Hijacked on Google, Keyjacked on YouTube


My first attempt at online marketing was a shocker to this traditional advertising veteran. Even as a beginner it was easy to understand that what I witnessed was unethical and was diminishing the ROI for advertisers both directly and indirectly. Directly the result was to reduce click through rates by pushing down legitimate organic search results and indirectly by reducing confidence in and credibility of both paid and organic search results.

An AdWords test campaign was created to drive traffic to my new website. I evaluated the click results with Google analytics before and after the test campaign began then tested Google search by entering my keywords to observe the paid ad delivery frequency as well as the organic search results. In the organic search results I discovered that my ad’s headline had been HIJACKED verbatim and was generating multiple organic search results for someone else’s commerce sites.

The hijacking must have been automated. I wondered if some form of bot had scanned AdWords or search text rankings, harvesting the text of popular topics and automatically linking to Trojan horse websites. The multiple sites that were linked to my marketing headlines contained lists of links with language and subject matter related to my site and ad indicating that it was either a sophisticated contextual program or worse, a human.

Why would someone choose the ad for my low profile site to hijack?

My site, www.savepluto.com, is dedicated to restoring Pluto, the planet, back to planet status and to sell some merchandise along the way. I bought the domain name and designed the site to support the NASA scientist in charge of the mission currently on the way to explore Pluto. He is one of two scientists who are organizing scientists, educators and other interested people to meet in late 2007 to reverse a decision that resulted in Pluto’s demotion.

To generate awareness for Savepluto.com, I signed up for Google AdWords and chose the headline “working with NASA scientists to bring Pluto back in 2007.” This is the headline that was hijacked to generate fraudulent results.

The demotion of Pluto has been extensively covered in the press and just prior to my headline hijack The American Dialect Society voted “plutoed” its 2006 “word of the Year” the verb, meaning “to demote or devalue someone or something”. Perhaps this bump in media coverage prompted the choice of my site as popular enough to hijack for their nefarious purposes.

Could I benefit from the multiple times that their entries appeared on forward pages on Google search results? Savepluto.com was prominently highlighted on each entry and may have created awareness for my site. However, I had to wonder how many people clicked on their links to find spam and then declined to click on my legitimate link.

The many search results generated by my hijacked text opened to pages containing multiple links to other sites. These other sites included what seemed to be an elaborate pyramid scheme that promised free prizes for generating responses to pop-up offers to sign up for and activate credit cards. Something about this just seems inherently wrong.

Ultimately this has to be a bad development. If the bad guys have chosen my low profile site how many other sites have been hijacked? The multiple search results effectively push legitimate site’s results down on the ranking. They have been “Plutoed”. Being Plutoed effectively reduces the cost effectiveness of good money paid for site optimization and AdWords campaigns.

Keyjacking is also rampant on YouTube where “bait and switch” marketers pilfer audience using that day’s most popular news events as keywords for their unrelated content. Johnnie TV is the king of keyjackers and creates more videos per day than he has teeth. Well, bad analogy if you have viewed Johnnie TV, but you get the point. Keyjacking results in frustration and wasted time and potential reduced sales.

This week, it was announced that click fraud is at an all-time high. Recent lawsuits have mixed results on actions relating to “keyjacking” of trademarks belonging to one business inserted by competitors as search keywords to steal potential customers.

The “wild west” environment created by the rapid migration of significant advertising budgets to online marketing has created this environment of click fraud, keyjacking and plagiarism and should be a concern for all legitimate online marketers.


  1. Scott, that is the first that I am hearing of this kind of automated hijacking of paid search text with a relatively low profile site. I’d love to hear more about your findings as you tweak your ad text.

  2. Yeah, except what makes the use of money some sort of magic grease that wipes away all evil? Just because you spent a bunch of money to hijack a nice place on the right hand side of Google with AdWords, doesn’t give you any more right to screw with search results than the so-called spammers you speak of. “Legitimate markers”. Please. Advertizing exists only to create a sense of need in people who, rightfully, never felt they needed that thing before. Advertizing COULD be informative, but that stopped decades ago if it ever existed in the first place because in YOUR field, honesty does not pay.

    As such, even if you are Jesus and raising money for UNICEF, if you are doing it as a “marketer”, you will still be viewed as the scum of the earth until you do a whole lot of explaining. “Robin Hood” is always a tough story to swallow when you’re hearing it from Mr. Hood himself…

    There are alternatives. The Amish have their isolated vilages with spartan wooden furniture and oil lamps, me, I prefer sticking to Firefox and AdBlock. In order to support the websites I visit, I do not block text ads that are within the HTML of the page itself (AdBlock Plus does this, I view it as crossing the line into infringement because it makes an edit, rather than a block).

    Sometimes I even click the text ads!

    Of course, since your industry is completely populated by crooks, thieves, and liars, nobody trusts anyone. Because of this, text-ads served inside the HTML itself are rather rare these days for the simple reason that by default they must be located on the same server as the page being viewed – and you crooks won’t trust each other enough to let that happen. So instead I get flashy banner crap or 2nd gen text ads – slow-loading AJAX-based crap – that will never be speeded up because there’s too much I/O chit-chat with AJAX and the speed of light will never speed up, and none of you will trust each other enough to locate a server a little closer to where it should be either…

    As more and more users learn to block ads, clickfraud won’t be your problem anymore. Your problem will be that you never trusted each other enough to not fuck over the very customers you were trying to reach out to in the first place with convoluted multiserver ad-verification schemes that cause all kinds of problems.

    THE TECHNOLOGY FOR PROPER TEXT ADS HAS BEEN HERE ALL ALONG: THE ALT TAG OF IMAGES. I really dont CARE how you get paid for using that tag, but know this:


    Anyways, I appreciate a well-written article and I appologize for my inability to see it outside of the context of the website I found it on. If you are a guest author for adotas.com, I appologize twice… peace.


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