always conduct ourselves ethically so we can only positively affect our clients. @snaptechmktg

Cont’d again: Additionally, who is affected by our advertising? At @snaptechmktg we don’t take on clients where their products could do harm to the general public (loan sharks, credit companies, etc). Esp. because access to ad blockers is a privileged thing. @amaliaefowler

I think about it on a few different levels. – Do the objectives and operations of the company/client meet my ethical standards? – Is the messaging presented to prospects/customers honest and transparent? – Do I believe in the product/service? @akaEmmaLouise

My ppc specific ethics rules are: 1. Client always owns the account. 2. Only one partner per vertical per market. 3. Don’t lie. Ever. 4. Don’t take credit for work you didn’t do. 5. Agree to deadlines and honor them. @navahf

This isn’t something that came to mind 15 years ago, but in the past 7-10, it def comes into question. I now look at it from a best practices standpoint, brands best interest is huge, & now sadly, occasionally from determining if something someone does is even legal. @JonKagan

Think a lot about it for customers and making sure they don’t take for a ride, the old bait & switch. Not lying to prospects and those areas. Doing right by CASL, GDPR, CCPA…ect. @duanebrown

I think about Ethics often. From observing others ethical mishaps to ensuring I’m always working in favor of the client and end user. What’s good for people can often be good for business. @BrettBodofsky

Yes, mostly in regards to what we are advertising / in how much detail we are tracking / how much education there is for the general public on how they are being tracked. @sonika_chandra

Broadly, I think there are ethics that govern how advertisers treat and communicate with customers, and ethics that govern how vendors treat and communicate with brands. I think both sides of the relationship are important and need to be considered! @akaEmmaLouise

All the time. I have access to a fair amount of first party data. Health data. That doesn’t mean I should use it. @Galliguez

Q2: Do you think there is a difference between your own ethics in PPC and ethics for advertisers?

I don’t. it’s an industry-wide question, and whatever type of advertising you’re running has to meet ethical standards. @JuliaVyse

Absolutely. PPC and advertising in general is relatively unregulated. Nobody dictates what we have to put in our reports, or a standard of care. There are rules / watchdogs for content that is put out, but not for predatory agencies/freelancers (also Google) @amaliaefowler

I’m not sure I understand the question. Surely the mass of PPC advertisers have, within them, a very broad range of ethics? @stevegibsonppc

I think there’s reasonable disagreement around what is and isn’t “ethics.” It’s a call that everyone has to make to say “I will not do X” Some people won’t work with certain industries. But, say, what if a gTLD is unethically owned? Will you run traffic to that TLD? @ferkungamaboobo

Dear god yes. Spend 5 mins in one of the FB groups, or worse, search #GoogleAds on TikTok and eyeball how many folks promote it as an easy side hustle if they do the quick certification. @JonKagan

Well, since there’s no standard or objective ethics, the answer almost has to be “yes” — which isn’t a great thing. But I do think we should be working toward a set of actionable standards for PPC practitioners to make this easier for clients. @DigitalSamIAm

But there is a number of completely unscrupulous and predatory agencies in the US market as well. Some have been federally indicted, and some have not. @JonKagan

There in that some corporations want to find that grey area where there might not be one. We all don’t get held to the same standards. There is a different set of rules for the rich, and big corps. @duanebrown

As @amaliaefowler said, we work in an unregulated industry. There are things that are technically ethical in the advertising industry that give you that “ugh” feeling in the pit of your stomach; this is what our agency strives to avoid. @snaptechmktg

What a great question. I have seen a lot of advertisers whose tactics I would label “sketchy” but I’m not sure if that necessarily equates to unethical. If it’s done knowingly/intentionally, more likely. If it’s just the result of a mistake or ignorance, maybe not. @akaEmmaLouise

In my mind, I don’t separate the 2 because I don’t compromise my ethics for any client. I like to think that all advertisers would feel an ethical obligation to not be shady, but we all know that is not true. We have all had requests for icky things, no? @NeptuneMoon

And each other, to be candid — we work in an unregulated industry that handles billions of dollars of client’s money each day (across the entire PPC ecosystem). @DigitalSamIAm

I’ve been exceptionally lucky in my career: I haven’t had to choose between them (if there was a chance I’d have to, I could withdraw). Some advertisers try to find profitable loopholes, & I’m all for it, until the health/happiness of others is encroached upon. @navahf

There is but that will always be the case. There is no clear cut of what is and isn’t ethical. Most areas will be regulated by some kind of body to make it more clear. @tiffanyjshears

I can’t stop on this, let’s not ignore the platforms questionable ethics as well. How many of us have seen either written, or been told over the phone by “reps” at Google and Yelp that if they do something (that defies industry common sense), it’ll help?! @JonKagan

There are bound to be people who exploit their information asymmetry to hurt clients. That’s wrong, repulsive and give the industry a bad name, but (unfortunately) it’s not illegal in many cases. But it highlights the need for standards. @DigitalSamIAm

So while I’d love nothing more than to say “absolutely there’s no difference” – I can’t because I’ve seen first hand the way some other “Advertisers” treat clients, and it’s not in line with my ethics, beliefs or way I do business. @DigitalSamIAm

I think one should apply one’s own ethics to both advertisers’ campaign and to end-user experiences. That gives marketers an obligation to stand up to advertisers to educate them on the consequences of some of their choices. @soanders

Q3: What, if any, ethical obligations do you feel you have when it comes to advertising on clients’ behalf?

