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Report Suggests Paid Search Disclosure Could Be Better

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Last week, I participated in a panel at the Trust or Consequence: How Failure to Disclose Ad Relationships Threatens to Burst the Search Bubble conference backed by Consumer Reports' WebWatch. Wait a minute? Aren't ad clearly disclosed these days? Depends on what you consider clear.

Still In Search Of Disclosure (PDF file) is a new report Consumer Reports' WebWatch released at the event. It came away with these three key findings:

  • Disclosure headings are now more difficult to find
     
  • Two of three meta search engines examined have improved disclosure
     
  • Paid inclusion was not found satisfactorily disclosed

The report also has a chart detailing how major search engines were found to have improved, or not, since the last survey in 2004. Here's a look a the the most visited five sites:

  • Google found to be good, though if you wanted to get help about disclosure, it was hard to find.
     
  • Yahoo previously red highlighted disclosure labels changed to gray and hyperlinks to further information harder to find.
     
  • MSN found to have made paid listings easier to spot, paid inclusion noted as no longer running, but dinged for removing a page about disclosure.
     
  • AOL's previously red highlighted disclsoure labels changed to green and slightly harder to find the hyperlink to more disclosure information.
     
  • Ask disclosure headings harder to spot and hyperlinks to more information were removed.

Basically, the report's author Jørgen J. Wouters speaking at the show felt there was a sort of rollback. For example, did the "Sponsor Results" heading at Yahoo go from red to gray to make it less noticable? And apparently at the time of the report, clicking on those words didn't take you to this disclosure page (it does now, though you might not realize this since the words don't have an underline common to many hyperlinks).

Of course, Google's disclosure heading of "Sponsored Links" has been gray for as long as I can remember, so Yahoo can argue that if it was rolling back, it rolled back to what many might consider the industry standard. And unlike Yahoo, you can't click on those words to learn more about the roll sponsored listings play at Google. Similarly, if you look at Google's breakdown of a search results page, nothing about sponsored listings is noted.

That will probably change at Google shortly. The Google panelist there thought it was a good idea to make that change so that a hyperlink from Sponsored Links heading will lead to more info about. Google did recently make it clear in revised guidelines for webmasters that advertising has no role in affecting rankings. But getting that out in front of the help pages that ordinary searchers see would be good, as well.

In discussion, one person suggested that search engines might have something similar to the heart logos you sometimes see restaurant menus, to reflect healthy eating. Any paid link, paid inclusion or paid placement, could carry such a logo or icon so those who care would know.

I love experimenting with that type of idea. An industry standard to help searchers know what's paid and what's not could help ensure trust is maintained in the industry. They needn't even be of an "in your face" variety. I gave a "little blue dots" example when looking at paid inclusion last year as an example of something that didn't have to be blatant.

Trust remains an issue, of course. We also just had research out showing that just calling something paid causes people to trust it less. IE, take the "pure, free" results and call them sponsored, and suddenly people think they aren't as good. And don't label ads, and suddenly people think they might be a bit better.

The reality is there's plenty of bad stuff in the so called "pure" results, junk that gets in or listing that aren't necessarily as good as ad listings. The reverse is true, as well. Searchers need to be evaluating all the listings on a page. But there is a sensitivity to paid results, so for better or worse, I think the search engines are stuck with the fact they should be clearly disclosed in some way.

It was also touched on that "sponsored" might not say clearly enough what are ads. In the past, I've felt like the word sponsored was doing the job and somewhat hesitant to change what's become an industry standard.

But ponder this. When you see ads from Google's AdSense program on pages across the web, they don't say, "Sponsored Listings From Google." They're "Ads By Google." And now with Yahoo rolling out its own contextual ads, we've got Ads From Yahoo, as the JenSense blog explains. How come the word "ads" is OK elsewhere but not on the search results pages themselves? Maybe the paid listings really ought to be called "Ad Listings."

For some further coverage of the event, see:

  • Study: Search Engines Still Fail to Disclose Ads: From ClickZ, general round-up of the report and presentation at the conference.
     
  • Disclose, Already: Also from ClickZ, author Pamela Parker argues that advertisers have an interest in ensure there's clear disclosure. The Worst Idea in Search from MediaPost make similar comments.
     
  • Paid Listings Under Fire: From Kevin Ryan at iMediaConnect, this was written before the conference and takes aim at wondering if a revisit to disclosure is even necessary and poking at various surveys Consumer WebWatch has done in the past. Have to disagree with him, however. There's every reason to ensure consumers are being given good disclosure information. We can argue whether one survey or not is biased, but the discussion and continued monitoring is vital.
     
  • Paid Listings Threaten Search Credibility: From eWeek, this covers the report presentation and the panel discussion that followed.

Also see Search Engine Disclosure: Better, but Still Wanting for our coverage of the last survey by Consumer Reports' WebWatch, with plenty of further links to material about FTC guidelines and other surveys.


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