At the Consumer Reports WebWatch forum this week, I was surprised to learn that -- one full year after the organization's last study -- the 15 most popular search engines haven't improved their disclosure of paid placements and paid inclusion.
Sure, some have gotten better, and some have gotten worse. But on the whole, it all evens out to be about the same as last year. Examples? In some cases, "sponsored listings" disclosures that last year were bright red are now are light grey. In other cases, disclosures that once linked to separate explanation pages have now been un-linked.
What I really don't understand is why advertisers would stand for less than full disclosure.
When I spoke with Beau Brendler, the director of Consumer Reports WebWatch, he compared the phenomenon to the "Special Advertising Section" phenomenon in magazines. In those sections, advertorial often very closely resembles real editorial, by design.
"Certainly I think the [search] industry is responding to the pressure from advertisers who want to make their ads look as much like editorial content as they can," Brendler told me.
Indeed, a recent Penn State study showed consumers are biased against paid listings. Researchers constructed mock search results pages, and they switched organic results with paid listings half the time. Despite the fact the copy and headlines were the same, study participants went first to organic results on 80 percent of searches. Sponsored links were viewed first only six percent of the time.
So it may seem advertisers have every incentive to disguise themselves as organic listings. One might argue search engine optimization is wholly aimed at doing just that. Still, if you're paying for clicks as a paid listings advertiser, don't you want people to know what they're getting into when they click? Don't you want people to come to your site because they're qualified leads, not because they're tricked? It might be in the search engine's interest to get people to click indiscriminately (clicks are how they're compensated) but wouldn't the advertiser's conversion rate suffer?
I'd argue it's in advertisers' interest to push for the most complete possible disclosure from search engines. Not only because of the qualified clicks issue, but also because of brand impact. If advertisers on search engines care about their brands -- and, increasingly, brand-oriented advertisers are turning to search -- wouldn't they benefit from being associated with an engine that has a reputation of being completely up front with consumers?
"Maybe one of the things that can happen is that search engines can develop a sort of journalistic ethic," posited Mike Moran, an engineer and site manager at IBM, speaking at the conference. "Most magazines don't pay for themselves by subscriptions, but you expect that they're unbiased because there's a professional calling that's taken very seriously."
Mara Hannula, senior director e-commerce at Marriott International, thinks disclosure should go even further than merely distinguishing between paid and organic results.
"It shouldn't just be that paid advertising exists," said Hannula, "but should explain that this is how paid ads appear, this is how they are triggered, and this is who sponsored them."
Why is she so concerned? Search for "Marriott hotels" on Google, and two paid results that appear on the right use the word "Marriott" as part of their link URL. Neither, of course, is actually a Marriott site.
"To the extent that our customers are confused, we take it very seriously," she told me. "We're not going to ignore it."
That's a tough one. Google's supposed to be policing use of trademarks in ad copy, so if URLs are ad copy (and that remains to be seen), this one falls squarely on the search company. It should enforce its policies, and thereby protect advertisers like Marriott.
The Internet, and the search engines themselves, are creating an environment in which people expect transparency. The "conversations" increasingly taking place on corporate blogs and on corporate Web sites herald a potential new relationship between companies and consumers. Why sully that potential openness and honesty by engaging in an advertising relationship that confuses, rather than enlightens?
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Pamela Parker is a former managing editor of ClickZ News, Features, and Experts. She's been covering interactive advertising and marketing since the boom days of 1999, chronicling the dot-com crash and the subsequent rise of the medium. Before working at ClickZ, Parker was associate editor at @NY, a pioneering Web site and e-mail newsletter covering New York new media start-ups. Parker received a master's degree in journalism, with a concentration in new media, from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.
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