Do my best to protect their brand and treat their business as if it was my own. 2. Be transparent about everything. The good, the bad, the ugly. 3. Give them access to and ownership over their accounts. @amaliaefowler

Not advertising for competitors is always a stickler for me. At least having disclosure I think is important. @KurtHenninger

Explaining pro/con of strategies. Will it cost you more. How long something will take to produce results. Also, how they compensate me, and how it it is reflective on the work (ie commission, retainer, hourly, etc).@JonKagan

I treat every client as if it is my own company. That means keeping the data secure, making recommendations that I believe will benefit the org, and speaking up when I’m asked to do something that I think will hurt the brand or their customers. @akaEmmaLouise

I feel I should let clients know when they ask for something that I would consider to be in a gray or “noway” area ethically and explain why. I also try to be on the lookout for subtle things that they might not be aware of due to blindspots that I might see. @NeptuneMoon

I kind of addressed this in Q1, so will expand a bit more: Clients deserve to know from the outset if an initiative has the chance to be profitable. If you say yes to business, you owe it to the client to be responsive and do your best. Don’t just take the retainer. @navahf

I’ve thought about this one a lot since @timhwang‘s book is around metrics. What is a “video view” ? It’s not what a non-practitioner thinks it is. We have to think about what we’re selling to clients to be that intermediary to turn it into real language. @ferkungamaboobo

Transparency. client account ownership. connecting them with platforms directly where possible (if they want) Keeping them informed. @JuliaVyse

Also being VERY transparent about the pros/cons of a strategy, what data and results they can expect. Any agency or advertiser who predicts results from the get-go with no data is full of it imho. @amaliaefowler

We use the phrase ‘duty of care’ on our marketing team. We all ask ourselves the question “What would we want if this was our business?” Being honest and transparent are some of our core values, and we take them seriously. @snaptechmktg

I always tell clients that I treat their ad spend as if it were my own. Meaning I will avoid doing things that I think are going to be wasteful, even if it’s something they want. And I’ll explain why I think it’s not great. @CJSlattery

Doing right by your client should be a foundational principle for all advertisers. some ways to practice doing the right thing: -be transparent with optimizations you are making -get budget change/shift approvals if appropriate. @sonika_chandra

Additionally, it means fairness and transparency when it comes to the financial transactions too. No hidden fees, no unexpected charges (for client or customers). Rates are what they are and can/should be negotiated, but both parties need to agree to the terms. @akaEmmaLouise

Also this includes not allowing BS conversions to be counted. Making sure clients are not violating platforms’ policies. @NeptuneMoon

Additionally, be sure that you’re always learning. It drives me absolutely NUTS seeing an account running “old” rules of engagement. We’re paid well enough to invest 1-2 hours per week to be on top of our industry. @navahf

I think we have (at least) 5, each with sub-points: 1. Fiduciary Duty + Standard of Care 2. Transparency 3. Honesty/Candor (not the same as #2) 4. Ownership 5. Responsibility With a 6th: What’s the right thing to do? @DigitalSamIAm

Treat customers like I want to be treated online. Rep client brands in the best way possible and to the highest standards possible. If you think it might be wrong or shady, don’t do it. @duanebrown

On the don’t lie….it is really frustrating how many brands I’ve worked with who end up burned by a charlatan who lied to get 2-4 monthly retainers. Please don’t lie. Don’t over-promise. Just empower your people to profit and victory ^_^ @navahf

Further, it means that *we are on the same team.* Vendor-client relationships and brand-customer relationships should not be adversarial, IMO. We need to cultivate relationships built on trust, or no one will come out of the experience satisfied. @akaEmmaLouise

And as I write this, there’s one more I preach all the damn time: 7. Perpetual Cultivation of Expertise If we don’t commit to keeping ourselves informed and knowledgeable about the platforms on which we’re working, we can’t do any of (1) – (6) @DigitalSamIAm

Conversion Tracking…..what is a conversion and what isn’t. Especially in lead gen. Lots of grey hat stuff going on with that for lots of companies. @KurtHenninger

I remember one day that some of my team members told me they installed adblockers. That was a wakeup call for me. I think marketers shouldn’t do to target audiences what they wouldn’t want to experience on themselves. @soanders

Q4: Have you ever faced an ethical dilemma in your PPC career? How did you handle it?

