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Google: what we’ve done to crackdown on copycat websites

Copycat websites

We’ve heard you loud and clear – you hate copycat sites that mimic official government services. Many of these appeared in Google ad results, so here’s Theo Bertram from Google sharing how they’ve taken action.

Q. What has Google done to help people avoid copycat websites?

We have a strict set of policies which govern what ads we do and do not allow on Google. We don’t allow adverts for sites that simply copy Government or official services and provide no additional value.

It’s not just the ad itself that needs to comply with our policies but the landing page too. This is the webpage users are directed to once they click on an ad. The landing page must state whether or not they are affiliated with the official source (for example the UK Passport Office or HMRC) and should also make clear that the products, services or forms are available from the official source at lower cost or for free. The site must also describe the additional services they offer that are otherwise unavailable from the government, official source or free source.

They also need to set out clearly exactly what it is they are selling. If they provide little or no additional value to the user beyond the original or official online or automated application process then we will remove the ad.

We work hard to constantly review the ads showing on Google and make sure that they are abiding by our policies.

Q. Who have you been working with to make this a reality?

We’ve been working closely with the Government Digital Service and Transport for London. They have been giving us detailed information clarifying what is or isn’t currently provided by the official services. This has helped us to identify which sites are genuinely offering real value and which are not. We have taken action against those sites that are offering no additional value by removing them from our ad results, including copycat passport, tax return and London congestion charge websites.

Q. What’s next to stop these sites reappearing?

We will continue monitoring the categories of ads that we’ve been working on and reviewing with Government Digital Service and Transport for London. If similar sites appear we will remove them too.

Q. What would you like people to do?

Education and awareness is key and articles like the one Which? have written with advice on spotting copycat websites are incredibly helpful. If you spot misleading ads on Google, you should report them here. We will then investigate and take necessary action.

Have you been affected by copycat websites? Would you like other search engines to follow Google’s lead?

This is a guest post from Theo Bertram, Google’s Head of Policy.


Thanks for these very positive comments, Theo.

Google has been experimenting with yellow ‘Ad’ labels that make advertising links very clear. Please could we have these a permanent feature.

I believe that copycat websites should on their homepage be required to make it clear that (1) they are not the official site, and (2) give an honest statement of what significant benefits their service offers.


Hi all, more news to share with you on this. The Cabinet Office has also confirmed the government’s work on this, announcing today that it’s working with search engines, including Google, the Advertising Standards Agency and us at Which? to tackle the problem of copycat websites.

The Government has also pledged to give the National Trading Standards Board (NTSB) an additional £120,000 to identify, investigate and take enforcement action against any examples of misleading websites that pass themselves off as official government services.

A framework has been drawn up so that search engines can identify and take action against websites that add little or no value to existing online government services. http://www.which.co.uk/news/2014/03/crackdown-on-copycat-websites-357409/

Here’s a page the government has set up to report misleading sites to search engines:

And while we of course welcome today’s announcement, our executive director Richard Lloyd said:

‘For too long copycat websites have got away with misleading consumers into paying potentially hundreds of pounds for services that should be free. There must be an immediate crackdown on copycat websites, along with a review of legislation and any offending sites immediately removed from the internet.’


I too would like to see google ads made much clearly, The faint default coloured box on my Google Chrome browser is almost impossible to detect


I see the coloured background clearly on Chrome, Safari and Firefox (all Mac versions).

What I have just discovered is that at the time of writing, yellow Ad labels are appearing on Google searches done on Firefox but not on Chrome or Safari.


The VERY feint background colour is extremely difficult to see, deliberately so. That is the source of the problem. Such scams pay search engines to put their ads at the top of the list for particular searches, barely distinguishable from the real search results below. Google is not a search engine; it is a covert advertising machine. They don’t want the covert to be uncovert, so it could be an interesting development. Do the yellow flags appear only in the UK does anyone know?

BTW, the yellow signs come and go on Firefox, too. The do help and want introducing now across the board including other browsers. Interesting that they’ve chosen Firefox first, not their own browser. Perhaps they realise that Firefox users are not the suckers that think Google, Chrome, Apple and Safari are the best things since microchips.


Peter and William

Please could you compare looking at your screens at an angle to see if this makes any difference to the faint background colour. Even though flat screens have improved, they are still somewhat directional. I discovered by accident that if I look down on my laptop screen rather than straight at it I can make the background colour on the ads look very faint, whereas normally it is very obvious.

I’m sure you are right that Google are not keen for us to spot adverts, Peter. I avoid them because clicking on them is making money for someone.


