Beware Of Dark Pattern Tricks This Halloween

Amber Dawson | October 21st, 2021

It’s Halloween! And that means all things dark and spooky come out to play. But in the world of PPC, creepy crawlies linger all year long, so it’s important to be aware of what may be hiding behind an online mask and offering tricks rather than treats. 

This week, we’re shining the spotlight on dark patterns. While you may not have heard of them, you’ll have incurred dark patterns on the web. There are many different types, including those related to advertising; some publishers will encourage users to click by any means necessary, and dark pattern tricks enable them to increase their CTR. 

Let’s take a look at how this type of non-targeted fraud could be affecting you. 

What Are Dark Patterns?

Dark Patterns are tricks used in websites and apps that cause you to do things you didn’t want or mean to, such as buying or signing up for something. What may appear to be a minor inconvenience or design flaw can have been explicitly designed to make you do something. 

Here are some examples of dark patterns you may recognize:

Shifting CTAs

Have you ever tried to click something, and suddenly the whole website shifts, so you end up clicking something else by mistake? It’s not a problem with your internet or browser.

Roach Motel

Roach Motel describes something easy to get into but challenging to get out of. For example, you try to cancel your account or subscription but can’t find how to do it. The idea behind this design is that if it’s too much effort, users will be deterred from completing the action. 

Disguised Pop-Ups

With the amount of cookie consent pop-ups, it’s easy for people to take advantage of people’s automatic habits of clicking ‘accept all.’ By phrasing questions in a confusing way, websites can trick users into signing up for something they didn’t mean to.

Camouflaged Buttons

So you’ve accidentally subscribed to an email list. When that first email comes through, and you want to unsubscribe, the link is usually hidden in teenie-tiny grey text buried in the footer. 

Disguised Ads 

Sometimes you click on a piece of content or part of the navigation, which turns out to be an ad. These are different from native ads where, while they sit into the site’s environment, they are typically signposted as ads and don’t ‘trick’ you into clicking them. 

There’s a whole host of other dark patterns out there, but let’s dive deeper into what they mean when it comes to ads. 

The Design Of Ad Networks

Ad networks use dark patterns to subtly influence user behaviors and force them into actions that best serve them. Google, Facebook, and the rest have all spent thousands of dollars and hours on their UX; anything that happens on their platform has been purposely created. If you find something difficult to do, such as cancel your account, it’s because they don’t want you to do it.

For instance, Google Ads can be a minefield at the best of times, which harks back to Google’s M.O that they don’t want you fiddling around and changing things – they’d rather you left them in charge. 

If you’re a new advertiser, Google’s backend can feel particularly overwhelming. Google aims to alleviate this by guiding you through the initial setup process, but many of the default or ‘recommended’ options are more preferable for them than for a new advertiser.

Image caption: Google dissuades you from directly selecting your own bidding strategy

For example, when it comes to bidding strategies, Google recommends ‘Maximise Conversions,’ which sounds attractive, and it means you get the benefit of machine learning to optimize your bids. The problem is if you’re a new advertiser with no historical data, what is the AI optimizing from? It would be better to manually set a target CPC and make adjustments when you better understand what’s working for you. By pushing advertisers into trusting them to decide how and when to spend their budget, Google retains control. 

Another huge dark pattern is the way Google Ads look: identical to organic results. There are many people out there who aren’t even aware the first results on Google are ads. The design of Google Ads is frequently tweaked, but in recent years, they have always been white background and black text with a small ‘ad’ label – easy to miss, even easier to click. 

Image caption: Setting up a Search campaign, Google automatically includes the Display Network and partners

Other examples include:

  • How the default keyword match type is Broad Match causing new advertisers who may be unaware of match types to spend more money on terms they don’t want to show for
  • In contrast, negative keywords are Exact Match and can only be added one at a time
  • Google automatically includes the Display Network when setting up a new Search campaign, unless stated otherwise
  • The recommended location targeting is set at “people in, who show interest in, your target locations” rather than the locations you specifically ask for

Image caption: Google hides the fact it auto-selects targeting people who are just interested in a target country behind a drop-down 

Facebook also employs similar dark pattern techniques. There’s a whole study about how Facebook and Google use dark patterns to manipulate your privacy choices. Using techniques such as privacy-intrusive defaults, omitting and obscuring information, and even threatening loss of functionality, they corner users into making quick decisions. 

Not only is it difficult to conceal your private information, but it’s long-winded to delete it too. Say you want to delete a page you created years ago, you can ‘delete’ it, but you then have to go back in 10 days to confirm you really want to delete it. Similarly, you can’t delete your Instagram account via the app. You have to go on the desktop version – something which is a hassle for many people, so they end up leaving it. 

The Call For More Control

Lack of control is a common theme across all platforms; advertising networks give the illusion of letting advertisers hold all the cards, but in reality, they keep a lot of aces up their sleeves. 

The reason ad networks get away with it is that it’s become the norm; with the rise of automation and people’s increasingly busy workloads, people have been happy to give up more control in exchange for ease. It’s only now, as the pressure to trust their algorithms increases and the calls for control get louder, that it’s becoming more apparent to advertisers that they can have full transparency into their data if they look elsewhere than Google. 

This ‘norm’ works in the same way that PPC managers see bad traffic as an inevitable by-product of running new campaigns, when in fact, you can control who shouldn’t be seeing your ads right from the get-go. Again, it goes back to the perception of control.

Having control over who sees your campaigns and what data you have access to is easier than you think; PPC Protect can show you what traffic is hitting your ads, where it’s coming from, and whether it’s valid, suspicious, or invalid. We can also turn the third-party data hidden behind the ad network’s walls into insightful, usable first-party data and block anything you don’t want from your campaigns. 

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