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News April 29, 2005
Jason L. Miller


Allow me to state the obvious. The overabundance of information available on the Internet comes in three flavors: junk; buy me; and useful. On second thought, perhaps the "buy me" category should be listed first.

How hard is it for you to determine the difference between paid placements and organic listings when it comes to search engine results? A study by Consumer Reports determined the average Joe Internet user has a harder time doing so. In fact, 60% of those surveyed were not even aware of paid listings. What are your thoughts concerning the CR survey? Discuss at WebProWorld.

What is not so obvious is the relationship between Internet search engines and advertisers whose links are displayed, almost exclusively, at the top of the results page. In fact, according to Consumer Reports WebWatch, public disclosure of this relationship is almost nonexistent.

At least in the conventional media world, it is a simple process to decipher between programming and advertising. The news is easily distinguished from the infomercial and there is no doubt as to which is wrestling and which is an aspirin commercial, even if product placement blurs the lines just a tad. The point is, we know which is which, and our day isn't noticeably affected.

These lines, however, aren't so clearly drawn on the Internet. A simple search for "lawnmower maintenance" could be a time-eating and eye-stressing exercise, as the list of online shops and bookstores provides a glaring blue and pink backdrop of "not-what-I'm-looking-for" crap. What I am looking for, if I'm willing to gamble the time, may or may not be on pages 6 though 10.

Or maybe I'm the only who's ever said, "screw it," and decided to call somebody.

The root of what is causing you to gradually become afflicted by Internet Face (an affliction of the facial muscles whereby the eyes remain in a squinted position, the nose scrunches upward, and the corners of the mouth curve downward exposing the teeth) are little known, product placement related practices known as paid placement and paid inclusion.

With paid placement, search engines are paid to list some sites more prominently than others. Paid inclusion is the accepting of fees to be included on the list when certain key words are entered in the search browser.

A recent study, entitled "Searching for Disclosure," showed that over 60% of adult Internet users surveyed were unaware of the common practice of paid inclusion. Furthermore, once informed, they had a negative reaction to the fact.

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Now common sense might tell you that it is obvious that many hits are paid for, even that it is smart business on the part of the search engine and the advertiser. The issue here is not the ethics of advertising. The issue is about knowing which is which. The issue is about the effort search engines take to let people know what's advertising and what is not.

According to the study, not only were certain search engines "not going out of their way," as Beau Brendler, director of Consumer Reports WebWatch put it, to make distinctions between sponsored links and non-sponsored links, but some seemed to be deliberately obfuscating their relationship with advertisers.

Jergen Wouters, conductor of the study, said, ‘it is getting harder and harder to tell sponsored links from regular links. In fact, a lot [of search engines] were going over and above to hide it."

"But wait," you say, "you're not talking about professional web surfers who had problems with search engines. You're talking about Average PC Joe who's lucky to know how to operate his email account."

Not according to Brendler,

"Even information professionals had trouble finding stuff."

The problem has troubled Brendler and Wouters to the extent that they put together three studies and three conferences to discuss the topic this year.

The second conference in the series, scheduled for June 9th in San Francisco is entitled, "Trust or Consequence: How Failure to Disclose Ad Relationships Threatens to Burst the Search Bubble."

The research goes into painstaking detail about which search engines are trustworthy and which ones are not. The goal of the research and the conference is to increase awareness about paid inclusion and to put pressure on search engines to follow WebWatch and FTC guidelines for fair advertising practices.

The goal here is not to force search engines to stop allowing paid advertising, but to make it unequivocal as to which websites paid to be on the list. Researchers found that many sites, after succumbing to label paid sites, did so in a manner that was, at least, confusing and unclear.

Read the Rest of the Article.

About the Author:
Jason L. Miller graduated from the University of Kentucky with a B.A. in Communication. Most recently, he spent a year in Japan teaching English and now is one of the newest members of IEntry Networks based in Lexington, KY.

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