Search Engines Still Fail to Disclose Ads – Internet Marketing Research Article (300 Level Course)
Consumer Reports WebWatch released the fourth part of an ongoing research project to see the ways search engines identify and explain paid search results. This study found little improvement over the last year, and came to the conclusion that the 15 search engines examined had unsatisfactory results.
The key areas that sites were rated on were prominence of disclosure headings, clarity and accessibility of disclosure statements. Half the sites rated stayed the same, a third got worse, and only three of the fifteen sites actually improved. The web sites varied in their responses to dealing with this problem.
Some moved or changed the color of these elements from a bright color to a dull color. These sites changed the color from the vibrant color like red to the dull gray. The direct hyperlinks were moved from the “sponsored links” to the disclosure page making it hard to find the information that told about the paid advertisements in the search results.
Ask Jeeves and Yahoo! Search were downgraded while AOL Search, Google, and Yahoo! Search Marketing had good marks. MSN Search showed the best improvement because they discontinued their paid inclusion and paid content promotion.
WebWatch insists they are not trying to abolish paid placement or paid inclusion. They just want search engines to dully disclose that certain results appear because of a paid relationship and not because of the relevance to the search query.
This study started in 2002 and 60% of consumers were unaware of search engines’ paid placement programs. The paid placement programs means that sites that pay have preferred placement in the search results. The FTC used the WebWatch study in a letter to search engines calling for “clear and conspicuous disclosure” of paid placement and paid inclusion in search results. The FTC was prompted to action by a consumer advocacy group, Commercial Alert, in 2001 that brought this issue to head.
In 2003 the WebWatch study found consumers surprised when they found out that some search results are there because they are paid for. The most recent study created an evaluation tool based on the FTC guidelines and found that most of the 15 search engines had made some efforts to meet the FTC recommendations but none were making the relationship between paid advertising and search results very clear.