I was recently quoted at http://www.internetnews.com/search/article.php/3798021 regarding Google ad words. Actually, ad words matter to advertisers and to some of the bad guys, but I don’t think the average user pays much attention to whether the result is an ad or what the industry calls an “organic” hit, which is anything but organic and is a highly manipulated result that gets top spots in searches.
I decided to do a little checking, specifically on ad words. Google is trying really hard to make the ad words very valuable for consumers and for advertisers. Google wants the ads you see to be highly relevant to you, and also have a high chance of netting sales for their advertisers.
Stephen Shankland, a reporter for CNET News, sent me this link http://adwords.blogspot.com/2008/08/quality-score-improvements.html that talks about how Google is trying to maximize the value of ad words. So, I decided to do a completely unscientific study of how effective the strategy is.
Perhaps the most prolific spam and scams today are for Viagra being sold by “Canadian Pharmacies”, so “viagra canada” seemed like a great starting point to search. Sure enough, the top hit is for the paid advertising spot for www.viagra.com, the official Pfizer Viagra web site. That is pretty easy, but what about the second hit? CanadaDrugPharmacy.com/Viagra. How do I know if this is a legitimate web site?
Well, I did a little research and found that legitimate Canadian pharmacies should belong to an organization called Ciparx (http://www.ciparx.ca/) Member pharmacies will display the logo of the organization, but anyone can copy a logo and put it on their website. So, I followed the link for CanadaDrugPharmacy.com/Viagra and checked to see if they are members of CipaRX The website displays logos for Ciparx and for “The International Pharmacy Association of British Columbia” (IPA BC) but the logos were not linked to the organizations. I do not have any information about the legitimacy of IPABC, they may be legitimate. There is a lot of information about CipaRx. You cannot trust a logo on the web site, you need to go to the actual organization to see if the company you are researching is a member.
Before I report my relevant findings, I have to tell you this was a most amusing research project. Did you know there is a “Viagra Professional”? Professional? Is this for porn stars? Seriously, if you are getting paid for something than you are a professional, otherwise it is a hobby or amateur, or something other than professional. Former US Senator Bob Dole did a TV commercial for Viagra. I’m not sure who Pfizer would get to be a spokesperson for Viagra professional…
The next surprise was “Viagra soft”. What is that for? I remember a history teacher who had a can of dehydrated water. This seems like the same kind of joke…
Back to ad words… So, you check your resources. Actually on one of CanadaDrugPharmacy.com’s web pages they do have a linked logo, but never trust the link… type in the site by hand. At http://www.ciparx.ca/pages/verify_membership.html you can verify if a Canadian pharmacy is a member. CanadaDrugPharmacy.com is a member… Good Job Google. The next ad word hit, northwestpharmacy.com is also a member. On the side bar there were several other hits. The first one I tried failed the test… but not because they are not a member, but because the CipaRX site is really picky. CanadaDrugCenter.com passes, but CanadaDrugCenter.com/ fails because of the “/” at the end. If you leave the “www.” at the front you will also fail to get the right results.
Many of the side bar hits were not Canadian pharmacies, but the ones that did come up seemed legitimate. It appears that despite there being some problems with Google ad words, there is a fairly high degree of success in their program. What do you need to know about ad words? Do not ever trust the results. The idea is to help narrow your search, but you still need to investigate any vendor you consider doing business with. A logo on a web site is not proof of certification. You need to manually type in the URL (address) of the certifying body and make sure the site is a member and that the certification organization is legitimate. It is easy for me to set up a site that says I certify pharmacies. It doesn’t mean it is legitimate. In the case of CipRX, there is a lot of information that would lend credibility to them… but you have to look for it before you trust them.
So, why are the Canadian pharmacies so attractive? Money, of course. It isn’t just Viagra. Lipitor, a cholesterol medication is about $300 in the US for 90 doses, where it is about $150 for the same supply from Canada. Viagra is not sold as a generic in most of the world (until 2012) and is about $15/ tablet, but a generic in Canada is less than $3. Paxil, used to treat depression, a very common drug is about $2.75 per pill in the US and $.75 in Canada.
People who don’t do their research pay for useless or even dangerous substances when they order on-line. Many are quick to assume that it is only greed by the pharmaceutical companies that prompt them to issue warnings of buying online, but consider this article http://www.signonsandiego.com/uniontrib/20050121/news_1n21bluepill.html
I had the pleasure of speaking to a contact at Google about the problem. I did receive an official comment from Google which is as follows:
“We understand that the abuse taking place through online pharmacies is a serious issue. Google has been heavily engaged on this issue, working with government agencies through both education and our Google Grants program. We also work with a third-party verification system that certifies for us that any party bidding on pharmaceutical related keywords is a licensed pharmacy associated with a licensed pharmacist in that state. Google plans to continue working with industry experts in order to help eliminate this online abuse.”
I used Google to search, but the problem is Internet-wide and certainly not a “Google Problem.” I suspect you may find worse results with other search services.
The lessons go far beyond Viagra, ad words, and Google. Always investigate the online retailer you consider doing business with.
Director of Technical Education
Postscript… One of the hits on Google was for http://www.vigrxplus.com. This is a deliberately deceptive site. It doesn’t say “Viagra plus” it says “vigrRX plus”. When you try to leave the site it asks you to chat with a “live agent”. In fact the agent is not live and is a chatbot. Conclusion… Vigrxplus.com lacks integrity. Their dishonesty is blatant. They are also a high level hit on Ask.com as well as on Google.
Author ESET Research, We Live Security