Dominate the Search Engines for the Price of a Happy Meal

Last week, search engines were accused of deceptive advertising, and many of us were left wondering if the accusation was justified. Consumer watchdog Commercial Alert, founded by Gary Ruskin and Ralph Nader, filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) against eight search engines. It alleged that paid placement and paid inclusion without clear disclosure are unlawful, claiming that such listings “look like information from an objective database selected by an objective algorithm. But really they are paid ads in disguise.”

You can see my entire point of view regarding this subject by visiting I-Advertising.

The complaint drew a parallel with the FTC cases against producers of infomercials. Fact is, though, there’s a tremendous difference between an infomercial on TV and a paid search listing. It all comes down to the value provided to the user or consumer.

Kathryn Shantz, director of corporate communications at LookSmart, had this to say: “What’s important is [whether] search results are relevant to users’ needs.”

I would agree; as a user, this is what’s most important to me. Search engine users are looking for information, usually in conjunction with a buying decision. At least 40 percent of searches are commercial in nature, and the demand for commercially based listings is, therefore, huge.

Currently, the vast majority of listings on search engines are not paid placements. Both paid and nonpaid listings provide the same information to the user. Again, the goal is to provide the most relevant results to users.

I also discovered that, so far, the FTC has not contacted the search engines. Shantz stated, “LookSmart has not been contacted by the FTC for any of its services or products. We believe these allegations are without merit. What’s important to users is relevant search results — we provide a tremendous service that is free to users.”

AltaVista spokesperson Andrew Wong also said the FTC hadn’t contacted the company yet. “AltaVista is going to wait until the FTC comes back with a ruling, a position we believe all of the search engines named are going to take. We can’t really defend ourselves until the FTC decides whether or not we are practicing unfairly,” he said.

When asked about having an industry-wide standard for the term or definition for the listings causing the controversy, Wong admitted that it’s an interesting point, but he didn’t see it happening unless the FTC comes out with a statement.

Wong further stated, “We have asked our users whether or not they understand the distinctions between featured and partnered listings, and we have learned that they understand that those sites pay for those positions. In fact, if you do a search on AltaVista and get a featured or partnered site as a result, you can click on the phrase ‘featured site’ and get the definition.”

Talk About Deception…

Of course, the FTC has to take all complaints and process them with due diligence. But what about all the seriously disingenuous search engine service offerings I receive via spam, such as this one: “Dominate the Search Engines for the price of a HappyMeal”?

I am so sick and tired of the increasing volume of such spam as this: Guaranteed Top 10 Search Engine Placement — No Front End Development Fees!! Most development firms charge $2500-$10,000 for optimization services plus monthly maintenance of $150-$250. We do it all for $149 per month and guarantee your top 10 position on your keywords.

So, let me get this straight. First of all, Happy Meals are now $149? And secondly, I can save $9,851 if I use their “we do it all search engine optimization service”? Something tells me that $10,000 is still worth $10,000, not $149, and that I’ve been deceived by the subject line, “Dominate the Search Engines for the price of a Happy Meal.” Should this be considered deceptive, and can I cite these people in a complaint?

If Ruskin and Nader want to be genuine in their quest to clean up deceptive advertising practices, I would suggest they take a look at the entire range of industry practices — and include deceptive email spam in their complaint.

International Search Engine Update

My thanks to all those who have taken the time to update my international search engine picks. I’m happy to report the following postscript to my last two articles.

According to the best searcher in China, the most popular Chinese search engines are these:

And finally, a good site for international search engines in Holland, Germany, and France: Vice Versa.

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