Why Online Plagiarism Is Spiralling Out Of Control

Amber Dawson | August 19th, 2021

google piracy

The topic of fake news is always on the tips of marketers’ tongues. Just recently, it was discovered that Google is responsible for serving 48% of the ads that fake news sites receive. But, fake news has a stealthier younger sibling which lies in its shadow: plagiarism.

Plagiarism is the act of presenting someone else’s work or ideas as your own without having the owner’s permission or giving credit to the original source. Similar to how fake news can be difficult to spot, plagiarism is often overlooked because of how easy it is to get away with. This means policing both is an online nightmare, and leaves the internet littered with duplicated rubbish.

Despite being a crime, the benefits of plagiarism are attractive to those who want to get ahead without having to create something of their own. Instead, they just take it.

Is Creativity Really That Hard?

Brands are frequently in the news for taking advertising agencies to court over plagiarism claims. In the dog fight for originality, creativity is heralded as the holy grail of success. But, when we’re all surrounded by the same advertising and reference points, it becomes difficult for individuals to create something new.

Mark Twain claimed:

“There is no such thing as a new idea. It is impossible. We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope. We give them a turn and they make new and curious combinations. We keep on turning and making new combinations indefinitely, but they are the same old pieces of colored glass that have been in use through all the ages.”

mark twain

Mark Twain

American Writer, 1835 – 1910

Twain’s point highlights how there’s always likely to be similarities between companies’ work, particularly when working in niche sectors. There’s a fine line between imitation and direct copying which makes plagiarism a complex issue.

However, whilst being truly original may seem impossible, it’s important to consider what striving for originality means. In crowded industries, what sets businesses apart isn’t what they do, nor is it how they do it. It’s the why – why does that brand metaphorically get out of bed every morning? If it’s to make money, then they aren’t going to get very far.

Customers now are savvy to the ethics and moral stances that companies take and choose who to do business with accordingly. As a result, brands that thrive on making people’s lives better, have a good moral compass and treat people with kindness and respect go furthest. In 2021, if you do something immoral, you get canceled pretty quickly.

Plagiarism doesn’t fit with the culture of a successful business. So, whilst taking from what others have created before is a quick and easy way to climb the ladder, you’re essentially building a ladder from paper straws.

No Accountability

Plagiarism has many similarities to invalid traffic: it’s difficult to police, Google has flimsy solutions and there’s a general lack of motivation to fix the problem.

If there was an advertising campaign for stopping plagiarism, it would play like those old ‘piracy is a crime’ videos. The famous line “you wouldn’t steal a car” rang hollow to viewers then as much as it does now; you wouldn’t steal your competitor’s car, but you might nick their blog post and hope you could get away with it.

piracy its a crime

Last year, Megan Graham from CNBC ran an experiment to show how easy it is for plagiarised websites to get advertising revenue. She created a WordPress site, populated it with duplicate stories from CNBC, and applied to get ads placed on the site. Megan succeeded and showcased how easy it was to get past some companies. Sites like Google denied her request based on the site having been scraped which is reassuring. However, because media partners work with other companies as resellers, if they’re approved by Google it makes it easy for sites like Megan’s to slip through the cracks.

Graham’s experiment highlights the difficulties of policing plagiarism. Yes, ad partners could deny her requests to advertise on her site, or the site could get shut down, but in just a few hours a new site could be live. The same thing happens with illegitimate traffic on paid ads: bots can be stopped, but ten more will appear in its place. There’s also such a vast number of plagiarised content and invalid traffic sources that it feels like trying to save a sinking ship with a colander.

In fact, Google doesn’t even block no-value ad clicks, they’ll just give you your money back if you ask them (and fill out all the paperwork to prove it.) So the same negative traffic can retarget you again and again. Our platform not only blocks no-value clicks but hides your ads from invalid and suspicious activity.

What’s clear to see from both issues is the need for Google to do more.

Google Needs To Step Up

Google claims they can spot the first copy of a piece of content and prioritize originality in its rankings. Their aim is to provide users with a quality experience that answers their needs – having duplicate content doesn’t aid them to do this. However, the reality is that they’re not always able to identify the original source, and so they end up not showing the correct website.

removing content from google

In these instances, you can complete a form to alert Google of the problem. This ‘solution’ is highly similar to the lip service they pay advertisers when it comes to invalid clicks. It also feels a very formal thing to do as the ‘alleged copyright infringement’ form details a case where a company was forced to pay $100,000 in legal costs after making a wrongful accusation.

What’s frustrating is that they have the capability to protect their users more. We’ve seen it before with traffic quality, privacy, and data sharing, and we see it now with plagiarism.

Google has begun creating more sophisticated tools for duplicate content: the Originality Report is aimed at teachers to aid them with marking student work. However, this feels similar to plagiarism checkers that are already out there and doesn’t stop the primary issue of intellectual theft.

Technically, Google has everything they need to identify plagiarised work, block it and penalize the publisher – the fact they don’t do this well enough suggests it’s an issue they don’t care to fix.

Solutions On The Horizon

Whilst it’s frustrating that Google isn’t doing enough to protect the quality of traffic it delivers, there are solutions like ours out there that enable advertisers to take matters into their own hands.

The solutions for plagiarism are less obvious. There’s a good number of plagiarism checkers out there that are designed to measure the text similarity with other articles, but these are aimed at the creators rather than policing copied work. If you’re utilizing a plagiarism tool you’re likely already hyper-aware of the problem and striving for total originality.

There are also platforms that can automatically crawl the web, identify when your content has been copied, and alert you. But this simply highlights the issue, rather than solves it.

When it comes to serving ads on plagiarised sites, going direct to a legitimate publisher is the only way advertisers can really be sure where their money is going. This isn’t a particularly attractive option for advertisers as it’s not only more expensive but requires more effort.

However, Graham’s article references a study conducted by the Society of BritishAdvertisers and PwC of 15 of the UK’s biggest advertisers which found that half a brand’s digital marketing spend is absorbed by middlemen before reaching a publisher. Furthermore, approximately a third of the supply chain fees are unattributable, meaning advertisers have no idea where their money is actually going.

So, whilst creating direct relationships with publishers isn’t a perfect solution for advertisers, it’s become a trade-off between how much you want to police where your ads are shown and how much ad fraud you want to budget for.

Yet Another Ad Fraud Problem

We already know that fraudulent and low-value clicks plague the ad industry, but this shows plagiarised, illegitimate sites are a growing problem too.

And, things are set to only get worse: the removal of third-party cookies is likely to lead to more content being gated, at least in the short term. This will make plagiarism even harder to police, and audiences will be less aware of duplicate content because of their restricted access, exacerbating the issue.

Advertisers get increasingly less control over their ad placement as Google continues to push automated solutions. Our data shows that Google claims just 1% of clicks are invalid, whereas our platform blocks an average of 11% of Search and 36% of Display clicks because they’re illegitimate. This leads us to believe they’re not being entirely truthful about how many plagiarised sites infiltrate their ad networks either.

It’s always been important to know who is clicking on your ads, but now we need to worry more about where they are seeing them as well. If we hang around for Google to fix the issue, we could be in for a long wait.

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