Tuesday, October 14, 2003

Search Engine Results Increasingly Burdened by Hidden Commercial Content 

CNET has a series of articles about the proliferation of stealth ads and the reasons behind them. Back in June Evan Hansen told how the Federal Trade Commission sent a letter to the seven companies that owned the twelve leading search engines that they would have to clarify their language to make it easier to tell if a search result were commercially sponsored. Acting on a complaint from Commercial Alert, a consumer advocacy organization, the FTC established a set of guidelines that they intend to enforce. AltaVista, AOL Time Warner, Direct Hit Technologies, iWon, LookSmart, Microsoft and Terra Lycos were the targets of this action. A copy of the recent FTC letter was also sent to Overture, Yahoo, InfoSpace, About.com, Google and Disney.

The agency singled out a long list of terms that it considers inadequate, including "Recommended Sites," "Featured Listings," "Premier Listings," "Search Partners," or "Start Here."
"Other sites use much more ambiguous terms such as 'Products and Services,' 'News,' 'Resources,' 'Featured Listings,' 'Partner Search Results,' or 'Spotlight,' or no labels at all," Commercial Alert Executive Director Gary Ruskin said.

Stephanie Olsen asks in a July CNET article, "The trend has raised concerns that the public might be misled about the editorial independence of search listings, which have frequently been promoted as unbiased research tools."

She has isolated two prongs of the problem, paid placement and paid inclusion. Paid placement lets you sponsor keywords so you will rank higher in search results. These obvious ads are usually contained to a header or footer to the true results. As an example, Tire companies buy the top spot in the search results for wheels, rims, snow chains, whitewalls, check tread, repair tube, or any other such tire-themed request. Those unlucky bloggers writng about stealing hubcaps or how to check your tread with a penny, and the collectors with their wire rim galleries and old valve stem box sets won't be found beneath all the commercial appeals.

The other form of advertising is more hidden and possibly dangerous. "Paid inclusion largely pertains to "organic" search engines such as Inktomi, AltaVista and Fast Search and Transfer's AlltheWeb, which provide technology that scours the Web and uses mathematical algorithms to compile relevant results. Under financial pressure, many such sites developed programs to guarantee companies that they would "crawl" or search a Web address more often, for a price," said Dean Forbes, an attorney with the FTC's division of advertising practices. The price could be an overall listing fee or a pay-per-click arrangement based on the number of follow-through consumers.

In addition to charging sites to crawl their data, search engines have another version of this money-maker that charges a fee for expedited listing in their directory. They all boil down to the same thing, which is the guy who pays gets more attention, more hits, more authority-ranking than all the rest of us.

Ms. Olsen asks the proper questions: "One area of concern for Web site owners is that the search providers could artificially keep their indices stale to promote the for-fee program. The question some ask is what's the incentive to buy into a search index if the technology is already visiting all of its pages every week or two? But if search providers let themselves grow outdated, they face rivals at every turn. "

Some of the engines mentioned are still not complying, according to yesterday's update at CNET by Stepanie Olsen. She cites Inkotomi as an example of a web search engine that persisit in offering pay-per-click results undesignated as such. Others like AltaVista consider a link to a disclosure page enough.

"Search engines like to say it doesn't affect the rankings. But there have been cases where rankings on AltaVista and Inktomi were boosted (for marketers that pay)," said Danny Sullivan, an editor of Search Engine Watch, an online industry newsletter.

"It's much more noticeable then it was in the past," he added, even though out of the 1.5 billion Web pages being indexed, only about 3 million pay to be crawled more often. "The way that it's mixed in with ordinary content can be favorable to (marketers)," he said.

"Yahoo spokeswoman Diana Lee said that as long as the search results are relevant, the company is doing its job.
"Results are based on relevancy, irregardless of whether a site participates in paid inclusion," Lee said, though she did not define how that relevancy is determined."

"Some companies that offer paid inclusion, including AlltheWeb and AltaVista, have disclosed it by adding a tiny link labeled "about" near results pages. The link leads to a disclaimer that describes how companies can pay to have their sites visited more frequently. Yet Sullivan and others say that search providers need to separate these results or label them conspicuously."

Gary Price posted this review of yesterday's article at ResourceShelf.com:
"Stefanie Olson writes about the labeling of search results, paid inclusion, and paid placement.
Like a Business Week article from 10 days ago, Olson's article makes no mention about how the work of the search engine optimization industry influences the results you see, even with Google.
What does this mean for the researcher? 1) Knowledge of the problem 2) The ability to use several web engines in an advanced manner.
This can help you get to the most precise results possible in the shortest amount of time.

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