Study: Search Engines Still Fail to Disclose Ads

The blurring of search engine results and advertising is a major concern given how search engines have become the “center of gravity” for the distribution of information and the acquisition of knowledge. ClickZ reports on a Consumer Reports WebWatch study which claims that Search engines continue to “inadequately inform consumers about the influence that advertising dollars have on placement and rankings of search results”:

A follow-up to a 2004 study examining the ways search engines identify and explain paid search results, the latest study found little improvement over last year, and concluded that none of the 15 search engines examined had satisfactorily disclosed their practices.

“Follow-up research confirms these insufficient efforts to inform consumers about the financial forces at work every time they hit the search button,” said Jorgen Wouters, a WebWatch consultant and author of the report.

Despite many changes among the sites in the study, WebWatch found that nearly half the sites stayed the same, a third got worse, and only three of the 15 sites improved. Key areas considered were prominence of disclosure headings, along with clarity and accessibility of disclosure statements.

The study found that many of the search engines moved or changed the color of these elements from a bright color like red to gray. Several also removed the direct hyperlink from the “sponsored links” headings to the disclosure page, making it more difficult for users to find that information.

Of the top search engines, AOL Search, Google, and Yahoo! Search Marketing were given good marks for disclosure, but showed minimal change over the year before. Ask Jeeves and Yahoo! Search were downgraded for making headings less visible, and removing hyperlinks to disclosure statements. MSN Search was the only major search engine to show improvement, largely because MSN discontinued its paid inclusion and content promotion programs, giving them less to disclose.

Wouters insisted that WebWatch is not on a mission to abolish paid placement or paid inclusion, but rather wants engines to fully disclose that certain results appear because of a paid relationship and not necessarily because of the site’s relevance to the user’s search query.

[via Andy Beal]

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