Search Needs Better Labeling

An in-depth study of people unaware how pay-for-placement search found that they are surprised, and often negative, when they find out how paid listings work.

Baltimore-based Context-Based Research Group conducted the ethnographic study, which looked at the actions and feedback of 17 participants in four test cities, on behalf of Consumers Union’s Consumer WebWatch. The study examined consumer interactions with 15 top search sites, including Google, Yahoo and AOL, during March 2003.

After choosing 17 individuals, some of them very Web savvy but unaware of pay-for-placement search, the researchers interviewed them about their search habits. They then explained the pay-for-placement business model, and pointed out explanatory pages on the search engines’ Web sites, gauging consumer reactions.

Using pre-and post-“enlightenment” interviews, and observations about these people’s searching behavior, Consumer WebWatch concluded that consumers lose trust in search engines that do not clearly mark paid listings as advertisements. The group suggests search companies consider stricter labeling practices, such as eschewing the term “sponsored” sites or matches for “paid advertisements” in the header for paid results.

“We don’t think paid search is evil,” said Leslie Marable, the report’s author. “It provides a value to consumers. However, [search engines] need to do a better job at disclosing these search-marketing practices.”

The ethnographic study results may not be representative of the Web population as a whole, however. Although the researchers took care to choose a cross-section of the population, the study looked only at consumers who were previously unaware of pay-for-placement search. In April of 2002, Consumer WebWatch released a study that found 60 percent of Internet users were unaware that some search engines listed sites higher in exchange for a fee, but the practice has grown more common in the past year and some search engines have changed their labeling of paid listings.

“It’s not to be swept under the rug, but it’s not a huge flashing warning sign either,” said Gary Stein, an analyst with Jupiter Research, which is owned by the parent company of this site. “[Paid search] is new and people can be surprised by it.”

The report follows up on a Federal Trade Commission (FTC) letter released last year that urged “clear and conspicuous disclosures of paid placement” on search results pages. The staff letter, responding to a 2001 complaint by a consumer advocacy group, declined to recommend FTC action.

Consumers Union itself had pressed search companies to improve their disclosures after its 2002 study found a majority of Internet users unaware of paid search practices. At the time, 80 percent of those surveyed said search engines should disclose when listings were paid.

The problem, according to Consumers Union, is too many people look to search engines as the Internet version of the public library, instead of as a yellow pages directory.

For example, the study found that participants were comfortable with the concept of paid search for commercial queries, yet some expressed dismay at paid listings appearing in the results for what they considered non-commercial searches, such as for health information.

Stein agreed that search engines could afford to do more to build consumer awareness.

“There’s probably some work that needs to be done so the consumers are brought in the loop,” he said. “It seems to me there’s a little more consumer sophistication that needs to happen.”

The study went outside the major markets, to Providence, Phoenix, Kansas City, and Raleigh-Durham, to get a better sampling of average Internet users. Participants were screened to weed out so-called “insiders”: journalists, librarians, IT professionals, and others. The researchers looked for frequent searchers who had broadband.

Most participants only clicked on links carried on the first page of results. Of the results selected, more than 40 percent were paid links. Consumer WebWatch attributed this to their prominent placement.

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