An investigation by the BBC uncovered various instances of illegal operations appearing at the top of Google search results, including fake Olympics ticket sellers.
A woman contacted the broadcaster’s 5 Live Investigates programme to report how a company called LiveOlympicTickets appeared at the very top of the results page when she Googled ‘Olympic tickets’.
Assuming that it must be an official site to be listed at the top of a Google search results page, the woman placed an order for £750-worth of tickets.
However, when the company emailed her to say that the sale could not be completed until she faxed over her signature, she told 5 Live: “That’s when alarm bells began ringing.”
LiveOlympicTickets is not an officially recognised 2012 Olympic ticket reseller.
Selling tickets on the open market without permission from the Olympic authorities is a criminal offence in the UK.
After the BBC contacted Google about the cannabis, Olympics and fake ID ads – which included the sale of fake UK passports – the internet giant removed them.
However, it reportedly admitted that the company keeps any money it might make from companies advertising illegal services before such adverts are removed.
The BBC reports that LiveOlympicTickets was Google’s top sponsored link for 2012 tickets for more than a week after the Metropolitan Police asked the search engine to remove the advertisement.
Adverts are generated by the search engine’s flagship automated advertising system. But while the initial selection of adverts that appear at the top of search results is automated, Google’s AdWords is supposed to filter key words that can help sift out ads that might be offering illegal services, at which point a human takes a look to determine whether the advert should be taken down.
Google said in a statement: “We have a set of policies covering which ads can and cannot show on Google. These policies and guidelines are enforced by both automated systems and human beings.
“When we are informed of ads which break our policies, we investigate and remove them if appropriate.”
However, when a consumer contacted Google about LiveOlympicTickets, the company apparently issued this response: “While Google AdWords provides a platform for companies to advertise their services, we are not responsible for, nor are we able to monitor the actions of each company.”
Online security experts have suggested that relying on an automated process is not good enough with regard to illegal sites.