Consumer WebWatch: Search Ad Disclosures Need Work

Many search engines could do a better job of clearly disclosing which listings are advertising, according a new report.

Consumer WebWatch, a group started by Consumers Union, yesterday released its second study of search engine advertising practices. The consumer advocacy group found that search engines should make their disclosures of paid listings more visible and clear. WebWatch rapped search engines like Yahoo that use paid inclusion for not explaining which results in their search index are there through ad relationships.

“The risk is losing the trust of consumers,” said Beau Brendler, director of WebWatch. “I think the learning curve for consumers on the Web is only going to increase. There's a real risk if you're going to proceed in a way that consumers might later find out is deceptive.”

WebWatch asked four professional librarians to examine the disclosure practices of 15 search engines over six months. The librarians found that nearly all search engines comply with the minimum disclosure requirements set forth by the Federal Trade Commission. The FTC two years ago advised search engines to provide “clear and conspicuous disclosure” of paid placement and paid inclusion.

WebWatch commissioned a survey two years ago of 1,500 Internet users that found a majority did not understand how the practice of paid listings worked. It found that “sponsored listings” or “sponsored links” headings used by many search engines did not convey to many consumers that those links are paid ads.

The new report found that the explanations of paid listings provided by search engines often are inadequate, often linked to from text in smaller font that blends into the Web page background.

The just-released WebWatch study cast doubt on the practice of paid inclusion. Its testers found that it was not adequately explained or disclosed by any of the search engines using it, including Yahoo.

Yahoo's Overture Services lets advertisers pay to be included in the Yahoo search index through SiteMatch. The program sets Yahoo apart from its main rivals, Google, MSN and Ask Jeeves. MSN and Ask Jeeves stopped using paid inclusion last year. Google has vowed to keep its index free of advertiser influence.

“There's a reason why Google is so popular and well-regarded,” Brendler said. “Google has a pretty strong internal commitment to doing business in an ethical way.”

Yahoo discloses its paid inclusion program when users click on an “About this page” link at the top of Yahoo's search results. Yahoo does not identify which results were included in the index through SiteMatch.

WebWatch said its testers were split on Yahoo's paid-inclusion disclosure, with some thinking it was deliberately buried. Others thought Yahoo explained its paid-inclusion practices well to interested users.

“The disclosures are simply not good enough,” Brendler said of search engines using paid inclusion.

Meta-search engines, such as CNET's and InfoSpace's Dogpile, aggravate these disclosure problems, the new study found. WebWatch testers noted that meta-search engines, which compile search results from various sources, do not state which results include paid links.

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