China’s Baidu search engine under fire for gambling sites’ stealth advertising

baidu-online-gambling-advertisingChina’s leading search engine Baidu is in full damage control mode following an investigative report into illegal online gambling advertising.

On Sunday, the Beijing News ran a report detailing how online betting operators were hijacking corporate ad links on Baidu. Users who clicked on these links were sent to unauthorized gambling sites rather than to the companies the ads claimed to be promoting.

The gambling operators apparently registered corporate accounts with Baidu using the names of legitimate companies that had failed to register with Baidu. The resulting links appeared in Baidu results with the ‘V’ symbol indicating a verified corporate account.

These accounts were opened via third-party marketing services that require little to no verification of identity from clients. One such agent claimed to conduct most of its business with advertising clients via the popular QQ messaging app.

The gambling operators included variations of company names with obvious links to gambling, such as SJM Holdings’ Grand Lisboa and Sands China’s Venetian Macao casinos in Macau. But other ads piggybacked on business entities that had nothing to do with gambling, including an auto parts business in Henan province, whose owner was perplexed at having been targeted.

The Beijing News investigation showed that, generally, the links only took users to gambling sites between the hours of 11pm and 9am. Outside those hours, the ads either disappeared entirely or took users to the actual website of the company whose name appeared in the ad.

Baidu responded to the report by claiming that the gambling sites in question registered their accounts at the end of April with the company’s online marketing service provider subsidiary Baidu says it has referred the offending companies to the police and is collecting evidence to help police track down the culprits.

To further shake off any suggestion that it had cooperated with gambling operators, Baidu rolled out statistics showing that it blocked 8,623 illegal gambling sites in Q1 2016 as well as preventing 7,239 gambling keywords from appearing in its search engine results.

Macau casino operators have fallen victim to other forms of trademark fraud at the hands of online gambling operators. Trademarks belonging to Las Vegas Sands, Galaxy Entertainment Group and SJM Holdings have all been misappropriated by sketchy Asian-facing online operators in recent years.