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What’s the difference between an ad and your recommendation?

For some, this answer will seem both obvious and somewhat odd for me to address at all.

For others, however, there’s an extremely important lesson here. I’ve come to the conclusion that this concept needs some serious clarification.

And it’s not just about what happens here at the Ask Leo! website, but rather how people view the content that they see everywhere on the internet.

You need to recognize advertisements.

Become a Patron of Ask Leo! and go ad-free!

I occasionally have people ask me for assistance with a product that I’ve recommended. The problem is that I have not recommended the product and in some cases, I’ve never even heard of it!

How did this happen? I presume the individuals asking the question saw an advertisement of some sort on one of my pages and mistook it for my recommendation.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

The vast majority of ads on Ask Leo! come from an outside vendor: Google’s AdSense. I do not select what AdSense shows. Instead, AdSense selects ads from its inventory of advertisers based on the content of the page. This is referred to as “contextual advertising.” If you’re viewing a page that discusses viruses, for example, AdSense may well display ads for anti-virus software.

But the key is that the site owner – me, in this case – has nothing to do with the ad selection. I don’t even know what products are available to be advertised; I just tell AdSense “put an ad here”, and it does the rest.


… an ad is simply some space that a website “rents out” so an advertiser can place their message there.

Now, if this were just about my site, I’d probably not bother to address my arrangement with AdSense in this way. Information sites like mine rarely talk about how they make money. Instead, they focus on… well, the information.

But Ask Leo! is for people who have questions about computers and related technology. The difference between an online ad and a recommendation is information you need to know as you surf not only my site, but the entire internet.

This advertising-based revenue model that I use is extremely common. Many (if not most) of the free sites that you visit every day derive a majority of the income that allows them to exist from advertising displayed on their site. I know that Ask Leo! would not be as comprehensive as it is – heck, it probably would not even exist – were it not for the advertising presented on the site. Alternate revenue models rarely come close to covering even the most basic of costs associated with a site like this.

With all the advertising out there, it’s important that you make sure that you recognize just what it is you’re looking at when you visit any site.

Not unlike a newspaper or magazine, an ad is simply some space that a website “rents out” so an advertiser can place their message there.

If you can’t tell the difference between an advertisement on a website and the content provided by that site, you’re likely to make some ill-informed decisions.

I’m not (not, not, NOT) saying that ads are bad or that the products being advertised are bad. Far, far from it. Many products being advertised are quite good – to the point that I’ve occasionally joked that AdSense’s targeting often ends up with the ad being the solution to the problem that led someone to my site in the first place.

But certainly not always.

While the majority of ads on my site and the internet in general are for perfectly fine products, I’m sure they are still advertisements and not endorsements. It’s your responsibility to understand that an ad is an ad and to do the due diligence so you can determine if the advertised product is right for you.

And that applies to every site that you visit on the entire internet.

Ads are everywhere and advertisers are naturally going to make their ads as enticing as they can to garner your interest. Whether that interest is deserved – which it may or may not be – is something that only you can decide.

And once again, I have to be clear: Ask Leo! owes its existence to (and derives the majority of the revenue to keep the site operating) from the advertisements that appear on the site.

Ads are not my endorsements. I have very little control over exactly what gets advertised. I can block a limited number of particularly egregious advertisers, so I value your feedback on the ads that you see. Unfortunately, blocking them from advertising on Ask Leo! is all I can do.

Thumbs UpI do have explicit recommendations for particular products. I don’t give them freely and that’s why there aren’t more of them. They also change over time as I find that products that I once favored no longer meet my standards and new products or services arrive to take their place. But they are explicit recommendations and not paid advertisements.

38 comments on “What’s the difference between an ad and your recommendation?”

  1. I gather from your ‘explanation’ about ads that I can essentially ignore all of them.

    Mainly because you have no control over them ore their content.

    There have been several that I had really wondered about.

    Thank you for the clarification.

  2. I was just ready to comment on one of your ads as to its use of FEAR to get people to buy the product. The Typical: “We scanned your computer and find 2234 bad things; we will fix six of them free but beware that your computer is in danger unless you send the $29.95”. Can now appreciate your circumstance, but know many will blame YOU for the consternation of dealing with the afterfact.

    I do get it. But understand, this issue isn’t just about me or my web site – people need to recognize ads everywhere. They’re often much worse than what shows up here. (And no, an ad cannot have scanned your machine. As you point out, an ad that says so lies, plain and simple. Often the wording is nuanced so as to be misleading and just short of a blatent lie.)