Yeah, every single day. Segmentation = discrimination The worst I remember was for a dating site! @soanders

Run into these less than I ever expected, mostly cause we just try to do right…but in one case we WAY overspent and it was totally our fault, so we had to make it right. It was hard because we were first starting out in 2017 but we took care of it. @gilgildner

In my career this has mostly been around choosing what clients to take on. Needing revenue is real. but so is being able to look at yourself in the mirror. @JuliaVyse

Maybe I’m just in my feelings, every single second I’m working in marketing is an ethical dilemma. I’m really convinced by @timhwang‘s Bubble argument. We sell lemons, most of the time, and we know it. @ferkungamaboobo

More than a few times. most often it involves me trying to not throw someone under a bus. Variety of ways to handle it, I recommend always: Be honest, and don’t be unnecessarily harsh. @JonKagan

Not that I can think of so far. We say no early to sketchy looking site and such. @duanebrown

My rule on competing vendors in the same market was going to be violated. Rather than take the second client on, I found them a home with a trusted practitioner. It meant a good PPC got business and my original client was protected. @navahf

Since I’ve been doing this forever, I’ve gotten pretty good at screening for problems before signing a contract. But even clients you don’t expect can “read a post” and ask you to do something that is not in your acceptable zone. @NeptuneMoon

Echoing others, the opportunity def arises when human error makes an appearance and instinct tells you to save face however possible. I’ve found that being honest/transparent and proactive about correcting it has allowed me to preserve trust and focus on what’s next. @akaEmmaLouise

We absolutely have. However, this is where sticking to our core values is essential. We always strive to be straightforward, transparent and do the right thing, even when it’s tough. @snaptechmktg

It wasn’t a dilemma, but I had a client who I concluded had faked the testimonials on his website. So, at the end of the month, rather than continue working with him, I fired him. @stevegibsonppc

Q5: What do you think are the biggest ethical gray areas in PPC currently?

I think it’s nearly all about niche – still a lot of sketchy gurus, questionable dropshippers, supplement hawkers, and folks trying to sell policy prohibited stuff. I turn down leads like this every day! @gilgildner

It’s a tie between account ownership and that we all don’t agree on a single “correct” way to run accounts so what one practitioners sees as serving the client well, another will see as failure. @navahf

Sorry for being late – I was just going to lurk but an answer popped in my head for this one…. “Who owns the data” i think is probably the biggest ethical grey area conundrum right now. @TheMarketingAnu

It’s not a grey area as Google TOS is clear on who pays for the ads, owns the ad account. However, some agencies acting like the ad account they built is unique IP and some how they reached the promise landing of account set up. @duanebrown

I think uploading customer lists to platforms without expressed consent is gray. I know it is very commonplace & is very much encouraged, but it is gray, IMO. I gave you my info to make a purchase or inquiry, not to share with ad platforms? @NeptuneMoon

GDPR and CCP, and more local privacy rules (s/o to my home, w a HARDCORE privacy rule) are different, applied & interpreted differently, & with little to no agreement on how to manage them. Just being in this situation gives lots of latitude to do shady stuff. @JuliaVyse

Biggest ethical gray areas in PPC #customermatch#userconsent Google Data, Facebook Data, Amazon Data, Microsoft Data, etc etc And did you want to discuss this whole hypocritical “no cookies mean no tracking” story Apple and Google are telling? @soanders

Targeting. Marketing centers around segmentation, which inherently selects or deselects individuals based on defined characteristics. In regulated industries (banking, healthcare, etc), there is a fine line between targeting to avoid wasted spend and discrimination. @akaEmmaLouise

For Google it’s Search Partners and the Display Network. @robert_brady

Well, for a start, there’s the way Google is behaving towards advertisers… @stevegibsonppc

Attribution modeling So many different ways to look at it for cross channel attribution & what “counts” And so many ways to tweak what “counts” it’s extremely difficult even for an experienced client to know what they are paying for…and what impact channels have. @KurtHenninger

A big one is making sure clients have access to their accounts. It can be easy to write this off and tell yourself that clients don’t understand and may misinterpret the platforms, so they don’t need access. @snaptechmktg

However, not granting access opens up the opportunity to take advantage of your clients or take actions that they wouldn’t agree with. Make sure they have access holds US accountable. @snaptechmktg

Also, reporting on conversions properly is an ethical gray area. It would be easy to skew results so that we look good, but that doesn’t benefit our clients at all. @snaptechmktg