Yes the ad box is much easier to spot if am at an angle less than 45 degrees


Thanks William. I wonder if Google might be exploiting the weaknesses of flat-screen displays.

I have been trying to understand the why one browser should display the conspicuous yellow ‘Ad’ label and another should have the coloured background that may or may not be obvious. I think I understand but am not confident enough to post an explanation. On the basis that you have commented on how reviews can be manipulated with a few lines of HTML, I hope you might be able to explain why how this happens.


Reading human written HTML is alot easier to understand than machine written HTML, people tend to use meaningful labels for things, machines don’t. So don’t expect anything anytime soon.


I appreciate the problem. I could cope with HTML when I set up my first website in 1995 but have little clue about the code that Dreamweaver churns out. If Google continue to play with switching between coloured backgrounds and yellow Ad labels I expect this will invite attention and explanation of how browsers behave differently.

Em says:
2 March 2014

Very commendable. But the question I’m left with is this – : How do these misleading ads get to appear on Google in the first place? And why is it necessary to allow the promotion of added value services at all?

Anyone who advertises with Google Adwords knows that potential adverts have to be approved before they appear. And that ads only appear in response to selected keywords in the search string. So why were these ads approved? And why are keywords for official government documents like “passport”, “visa” and “license” permitted? Wouldn’t it me much simpler to prevent the use of these keywords, rather than police the ads?

Secondly, the advertiser sets a budget. Once the ads have been displayed or clicked on sufficient times to exhaust the budgeted amount, the ads cease to appear until the advertising budget is refreshed.

So there is little justification to allow advertising of sites that provide “additional value” services, since only a subset of Google search engine users will be made aware of them. The intention of these ads is simply to divert users away from the free services available to all, until the advertiser has creamed off their quota for the day. Whether they can justify their additional fees or not seems irrelevant to me.


My ISP is MSN so Bing is the default search-engine. I have just checked the top few entries for “passport renewal”. The top two are now for the official GOV.UK site. The third entry is for “passports-uk(.co.uk) and the blurb underneath the entry says:”Passport application service UK ……”. The landing page is headed PASSPORT UK [note use of the singular form unlike its URL]. It starts with the following quotation : “Every year, 250,000 passport applications (over 10% of application forms sent by post) get rejected or delayed because of simple mistakes.” * Source: direct.gov.uk “. Quoting the official government website could be held to be misleading. It continues “Complete your passport application or renewal online. A similar checking service can be obtained from a Post Office at a reduced fee or you can apply without a checking service where there will be no checking fee payable. We are not affiliated with Post Office, HMPO or any government body.” I think the use of the words “complete your … application … on-line” is not accurate because it makes it quite clear later that you cannot actually complete the process until HMPO have the application form that has been forwarded to them [after ‘checking’] by passports-uk. Indeed, once you go on to the next stage, they say “When the process is complete [!], HM Passport Office will transfer the information provided onto specially adapted forms and return it to you in a hardcopy format. You will receive these pre-printed forms by post and will need to sign and date them prior to returning them to HM Passport Office for further processing.” This is misleading by omission: it does not state that, as part of this ‘further processing’, you would then have to make a payment to HMPO before a new passport could be issued. To cover itself, passports-uk says : “Our services are not in any way affiliated with any UK Government body including HM Passport Office. We provide a reviewing and submitting service for all UK passport applications charging a service processing fee. You can apply autonomously to HM Passport Office, avoiding costs for checking and processing, by logging on to their authorised website.” It does set out quite prominently what services they provide contrasted with what HMPO does [but still no mention of a fee]. The landing page also has a click button clearly positioned at the top linking to the HMPO website.

This all seems to be a step in the right direction although there are still several shortcomings as I have indicated. I think the outcry generated by the wicked Which? and the media have brought this about so congratulations are due. Unfortunately, lots of people have said goodbye to loads of money and I expect they’ll never see it again. It might be argued that in the present climate of free enterprise and un-regulation this outcome is about as good as we”ll get but I hope Which? will keep the pressure on in the furher work that Theo and Patrick hav referred to – especially to ensure that there are no breaches of the Consumer Protection Regulations in the absence of any more specific controls. I have been looking at just one website via only one search-engine – there are other search-engines and lots of other websites that are masquerading as official channels.This is certainly not over yet.


It is very good to see the genuine sites at the top of the search list, and that they are clearly marked GOV.UK.

Though I have never looked at a copycat site until Which? alerted me to the problem, it does concern me how many people are innocent victims. If we cannot get rid of these sites then perhaps there should be a conspicuous warning, equivalent to what is normal on ATMs that charge a fee: ‘This cash dispenser will charge you for withdrawals’.