    Leo
    31-Mar-2010

    • I too for the longest time thought Leo was endorsing these pesty solicitations. The majority allow a download and run their test, whatever they are pushing. Then you get the negative results and start to freak out. What do I do?? Then you get the real matter, for $$.$$ you can open the download and supposedly fix the problems and pray you do not mess up your computer more so than it already is. Bottom line folks,,,,,,,,,,,,,,you get what you pay for still holds true.

  3. You are RIGHT! Leo. Advertisements are ads, and, there are GOOD ones out there. Most free programs are ads in the purest sense, in that they hope you will like the product enough to consider purchasing more capable versions from the provider.
    Someone is providing us the power of the web, for our consideration of their products. That’s OK in my book.

  4. I fully agree and understand the reasoning behind any and all adverts on websites both educational and fun stuff.
    Not real sure of my high school legal studies, but was it “Buyer Beware”..!!
    As with any product, you have to do your homework regardless of any recommendations or where you have seen the product, ALWAYS do your homework.
    Goodluck and thanks Leo for a great site.
    Bernaul.

  5. Generally you will find the Words —

    Ads by Google
    at the bottom of a picture. That should clarify if it is an Ad in most cases.

    Ravi.

  6. Hi there Leo,
    Thank you once again for an as-always informative newsletter – much appreciated!

    I fully understand (and appreciate from a financial standpoint) where you’re coming from with this discussion about advertising.

    I’ve been “into” computing since the mid-1980s so I do acknowledge the need for free sites to survive largely by displaying random (and often non content-controlled) advertising on their site’s pages. It’s just like someone who owns a billboard on the state highway – the structure itself – and who may rent out the space to 100 different companies to sell their product over a period of time. The billboard owner doesn’t care what goes on his billboard, and nor should he be expected to (within reason, of course!).

    A couple of months ago in your newsletter, under the heading “…OUR SPONSOR” you displayed an ad for some free trial software which I duly downloaded. Okay so far.

    The product (which I’ll decline to name for obvious reasons) simply didn’t work as advertised by its supplier. In fact, it was a disaster! I tried all sorts of work-arounds to get it up and running all to no avail. Still relatively all okay.

    But… and that’s a BIG but. When I tried to uninstall the software, all sorts of nasty things happened, the most minor(!) being that my OS locked up. Anyway, after rebooting in safe mode and binning a stack of its registry entries etc, I sorted it all out.

    To the point… at last LOL! I would’ve thought the fact that you expressly highlighted this product, and whilst obviously NOT specifically endorsing it, you would have at least tested it yourself to ensure it worked (largely) as advertised.

    Could you please then Leo clarify for your readership the subtle difference between describing an ad as “our sponsor” and an actual personal “endorsement”?

    Thank you kindly,
    Geoff
    Melbourne Australia

    A “sponsor” is an advertiser, nothing more, nothing less. They sponsor the newsletter by providing money in exchange for advertising space. So everything I’ve said about advertisers applies.

    Clearly, I do have more control over who advertises in the newsletter (and those few who direct purchase ads on the site, bypassing Google), but once again I cannot, and do not, attempt to vet them – there’s simply no time. And that’s exactly why I created a specific category of “recommendations” that I do at least have experience with.

    As someone above as said when it comes to any advertising the rule is “buyer beware”.

    And again, I want to be clear here that the points I’m making aren’t so much about how you should understand advertising on Ask Leo!, but rather how you must understand advertising across the entire internet.

    I’m always interested in feedback on specific advertisers. I have blocked advertisers in the past due to too many problems. Drop me details if you like via the ask a question form.

    Leo
    01-Apr-2010

  7. Personally I would not allow any ads on my site that would be even potentially misleading or harmful. We all have a responsibility to help keep the internet clean and free of scams. Especially those who hold themselves out to be computer experts.

    There no way that a site owner can vet all the thousands of ads that could possibly run on a site.

    Besides, this isn’t really about my site – you visit many, many other sites besides mine, and no matter what I do or do not do here, you still need to understand what an ad is and is not, everywhere.

    Leo
    17-Apr-2010

  8. “Sponsor” does sound different than “Ad” or “Advertisement”, even though it’s exactly the same. Although not the same as “Recommendation”, it does sound like a special relationship between the medium and the advertiser, an “Endorsement” of sorts.

    It does help that you’ve spelled out that sponsors are nothing more than advertisers, and that endorsements appear only in your recommendations.

  9. Aha! Therein lies the confusion. I was just elsewhere on this site and, LO, in big letters it says “RECOMMENDED DOWNLOAD”. And in very tiny letters on the far other end, it says “ads by google”.

