Beal on Users Confusing Natural and Paid Search Engine Results

Andy Beal at Search Engine Lowdown notes this report of the Pew Internet and American Life Project’s study which suggests that only 18% of search engine users can tell the difference between paid and natural search engine results. Beal seems to applaud this:

So what does that tell us? Well, to me it suggests that the search engines have everything finely tuned and doing a great job. If the average user cannot tell the difference, it likely means that they are finding the most relevant results in both paid and natural listings.

Of course, this could also mean that our search results are being polluted by paid advertising placements without the user’s awareness, reducing the validity and reliability of those results. Contrary to Beal’s enthusiasm, users aren’t finding the most relevant results if a link was artificially ranked; they’re finding the results with the best ability to pay for placement. The fact that users are not aware of the placement of advertising within the tools they use to find information is an indication that our search tools need to become more transparant as to any biases that exists within their results.

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