Confusion Over Paid Listings

Expect to see the issue of how well, or poorly, search engines disclose paid content to arise very soon. Reason? Consumer WebWatch will issue an “anthropological” report later this month showing confusion about paid-listing disclosure based on a study of 17 Web surfers.

You can read a fascinating account of the findings in this transcript from a search engine panel held during April’s National Summit on Web Credibility (a good catch spotted by the SiteLines Web searching blog, later reviewed by Pandia). I’ll revisit the report when it’s formally issued. In the meantime, some quick comments based on what’s been revealed.

Confusing Enlightenment

None of the 17 people studied were familiar with paid placement before the survey began. In fact, it was a requirement they know nothing about it. Instead, they were invited to learn about paid placement after conducting some search activities during an “enlightenment” phase, in which they were apparently pointed at likely pages at each search engine that provided disclosure information.

Some participants found the disclosure information unclear, buried, or written more for advertisers than searchers. I’m not surprised, yet it’s important to note the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) guidelines for search engines don’t expect consumers to follow disclosure links to determine if a link is a paid placement. Instead, FTC guidelines recommend paid links be clearly labeled right on the search results page.

It’s reasonable to expect some people will explore search engine help pages to understand how a search engine operates. These include how the engine makes use of paid content. Though the sample was extremely limited, anyone who has ever read a search engine help page will find herself nodding in recollection of the bad reactions some survey participants experienced.

Not all help files are bad. In my recent search engine paid disclosure survey, I found it easy to locate good explanations from both MSN Search and AOL Search. Finding Yahoo’s disclosure page was much harder, but when I eventually got to the information, I found a visual guide with good disclosure references. Good references from my point of view, at least.

“Sponsored” Isn’t Clear Enough?

What about the paid placement labels right on the search results page? It was surprising to discover some in the survey found the word “sponsored,” nearly universally used, to be unclear. Moreover, in the panel Q&A, it was astounding to hear someone suggest search engines use the term “sponsored” as a “veil” to disguise the fact some links are sold.

The FTC suggests “sponsored” is the type of disclosure language it prefers over more euphemistic terms, such as “featured.” That so many search engines now use “sponsored” is to their credit, as they are following those recommended guidelines.

Indeed, it should be noted search engines have “cleaned up their acts” big time since the FTC recommendations first came out. I just resurveyed the situation. You can read a summary, “Buying Your Way In: Search Engine Advertising Chart,” at Search Engine Watch.

Disclosure Has Improved

Last year, just after the recommendations were released, 25 percent of the search engines surveyed failed to meet paid placement requirements (3 out of 12). The figure’s now dropped to only 9 percent — just 1 out of 11 in the latest survey. That one, Netscape Search, failed because some new sidebar ads it’s testing (which are well removed from editorial results) aren’t properly labeled. It’s an easy fix to make.

The change is more dramatic when it comes to paid inclusion. Last year, not one search engine with a paid inclusion program provided proper disclosure. This year, half do. If the survey had been conducted two months ago, the score would have been 75 percent compliance. Good disclosure on both Yahoo and AlltheWeb was lost in recent design changes.

So things are better. Is better good enough? If people don’t understand “sponsored” means “ads,” as the new research suggests, perhaps the language will need to change again.

Paid Inclusion Not Surveyed

The report is also interesting because it didn’t try to understand the impact of paid inclusion. That was considered too confusing to survey and was viewed as not tainting results, in that it doesn’t influence ranking.

Certainly, paid inclusion is a difficult concept to explain. Yet this type of content probably deserves far more attention than paid placement listings, which are generally separated from editorial results and well disclosed.

In contrast, paid inclusion interacts directly with editorial results. We have only search engines’ word when they say it doesn’t impact rankings. After seeing ranking boosts explained away for technical reasons, I’ve become more convinced paid inclusion content may ultimately have to be labeled or segregated, just like paid placement content. The paid inclusion section of my “Buying Your Way In” chart explains this more and references key articles on the topic.

Can’t We All Just Get Along?

If the latest research prompts media reports that slam paid listings, expect the search engine industry to fight back with its own research. The industry is already discussing this, looking to freshen up some research from last year showing users are aware of paid listings, and the majority feel the quality of these results is as good as ordinary search results. That research also indicates consumers are most concerned about spawning ads (49 percent) and pop-ups (35) compared to paid placement (a scant 2 percent).

Overall, I hope it doesn’t come down to battle lines being drawn, but cooperation instead. Paid listings aren’t evil. In fact, they arguably take pressure off unpaid editorial results from the heavy third-party optimization they faced in the past. I continue to hear Webmasters talk more about pursuing “content” as a way to win free traffic (as I’ve always preached), while paid listings are a means to guaranteed placement.

Both sides, consumer advocates and search engines, should come together to better understand what the best way is to provide disclosure to those who want it, which is in everyone’s interest. The last thing search engines want is for people to skip paid listings out of fear or mistrust or to scroll past good editorial results because they think they are sold, too. Both behaviors are cited in the report.

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