    I know there’s nothing Leo can do about this, but keep in mind that not every visitor here is a veteran geek with tons of internet savvy, and lack of savvy does not relegate them to the ranks of the stupid or foolish.

    Right – in an ad “Recommended” doesn’t mean that I recommended it. (To not be a lie, all it needs to mean is that someone recommended it somewhere.)

    And I have to stress again, it’s not just my site. Ads are everywhere and it’s important to recognize them for what they are.

    Leo
    30-Apr-2010

  10. Thanks for correcting a misunderstanding I had. I assumed that you (especially you) at least screened all ads on your newsletter, even though they said “Ads by Google”. In the future, I’ll not click on any ads on any site, as too many apparently are not ethical, not verified, etc. Google needs to get control of their advertisers apparently.

  11. Brilliant and succinct……as always. Call me ignorant (not far out !) or whatever, but I did not know this. I have (almost) always followed Leo’s reccomendations that are included IN his articles. Before I decide to get any software for my computer, I check for Leo’s views on that particular item. You cannot go wrong with that : at least that is my experience to date.

  12. I was looking at an ad on one of your pages tonight and started to download it, thinking that it must be okay since it was on your site. Studying the ad a little closer, however, I noticed that it said something about “ad choices” when I hovered over it. That started me searching your site to see what you had to say about the ads on your pages – whether or not they had been approved by you. Thanks so much for the clarification provided by this article.

    While I’m at it, thank you, too, for all of the information that you provide to your readers. When I have (or am asked) a question that I’m not sure of the answer for, the first place I go is to “Ask Leo!” Very rarely am I unable to find solutions to my questions. It’s nice to have someone to turn to that I trust.

  13. This explains how and why ads from the sites I have
    ordered from online seem to follow me around wherever I go.
    Thank you for the clarification and all you teach us.

  14. Thanks so much for clarifying this for me. A long time ago I downloaded Scotty the watchdog on your recommendation and have found it fantastic. Recently I was interested in backing up my machine and clicked on an ad not realizing it was one and thinking it was also recommended by you and got myself into all sorts of problems. Lesson learnt. Thanks for your great site, especially for blondes like me lol.

  15. I was surprised to see an ad from Amazon, towards the end of the article, which showed an item I was looking for on the Amazon site a few days ago. Was that purely a co-incidence or are some ads based on what is found in the brower’s history? I suspect the latter, as I am sure it has happened on other occasions. So it is rather scary as to what information in one’s computer is safe from ‘prying eyes’ – very little, I suspect! – and how the information can be manouvered into a relevant ad.

  16. Hi Leo,
    While I fully endorse your need to run ads, please ensure that they do not mislead the readers. I believe that this request is reasonable.
    Nowadays, advertisers seem to be indifferent to morals. If they can’t say it with words, they do it with appearance. I see this trend in reputed sites too.

    For example, when you click the ‘free download’ link for a utilityware, you’re led to a download page where you see two or more ‘Download Now’ links around. I’ve assumed the link at top to be genuine and clicked it. Lo behold! it turned out to be a video downloader! I simply could not identify the one I wanted, and left the page frustrated.

    • Unfortunately I am unable to vet the constantly changing inventory of hundreds of thousands of ads that might appear on my site, so no, I’m afraid that’s not reasonable.

      My point in this article is that this, as you yourself have seen, is not at all unique to Ask Leo!, and in fact is much worse on many, many sites. The critical lesson is that it’s important for you to learn to tell the difference anywhere and everywhere on the internet.

  17. I tried to follow your instructions for searching “Ask Leo”, but get answers from everyone else instead. I have a start up problem you once answered, but cannot find it or anything I want now on your website.

    • You may be entering the question in the wrong search box. On the older article pages, there is a search AskLeo.com field and one for searching other sites recommended by Leo.

  18. You did recommend a program, even giving the cost. That program was SpinRite.
    The only reason I bought such an expensive program [$85] was because of your write up on it. After the purchase I felt that it was not working properly and didn’t do what was expected and now I am attempting to get my money back. This might be a case where you slipped a little and gave a strong recommendation. I suppose I wouldn’t be writing if the program worked for me. Just my thoughts on the subject. No flaming please. Joseph

    • One of the reasons Leo recommends SpinRite, apart from the fact that it has worked for him, is that it comes with a full money back guarantee, that it if for any reason it doesn’t work for you, they give you a full refund. On the other hand, you can get a 1TB HD for less than the cost of SpinRite, so for the average user, SpinRite my not always be the best option. Of course, if you have lost critical data (this would never happen to an Ask Leo! reader as I know you’re all making proper backups;-), it would be worth giving SpinRite a try.

