Pew: Search Users Don't Distinguish Paid Results

Search engine users are surprisingly unaware of paid versus unpaid search results, according to a survey released Sunday by the Pew Internet & American Life Project. Only 38 percent of users are aware of the distinction between paid, or “sponsored” results, and unpaid results.

“This is ironic since nearly half of all users say they would stop using search engines if they thought engines were not being clear about how they presented paid results,” said Deborah Fallows, senior research fellow at Pew Internet and author of the report.

However, the survey also found that most users are happy with their search engines: 87 percent say they have successful search experiences most of the time. Search engine use is also prolific: 84 percent of online Americans have used search engines, and, on any given day, 56 percent of people online are using them, Pew found.

Search engine users also are brand loyal: about 47 percent use one engine regularly, while about 48 percent use two or three and only about 7 percent use three or more. Internet users “behave conservatively as searchers: They tend to settle quickly on a single search engine and then stick with it,” the report said.

Still, the online community is strikingly unaware about how search engine results — and related ads — are displayed. Though 68 percent of searchers said engines are a “fair and unbiased” source of information, most do not notice paid ads or search result listings. Only one in six say they can “always tell” which results are paid or sponsored and which are not.

Fallows said most online users are fine with having ads or paid listings on the search results page: They simply don't notice them.

“The ads they are used to seeing on the Internet are flashing at them at the top of the screen or popping up: They are very obvious,” she said. “These paid results are much more subtle, much more blended into the Web page you're looking at.”

When Pew asked people what it would take for them to notice the difference between paid and unpaid results, they suggested making paid results a different color than the main text on the page, labeling them as “paid” or putting them in a different kind of layout — all the things that search engines already do, Fallows said.

“Some search engines could be more transparent in how they present paid versus unpaid results, but it is partly the responsibility of the user to pay a little more attention to the results they're getting,” she said.

In other results, Pew found that not everyone thinks search engines are the only way to go. Though engines are used frequently, about half of Internet users said they could return to other ways of finding information, while 17 percent said they wouldn't miss them at all.

Notably for search engines and marketers, there is a core group — 32 percent of Internet users — who say they can't live without search engines.

“They are a different breed of searcher — a more high-powered group who work the engines harder and more seriously,” according to Pew. These searchers are more likely to be male, young, better educated, of higher income and have been online for more years than other users.

Meanwhile, searches often are dominated by popular culture, news events, trends and seasonal topics. Google's top query for 2004 was Britney Spears, while Fox's show “American Idol” was Yahoo's top query and AOL reported that “horoscopes” was its top search last year.

Christine Blank covers online marketing and advertising, including e-mail marketing and paid search, for DM News and To keep up with the latest developments in these areas, subscribe to our daily and weekly e-mail newsletters by visiting

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