Google inserting alternate queries – paid placement?

John Battelle reports on a recent new feature within Google search results where “related queries” get inserted within your original search results. For example, when you search for “on demand,” you also get search results for “Comcast on demand.” (see image).

Battelle received the following statement from Google’s PR explaining the feature:

Google is testing an automated technique for detecting when an alternate query might help users find what they are looking for more quickly. For these searches, which are both commercial and non-commercial in nature, Google displays one or more alternate queries together with a preview of their top results.

What do they mean by “both commercial and non-commercial” alternate queries? Is this yet another case of the blurring of advertising with search results?

While Battelle maintains that “certainly Google would never do paid inclusion,” that’s certainly what it sounds like. Did Comcast pay to have search results using their company’s name appear whenever someone searches for “on demand”? Comcast certainly could use Google’s AdWords program to have “sponsored ads” appear whenever someone searches for “on demand.” But if these “alternative queries” are indeed paid inclusions, Google should, at the very least, disclose what is happening.

UPDATE: Numerous search engine blogs comment on this, including ClickZ, Search Engine Roundtable and Search Engine Watch. The consensus seems to be that the alternate search results are not paid inclusions. Yet, is still seems suspicious, especially since Google’s PR statement (see above) doesn’t explicitly say that they aren’t.

I’ve only come across one other example of when such alternative results were inserted into a page of results: a search for “us” includes alternate results for “us magazine,” which provides links to US Magazine, FHM and Newsweek. What’s odd about both the “on demand” and “us” search examples of this phenomenon is that the inserted results are decidedly commercial – they provide links to commercial interests. Do other examples exist that merely provide links to non-commercial information? Might a search for “volcano” provide alternate results for “hawaiian volcano”?

It seems a simple question: are these inserted queries organic search results – simply the 2nd most common search query related to the original query – or are they motivated by Google’s advertising relationships? I’m not looking for a conspiracy – only a fuller explanation.

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