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Paid Content Disclosure Ratings: June 2002

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The FTC has asked the search engine industry to ensure that they are being "clear and conspicuous" in disclosing their use of paid content. To see how well major search engines currently measure up, I went to each site and decided whether I felt a typical user would find such disclosures easily. Alone among the major search engines, Google was found to be completely compliant.

The survey was conducted on June 28, 2002. A chart summarizing the results can be found on the Buying Your Way In To Search Engines page. For more about the FTC's guidance to search engines, see the FTC Recommends Disclosure To Search Engines article. Finally, reference to "paid listings" usually mean "paid placement" listings, where position is guaranteed.

AllTheWeb.com: Paid listings from Overture are clearly listed under a "Sponsored Search Listings" heading and delineated from the main "editorial" results. However, the "Start Here" link from Lycos is visually distinct from the Overture listings and possibly might not be seen as sold. It passes the test, but with qualifications, because that Start Here link introduces confusion. As for the editorial results, paid inclusion is in operation within them, and this is not identified on the search results page or in help files about the search result. Thus, the search engine fails on that count.

AOL Search: Paid listings from Google are clearly listed under a "Sponsored Links" heading and delineated from the main "editorial" results. The editorial results currently come from Inktomi and have paid inclusion listings within them. This is not identified on the search results page or in help files about the search results. Thus, the search engine fails on that count. This will pass when editorial results come from Google, in the near future. As for content promotion, "Recommended Sites" listed at top of the page are defined by the AOL help page as "picked by AOL editors and are a very close match to what you're looking for," but the page neglects to add that these seem largely redirections to AOL's own internal content or commerce partners. A failing grade for this.

AltaVista: Paid listings from AltaVista or Overture are listed under an unclear "Products and Services" heading. AltaVista does try to make a disclosure about these listings through the use of an "Info" link next to the heading. However, the info help page doesn't immediately explain that listings are paid ads. That, in combination with the poor label, gains AltaVista a failing grade. The search engine should move toward the standard that has emerged to say "Sponsored" in association with these listings. As for AltaVista's editorial results, these contain paid inclusion, and this is not identified on the search results page or in help files about the search results. The editorial results section does end with the statement, "Get your web site's pages into the AltaVista search results with Express Inclusion," which in turn links how a company can pay for pages to be included in AltaVista. However, this page is clearly not aimed at explaining the possible impact of paid inclusion on search results, so it is not enough to gain a passing grade. It is good that many section headings on the results page can be clicked on to reveal more information about that area. In some cases, even consumers will realize that these sections contain advertising partnerships. However, it's not always clear that section headings are clickable.

Ask Jeeves: A paid placement listings sold by Ask Jeeves itself may be called a "featured listing" while paid listings from Overture get called "sponsored links" and paid listings from other search engines at the bottom of the page are under the "You may find these options useful" heading. Given that two of three major ad placements are unclear, Ask Jeeves got an overall fail rating. As for the editorial results, these appear in either the "Click Ask below for your answers" section powered by Ask Jeeves editors or the "You may find my search results helpful" section powered by crawler-based results from Ask Jeeves-owned Teoma. In both cases, paid inclusion may happen. A small "Editorial Guidelines for Answers" link at the bottom of the search results page deserves kudos for calling out to those who may wonder about how answers are compiled, and it does say that paid partnerships may exist. However, it doesn't address paid inclusion with the Teoma results, thus earning a failing grade. The FTC also doesn't prefer that such disclosure be made at the bottom of pages but rather in closer proximity to the actual listings.

Google: Paid listings sold by Google are clearly labeled as "Sponsored Link" or "Sponsored Links," delineated from the main search results and visually distinct. An easy passing grade. Google also has no paid inclusion program, so it is the only major search engine that would meet the FTC's current recommendations.

HotBot: Paid listings sold by Overture are clearly labeled as "Sponsored Search Listings." Paid inclusion may happen in some of the editorial results provided by Inktomi, and this is not disclosed on the search results page or in help files. Fail. As for content promotion, this happens in the "From The Lycos Network" area, which is probably pretty clear. However, the "Search Partners" section also has content promotion, and that's not clear. Fail.

Inktomi: Runs a paid inclusion program for its crawler-based results. However, Inktomi only distributes these results to partners. It does not run its own search site and so does not fall under the FTC's recommendations to search engines (though the FTC does recommend that companies like Inktomi who "power" others discuss how disclosure might -- or might not -- be happening).

LookSmart: LookSmart's web site is no longer really aimed at consumers, as the company is more focused on distributing its results to users through partners. Nevertheless, some consumers do come to the LookSmart web site. "Featured Listings" that it sells aren't clearly described as paid listings, nor is it clear on the search results page a paid inclusion program requires commercial sites to pay to be included in the main editorial results. As for help files covering this, they are non-existent. Fail on both counts.

Lycos: For paid listings, the situation is exactly as with AllTheWeb.com. However, the "Start Here" link is a little more inline with other listings, and a small (i) link next to the "Sponsored Search Listings" heading provides additional information about this area being sold. As for the editorial results, these come from FAST (which owns and powers AllTheWeb.com) and have paid inclusion URLs. This is not identified on the search results page or in help files about the search results. Fail. For content promotion, this happens in the clearly labeled "From The Lycos Network" section. Pass. Kudos also for having links next to each major section heading to help explain the sections.

MSN Search: Paid listings sold by Overture are clearly labeled as "Sponsored Sites." Pass. Paid inclusion may happen in some of the editorial results provided by either Inktomi or LookSmart, and this is not disclosed on the search results page or in help files. Fail. As for content promotion, this happens in "Featured Sites" area. At first, the inclination would be to say fail, as this is not clear given some sponsored or internal content appears here. However, editorial results also may and do appear. Given this, "Featured" might actually be the right name for this section. Moreover, the "About Results" link that appears on both the MSN Search home page and the search results page leads to a page that explains precisely what is in this section and is extremely clear that payment may be involved. For this, the MSN gets a pass rating from Search Engine Watch. However, the FTC might conclude that the location of the About Results link isn't in close enough proximity to the "Featured Sites" heading, so this is a qualified pass.

Overture: As with LookSmart, Overture does not aim its site at consumers. The company is firmly focused on distributing its results to users through partners. Still, some consumers do come to the Overture web site and the company even provides a "Search Tips" page that is listed on the results page. Paid listings are identified by an "Advertiser's Max Bid" notation at the end of a listing. The use of the word "advertiser" probably would help people understand that these results are paid. Unpaid results come from Inktomi, may contain paid inclusion listings, and this is not disclosed. Fail.

Netscape Search: Paid listings sold by Overture are clearly labeled as "Sponsored Links." "Matching Results" come largely from Google, which has no paid inclusion program. However, these may also contain and promote content from AOL Time Warner, which owns Netscape Search. An obvious "About This" link appears next to the "Matching Results" heading and brings up a page that explains this situation clearly. Pass, then, for content promotion.

Yahoo: Paid listings sold by Yahoo are clearly labeled as "Sponsor Matches," along with a helpful link that says, "What are Sponsor Matches?," leading to a further explanation. As for paid inclusion, some "Web Site Matches" will be for sites that appear because they had to pay a mandatory fee to be reviewed. This is not clear on the search results page. Further, clicking on the "Help" link on the search page, while bringing up a page describing the search results, does not make clear some sites must pay a fee to be listed with Yahoo. Fail. Finally, for content promotion, this happens in the "Inside Yahoo" area, a clear-enough heading and which is also explained on the search help page.


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