1) IAB’s transparency tools don’t work. 2) Most agencies don’t do accessibility at all. 3) Most agencies don’t do inclusion at all. 3) The data warehouses are fundamentally unethical. 4) Practitioners buy into platforms’ lies, then repeat to clients. @ferkungamaboobo

It definitely varies case to case. I think it comes down to determining if the area/scenario is due to: Ignorance, Incompetence, Maliciousness, Greed, or even forgetfulness. @JonKagan

I hate that Google allows bidding on other peoples TM (by not policing). The # of advertisers that do this (evidenced by LP URLs – not just broad dynamic ads) is incredible. Mainly lead gen or PPC arbitrage – not actually providing the end service either. @Galliguez

I think the whole “ethics of online data” argument has nothing to do with real privacy and is, instead, a shell game run by some of the world’s least ethical multinationals. @stevegibsonppc

Data privacy. So much martech makes PPC management easier & many tools require (or offer) integrations across platforms to marry first and third party data or leverage a consolidated view. I think there is some gray around whether that is considered “sharing” data. @akaEmmaLouise

For my team, brainstorming innocent uses of client data can quickly spiral into ethical gray zones. I don’t always know what’s right, but will ask rationale…and ‘because we can’ isn’t enough. @heyglenns

Q6: If a client wants to do something that is in an ethical gray area, how do you handle it?

Clearly lay it out to them and this is why. If they persist, then it is a matter of informing them that I am not willing to proceed due to ethics reason. They may execute it themselves, or find someone else. @JonKagan

This luckily hasn’t happened much, but when it has, I’ve laid out what the behaviour is, why it’s a problem, and why we don’t recommend moving forward. Usually we can then pivot to the desired outcome, and come up with an ethical strategy to get that outcome. @JuliaVyse

When it comes to advertising, I’m not sure I have any gray areas. It feels pretty black and white to me. @stevegibsonppc

Just tell them no and why we won’t do it. Not ethical issue but story time still. 3 years ago an agency wanted us to set up FB ad accounts for franchise stores. We said no as we don’t want to own ad accounts for life in our FB BM. We lost the client of course.. meh. @duanebrown

I will explain to them why what they are asking for is problematic. If I can find outside documentation on that, it is also helpful. I have also found if you tell them that they could be flirting w/ getting shut down on a platform, that can be an effective tactic. @NeptuneMoon

If it bothers me, we won’t do it. Conscience goes a long way. That said, it’s very seldom that there’s anything truly grey, because pre-filtering clients sorts out most of the chaff. @gilgildner

Luckily haven’t really experienced this.. When it has been outside of work – I am comfortable with doing things the way I think is ethically correct & explaining my pov. I can’t imagine there’s any amount of money that would make me go against my values/morals. @TheMarketingAnu

It depends on how responsibility ultimately falls. Generally, we say no if it implicates us in any way or potentially causes harm to the general public. @snaptechmktg.

Same here. I’m in-house medical and my internal clients appreciate there are a ton of guidelines in our space. Never been a problem. We can get the end results… no gray tactics needed. @Galliguez

Q7: What is currently in your “just because we can, doesn’t mean we should” bucket for PPC?

Facebook. @JuliaVyse

If it works…I’ll probably use it. The only ethical line I really deal with is the sort of clients/services we’re trying to promote. I don’t have many issues with delivery methods. @gilgildner

For me this rears up when a new automation (post-conv nurturing/cross-platform tracking) comes to replace an older practice. I resist knee-jerk creation on new platform & ask if the old practice still has any validity. @heyglenns

The first two things that come to mind – competitor bidding and automation (as in scripts to do things faster). either isn’t always necessary.  @TheMarketingAnu

Reporting without full transparency, not giving access to clients / holding accounts hostage, spending the entire budget when performance is so-so. @snaptechmktg

I don’t know if we have a bucket list per say. Beyond not breaking laws. I try to take it client by client. Above all else, would I want this experience as a customer. If not, maybe we should not be doing it. @duanebrown

Maybe not an ethical issue per se but *tracking everything* is one for me. I’m a GTM nerd and a big fan of the opportunities skillful tracking affords, but there is no need to track every action on a page just because. If it doesn’t serve your strategy, let it go. @akaEmmaLouise

The tools that claim to let you view someone else’s Analytics is a hard no for me. “Working around” things that are not expressly permitted too. @NeptuneMoon

Like I mentioned in A1 – just because we have the ability to target with our first party data – doesn’t mean we should. Case dependent… @Galliguez

Competitor bidding. On the surface, fine and ethical. When you find an advertiser that is ego driven, it goes downhill fast. @JonKagan

PPCChat Participants

Related Links

Stop wasted ad spend with Karooya

Stop the wasted ad spend. Get more conversions from the same ad budget.

Our customers save over $16 Million per year on Google and Amazon Ads.


  1.  SMX Advanced starts today; Tuesday's daily brief

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.