Deceptive Marketing Content and How to Spot Them

March 25, 2019

There are countless number of blogs and articles online making claims on the hottest search trends and the latest up-and-coming products and brands that are “on the rise” in search. These articles make bold claims and statements on “what’s hot” and “what’s trending” based on questionable sources of information.

Recently, a client of ours sent us an article from an online fashion and lifestyle site that claimed to have the top 10 Beauty brands of 2018 from Google’s Search Trends. Our client asked us how they could put their brand in the same position as those mentioned in this article and become a top trending beauty brand on search.


We investigated the claims made in this article and found many inconsistencies in the statements made relating to Google search trends. Ultimately we concluded, with Google’s help, that this article was a fake.The claims they were making were false and data they were citing was non-existent. This has become an all to common occurrence: content of apparent value and integrity misrepresents facts to influence buyer behavior.

In this blog we’ll share the methods we used to investigate these claims and show how you can use these methods to spot paid marketing content vs genuine organic content.

Source Cited Does Not Contain The Data Being Cited

The first step is to check the cited sources. The article we investigated linked to Google’s Year in Search 2018 as its source of the reported top 10 beauty brands. When we took a look at this source we found that it did not actually contain any data on the beauty brands the article claimed were the “top trending search for beauty brands in 2018”. There was a list of “Top Beauty Searches” but not Beauty Brands. This made us wonder if any of the sources they were using to make their claims actually existed.

Google Trends Shows Conflicting Data

Next we checked available data sources. We did our own research and used Google Trends to look at the top beauty-related search trends of 2018 and found the data to differ drastically from what the article claimed – none of the brands the article promoted were listed in the top 10 beauty-related search trends of 2018. Here were the top terms on Google trends beauty related queries:

Queries related to beauty

trends list 2

Look For Answers Straight From the ‘Source’

Our initial reaction was that just because we couldn’t find the data, didn’t mean it didn’t exist. So we reached out to our contact at Google to ask if they could help us track down this data. They validated our initial findings: the “top list” claimed by this source, didn’t actually exist anywhere in Google’s internal or external trends data. This led us to wonder how this publisher can claim certain brands as part of the “top trending beauty searches for 2018” when Google’s own data conflicted with their claims?

If none of the beauty brands promoted are actually listed as Google’s top search trends then why would this publisher claim certain brands as “trending” brands? The answer was simple: This article was a form of paid advertising.

Use of Paid Affiliate Links

We clicked on links for several of the products mentioned and found most of them contain affiliate tracking parameters, as indicated in the URL tags for the product landing pages:

source link

This is evidence that the publisher was being paid to promote these products and was making a commission on sales of the products that were referred to in the article.

One pattern that stood out about this article is that it mostly focused on one brand and mentions multiple products from that brand, each separately linked with affiliate tracking in each URL. The publisher linked these products using affiliate links.

Recognizing Native Content

This article was written with the intention of promoting a set of products while appearing to be an editorial piece. This is commonly referred to as “native content.” This may often times be tricky to spot as the content usually appears in the format and style of other editorial pieces on the website though may not indicate that it was “sponsored” in any way.

Ways You Can Identify Paid Content

You may have situations where you will come across content online or offline making claims that they can’t back up with reliable sources of data. These will oftentimes be sponsored content without indicating so. Here are a few tips to help you spot these deceptive marketing content pieces:

Check the sources of data – do they link to their sources? If so, who are the sources that are cited? If the content does not provide a credible source of data, there’s a good chance it contains inaccurate and/or fabricated information.

Check for affiliate links – simply clicking around on links in these content pieces  can show you if the publisher is being paid to promote a products or service. The link URL will typically contain the tag “utm_medium=affiliate” or “utm_medium=referral” and may contain the name of a major affiliate in the link including Commision Junction (CJ), Linkshare (Rakuten), Impact Radius, or ShareaSale.

Look at recurring mentions of brands, services or products – do the mentions revolve around one brand? Around one theme? The publisher is likely being paid by one or by many brands that are relevant to content theme to be included in the content piece.

These are a few of the various ways to recognize sponsored marketing content that’s masking as organic, trustworthy content.

Why does this matter?

In our case, this article had reached the C-Level executives and was causing a stir. They were convinced that this other business was doing something we weren’t and made it a priority for us to emulate them. If we hadn’t done our due diligence we would still be agonizing how to emulate results that didn’t actually exist!

These types of promotions are becoming more and more common, and without effort, can fool the general public. The good news is that by taking a few extra steps to check sources and linked content, you can verify whether you’re reading a gimmicky marketing piece or a reliable source of information.