Survey: Most Users Click on Unpaid Results

Web searchers find non-paid listings to be more relevant than paid listings on commercial searches, according to a new study.

The research, conducted by WebSurveyor for search-marketing firm iProspect, found that 61 percent of searchers clicked on organic search results as the most relevant result in a search for “used cars” from a buyer looking to purchase a car. The rest chose a paid search listing.

WebSurveyor conducted the test with 1,649 users of the four top search engines. It found that search behavior varied across engines. The sample has a 3 percent margin of error.

Fredrick Marckini, CEO of iProspect, Watertown, MA, said the survey highlights the importance of coupling search engine optimization with paid search advertising.

“You have to look at where people are clicking on the page,” he said. “The majority of the clicks, other than on MSN, are happening in the natural search results.”

On Google, for example, 72 percent chose an organic listing; on Yahoo, 61 percent did so. Yet AOL and MSN searchers behaved much differently. On AOL, half of searchers chose a paid listing. On MSN, 71 percent clicked on an ad.

The divergent search activity is more striking since MSN uses Yahoo's algorithmic search and its Overture paid search, while AOL does the same with Google.

Consumers aren't worried about confusing ads and organic listings, said Jupiter Research analyst Gary Stein.

“They trust their abilities to discern what is an ad and what isn't,” he said.

MSN and AOL both give paid search results more prominence on the page and set them off less from organic results. On MSN, in particular, paid search results are at the top of the page and listed under the title “featured sites.” Both Yahoo and Google set apart paid search more clearly and label the results as from “sponsors.”

In March, MSN said it would alter its search results to make the paid listings separate from its non-paid search. MSN said tests found users were more pleased with their results when paid links were clearly identified.

Likewise, AOL's search results give more prominence to ads. On AOL, paid results appear at the top of the page, while Google sets its paid listings either in a different colored bar at the top of the page or set apart by a line on the right side.

In 2002,the Federal Trade Commission said search sites should clearly and conspicuously label which listings are advertisements.

Yahoo has made tentative moves to make money off its algorithmic results with the rollout of a paid inclusion program in March. Site Match allows advertisers to pay to have their sites included in Yahoo's search results. Google has vowed to never accept payment for inclusion, reiterating this point in the founders' letter that opened its IPO filing last week.

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