  19. I am inclined to believe that many do purchase from the advertisers on your pages, because they believe you screened them to some degree. You do elude to this. A polite non-offensive (to advertisers) asterisk, or note, that the advertising is “auto-posted” would go far to reflect you as the straightforward, authentic and sincere person I believe you are.

  20. I agree that it would be great if you could make your (essential and fine) external ad windows a little more distinct from your own figures, text boxes, and own book ads. Someone like “me ten years ago” might just not get it as it’s presented now, but might learn that one needs to distinguish if it’s a bit clearer. How about a thin line above or below the rented-out space, neutrally titled External Advertisement or the like? no answer requested, just for consideration.

  21. Leo I just wanted to say thank you for having this site in existence and for being so thorough and clear with your descriptions. I work in IT and primarily work with end users. A lot of your explanations are great for my understanding as well as explanations i can give to others when i need to figure out how to explain things more simply. Much appreciated from a gal who is relatively new to this field. Thanks again.

  22. Leo,
    My backup scheme has a serious deficiency. Windows Backup and Restore Center does not include the program files.
    The Image backup does include them but I have been unable to extract a needed file from the Image VHD file.
    I had a problem in Outlook where the OUTLLIB.DLL was missing in C:\Program Files (x86)\Microsoft Office\OFFICE11
    My only recourse was to go to a two day old restore point, that worked.
    Since then, I have “Robocopied” all of C:\Program Files and C:\Program Files (x86) to my external drive.
    Frank C

  23. Leo,example if I’m making a video call with you on skype,can you Leo record the video call whiles we are video calling.This because I was making a video call with someone on Skype and the person saids he has recorded me and I’m afraid.

  24. I’m coming into this discussion a little late, but here’s a good thing to consider: At the top of Google’s AdSense ads, there are two tiny grey boxes, one a kind of triangle shape, the other an ‘X’. These boxes mark the space below as an ad, and so, not a feature of the web page itself. If you click on the triangle shape, you’ll get a Google page, “About Google Ads”, telling you about how they choose and place the ads, and some instructions for how you can “manage your ads settings”. (I haven’t delved into this much, and can’t comment on how this works.) If you click on the “X”, you’ll get options for reporting the ad as irrelevant, inappropriate, or repetitive. Unfortunately, there’s no option to make comments beyond those three choices.

    I’m sure that the little boxes are intentionally inconspicuous so that people *will* confuse the ad contents with the webpage into which they are inserted, as evidenced by the fact that Leo had to write this article. The ads can contain almost any language they want, including, “Recommended download”, “Recommended for you”, “Your computer is slow”, “Your computer is at risk”, “Sponsored”, “Virus detected!”, or any bait that might get you to click on it, limited only by the scruples of the advertiser. The fact is that the tactic works, leaving legitimate advertisers and website owners with some painful choices, and the internet-using public with little but ‘buyer beware’ as a strategy.

    It’s a real dilemma. I fully appreciate that Ask Leo! (like millions of other sites) is available to me for free due to the revenue of advertising, yet I am so skeptical of the ads that I don’t click on them. (My skepticism is compounded by the fact that hovering one’s pointer over the ad reveals only a ‘googleads / doubleclick’ address, with no indication of the real destination.) The only compromise I have come up with is to recommend the sites I like to any and all I can, and hope it helps generate some increased traffic and income that way.

  25. Thanks Leo We need a trusted like I believe your’s is. I have had trouble identifying adds on web sites. And when I was on what I felt was a trusted site I may have dropped my guard some. Your above article has helped to build awareness and things to appreciate that will make me safer. I did pick up from your article of helping an neighbour by installing some soft ware, I took that as a recomendation and immediately installed it and found it worked.
    Thanks and Keep up the good work. I love your patient replies, some of us need more of it than others.
    Mark

  26. When i watch anime for free on some sites i sometimes get an advertise of a sex game. Can you get advertise of a sex game if you dont watch porn and stuff like that?

  27. Leo, I fully agree with you and your views on the subject.
    But what I find completely ridiculous and laughable, is 2 or more teenagers sitting together and instead of talking, they are texting each other.
    Agreed, not the fault of technology, but the stupidity of the use of the technology by small minded people.

    • And yet those two are connected, it’s just in ways you simply don’t believe has value. And, to be fair, they may be connected at the same time with others not physically in the same location. When two are next to each other doing so it’s almost always because of this reason. My wife and I do this all the time. Nothing small minded in the use.

      (Not sure how your comment landed here — I suspect it’s meant for Does Technology Isolate or Connect? — if not you’ll read more of my thoughts over there.)

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