Search Tangles

Illustration: Joe Zeff
Use Google to search for "Ionic Breeze," and you'll likely find that nine of the first ten listings point to sites that sell The Sharper Image's popular air purifier. In early June, the only link that wasn't for an e-commerce site was the last one, which pointed to an Epinions.com review.

Now head over to Yahoo and type in "spas and hot tubs." Again, in early June, the first and fifth results pointed to the Watkins Manufacturing-owned HotSpring and Caldera spas Web sites. Watkins pays Yahoo an annual fee to guarantee that Yahoo will index these sites, and also pays a small sum when someone clicks on a link to the sites in Yahoo's search results.

Yahoo and Google, the King Kong and Godzilla of search engines, have long dedicated portions of their results pages to commercial links, clearly labeled as "sponsored" and displayed in separate blocks.

But on any search engine, the truly valuable real estate is the "actual results"--the place where you expect to find answers to your queries. And it is here that some search companies and commercial Web sites are using new tactics, and putting new spins on old tricks, to affect search results. Most of these techniques are legitimate; others are deceptive and unethical.

One thing is clear, however: Search results are being manipulated to a greater degree than ever. With Google about to become a publicly traded company, and with Microsoft preparing its own search service, search is a big business that is about to get even bigger. And the pursuit of profits--by search companies and by Web sites that depend on search engines to drive revenue-producing traffic--is affecting how your search queries are answered.

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