Pandemics don’t just stress test the physical and mental health for potentially millions of folks across the country, but their livelihoods as well. Close to one-fifth of Americans have reported either being laid off or having their hours slashed in the wake of the covid-19 outbreak, with the newly jobless in every state from Colorado to Utah, to Iowa flooding their respective unemployment offices with no sign of stopping anytime soon.
Of course, panicked people aren’t just turning to these offices for answers—they’re also turning to Google. In the past week, we’ve seen spikes in searches for phrases like “unemployed,” “laid off,” and “unemployment benefits,” to name a few. While many of these searchers will find the information they’re looking for, too many are likely to encounter Google ads for sites that could scam them out of their hard-earned savings. And Google is so far continuing to allow these ads to run.
Google’s search bar has a long, illustrious history of being used to predict the financial state of the country. When we type our economic anxieties into Google, economists and analysts at the other end can turn data about those searches—the terms used and their frequency, for example—into real, actionable data for regulatory bodies.
Last year, this search data was used to gauge whether we’re likely to be heading into another major recession, and the answer at the time appeared to be a resounding “no.” But as one analyst recently told Marketwatch, the incoming evidence is starting to point in another direction, with unemployment claims starting to spike into numbers that haven’t been seen since the financial crisis of 2008.
But we all know it’s advertising—not altruism—that keeps the lights on for Google search. Thanks to tools like Google’s “in-market audiences,” which were rolled out in 2018, every search we make, even if it’s looking for something as simple as “unemployment benefits,” is instantly compiled with the rest of our web browsing history and other searches we’ve done across the web, so that we can fit into a neat consumer bucket that’s ready to be targeted with ads.
Or to put it bluntly: When people are unemployed, advertisers are seeing data that points to how they got there—and where they could be going next.
Marketers can tell if you’re in the market for, say, a new retail gig, a new internship, a new teaching job, or a new career in the public sector. They also know if you’re looking for loans, how big those loans might be, and whether you’re in the market for health insurance, life insurance, or auto insurance. The list goes on.
Google has some rules around advertising to these sorts of customers, but they’re hardly without loopholes. In 2016, for example, the company announced a crackdown on payday loan companies trying to target the down-and-out through search, and it took all of a few days for those companies to entirely circumvent the new rules. A full year later, predatory companies were still found squeezing through the ban, with Google refusing to answer reporter’s questions regarding the steps it would be taking to plug these leaks in the future.
Naturally, similarly predatory companies have found their way onto the search results for the newly unemployed. Looking up something like “unemployment benefits,” for example, will typically turn up predatory—if not outright scammy—ads alongside legitimate results.
Take unemploymentcom.com, for instance. It’s a Geocities-esque nightmare site that poses as a legitimate “help centre” for people who just got laid off. While this entirely unnecessary website does have a page of links to official state unemployment websites (the sites you actually want to visit if you’re unemployed) buried at the bottom of its pages, it primarily tries to get people to sign up for equally useless “site profiles” for god knows what. If you skip that, it’ll try to convince you to sign up for $US40 ($69)-a-month access to your credit score—something anyone can easily find elsewhere for free. As you might’ve guessed, the company behind the website, Speedier Inc, hands off the data it collects from users to schools, health insurance companies, and more.
When Gizmodo reached out to Google for a comment on the practices of some of these advertisers—and whether the company had a handle on who can reach this extremely vulnerable audience—a member of the ads policy team said that they would “have [their] teams look into these ads” over the weekend. Attempts to follow up with the company went unanswered as of Tuesday afternoon.
Speedier and OnPoint also did not respond to Gizmodo’s requests for comment regarding the ties between each company’s unemployment sites and their overall marketing and data operations.
It’s not just pages for unemployment benefits that are overrun here, but really anything in that general ballpark. Looking for “unemployment insurance” turned up ads from a company called Izito, a site with a shady history of reportedly hijacking browsers and sharing data from those browsers with marketers. Looking for “unemployment loans” gave an ad from top10personalloans.com, which also shares data from its site with marketers.
Ultimately to all of these companies, unemployed, terrified consumers are still consumers just the same, meaning they still have money to spend, and they’re still worth targeting, which means Google is still raking in revenue from every click. And if a multi-billion tech conglomerate isn’t going to crack down on this kind of exploitative profiteering, maybe we just need to do our part and click on ads a little bit less.