Google typosquatting

Imagine that you’re trying to visit the Bank of America website. You have an account with the bank, and you regularly check your account balance online, so you’ve memorized the website’s URL. Just like you have many times before, you quickly type the URL into the address bar in your web browser. This time, however, you make a typo. Instead of typing “www.bankofamerica.com,” you end up typing “www.bankofdamerica.com” (You accidentally add a “d” between “of” and “america”).

What happens when you make a typo when entering a URL into a web browser’s address bar? You may expect to get one of those annoying “404 page not found” errors, and in some cases, this is exactly what happens. In other cases, though, you’ll end up on a website that’s trying to make money off of your typo by typosquatting.

Typosquatting is when people buy web domain names (“www.bankofdamerica.com”) that are misspellings of actual domain names (“www.bankofamerica.com”), particularly those that are owned by companies that get a lot of traffic on their website (e.g., Bank of America). The assumption behind typosquatting is that some people who are trying to get to an actual high-traffic website will make a typo when entering the URL into their web browser and end up on the typosquatting site instead. In essence, typosquatting is a way of driving traffic to a site by leveraging the web traffic of a large brand.

Typosquatting sites don’t just hijack traffic that’s trying to get to a legitimate site, though. Instead, they’re designed to make money off of you and sometimes even off the brand that’s targeted by the typosquatting (e.g., Bank of America). One of the key ways they accomplish this is by littering their web page with pay-per-click ads bought by advertisers. If someone ends up on a typosquatting site and clicks on an ad that’s been purchased by an advertiser (e.g., TD bank), the typosquatting site gets most of the money from the click and the rest goes to the company that provided the advertising service. In some cases, the ads displayed on the typosquatting site may be those of a competitor (e.g., TD bank); this can end up redirecting people away from the site that they were trying to go to (e.g., Bank of America) and instead send them to the competitor’s website (all at the expense of the targeted site). In some cases, the typosquatting site may even display ads for the targeted site (e.g., Bank of America). This means that the targeted brand may end up paying for traffic that was going to end up on its website anyway (at no cost).

These days, there are a lot of companies that provide online advertising services, but there’s one giant that stands above them all: Google. Ever wonder how Google makes so much money if all it seems to do is give you search results? It’s the ads. Google Adwords, the company’s advertising service, is now the main source of revenue for Google. It generates billions of dollars for the company each year. Given this, it may not be surprising that most of the ads displayed on typosquatting sites come from Google’s advertising service.

You may be thinking that the number of people who misspell a URL each day can’t possibly be that high. How much money could Google and these typosquatters really be making? Well, data shows that typosquatting websites collectively receive just under 70 million visitors each day. It may not be surprising, then, that Harvard researchers Tyler Moore and Ben Edelman have estimated that Google makes $497 million each year on typosquatting site ad clicks. Keep in mind that typosquatting sites usually don’t have the legal rights to use the domain names they operate on, but this doesn’t seem to stop them or Google from cashing in.

Of course, as someone surfing the web, it’s hard to avoid making typos when entering URLs into web browsers. After all, it’s not like we make these typos intentionally. However, if you own a brand, especially a large one, you may want to think about how vulnerable you are to the consequences of typosquatting. Has someone set up a website on a domain that’s a minor misspelling of your brand’s domain name? Are you confident that your ads aren’t being placed on typosquatting sites so that you end up paying for traffic that you were supposed to get for free? Large brands (e.g., Craigslist) can be targeted by as many as hundreds of typosquatting sites, so there could be more at risk for you than you realize. Business is hard enough. Don’t unknowingly pay someone else to make it even harder for you.

What are your thoughts on the ethics of typosquatting? Let us know by leaving a note in our comments section below.

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