Digital MarketingSearch MarketingAre Search Ads the Web’s Infomercials?

Are Search Ads the Web’s Infomercials?

Only one out of six Internet users can distinguish between paid and organic search listings.

The majority of American Internet users are both confident of their command of search engine technology, and naively uninformed about it, according to a report by the Pew Internet & American Life Project.

The study was based on a survey of 2,200 adults 18 and older between May 14 and June 17, 2004.

Among the report’s findings, is the widespread ignorance about the distinction between paid and organic search listings. Only 38 percent of survey respondents had heard of the distinction, while a mere one out of six can discern the difference on an actual search engine page.

“I would compare it to the confusion surrounding advertorials in print and infomercials on television,” said Deborah Fallows, senior research fellow at Pew. “However, it raises the question: How much clearer can the search engines be?”

The lack of understanding between online advertising and natural search results sharply contrasts with the overwhelming majority (92 percent) of Internet users who are confident about their ability to search the Internet. Approximately 52 percent of respondents said they were “very confident.”

The report also found while the majority (70 percent) of respondents accepted the practice of paid search listings, 45 percent said they would stop using search engines if they thought search engines weren’t clear about offering some paid results.

The Pew study is not the first to reveal consumer confusion about paid search listings. Prior studies prompted the FTC to issue recommendations for search engines to clearly demarcate between natural and paid search listings.

The report also identified two primary groups of Internet searchers: 70 percent who use search engines in relatively unsophisticated ways, often for “trivial” content; and 30 percent whom Fallows calls “power searchers.” This group uses search engines more frequently and to a larger extent for information they classify as critical to them.

Other findings of the report include:

  • 84 percent of American adults online (approximately 108 million people) have used search engines. On any given day, 56 percent use a search engine.
  • 47 percent of searchers use a single search engine no more than once or twice a week; 35 percent use search engines at least once a day.
  • 44 percent of searchers regularly use one search engine; 48 percent use two or three; 7 percent use more than three.
  • 68 percent of Internet searchers say that search engines are a fair and unbiased source of information, while 19 percent say they do not trust them.

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