Study: Paid Listings Still Confuse Web Searchers
SAN JOSE -- Web searchers are losing the game of "Spot the Ads," say Web-watchers.
Surfers with as many as nine years of searching experience can't always distinguish the paid listings from the free ones in their results on Google, Yahoo, MSN, and other search sites, according to a recent study by
What's more, voluntary guidelines the Federal Trade Commission issued to all major Web search services in May 2002 have failed to clarify the issue, according to
Three out of five searchers have no idea that search engines are paid for some of the results in their listings, according to Leslie Marable, Consumer WebWatch researcher and author of the study, "False Oracles: Consumer Reaction to Learning the Truth About How Search Engines Work." Marable described the findings at this week's Search Engine Strategies conference here.
Baltimore, Maryland-based Context-Based Research Group conducted the ethnographic study of 17 subjects residing in four different U.S. cities. Each participant had at least five years of Web experience. The researchers tested 15 search and navigation sites: About, AlltheWeb, AltaVista, AOL, Ask, Go, Google, InfoSpace, iWon, Kanoodle, LookSmart, Lycos, MSN, Overture, and Yahoo.
While 41 percent of the search results selected by the study subjects were paid for, none of the searchers were aware of their commercial nature until told by the researchers. Once the paid-placement results were identified, most of the subjects were surprised, and some responded with what Marable described as "negative emotion."
"If there are disclosures, they're too small or unclear," Marable said during the Legal Issues Update session of the conference. Session moderator Jeffrey K. Rohrs, director of account management at interactive marketing agency Optiem, questioned the efficacy of the FTC's guidelines. "Did they clear up anything, or did they muddy things up even more?" Rohrs asked.
The FTC issued its
In paid placement, a company pays to be guaranteed a top listing whenever a specific keyword or phrase is searched for, while paid inclusion simply guarantees that a site will be "spidered" by the search engine, with no guarantee of a specific placement in search results. The Consumer WebWatch study examined only paid-placement listings.
Paid placement often helps searchers find what they're looking for, noted Danny Sullivan, editor of SearchEngineWatch.com and conference chair.
"Paid listings are not evil," Sullivan told the conference session. It's simply a matter of clearly distinguishing the paid-for results from those that aren't paid for, he said.
"What are the right cues?" Sullivan asked, noting that newspapers and magazines often label ads that could be mistaken for editorial content as "paid advertising."
Marable said ERatings at ConsumerReports.org will soon release a set of ten guidelines to help search engines clarify the distinction between paid and free search listings.