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Search Engine Disclosure: Better, but Still Wanting

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How forthcoming are search engines in disclosing their paid placement and paid inclusion policies? They're better than they were a couple of years ago, but there's still room for improvement, according to a prominent watchdog group.

Consumer WebWatch, a project of Consumers Union, the non-profit publisher of Consumer Reports, has been tracking search engine disclosure practices since the U.S. Federal Trade Commission issued a strongly worded letter of recommendation in July 2002.

Last year, Consumer WebWatch released the results of a study of typical web users, showing that although disclosure practices had improved since the FTC letter, users were still confused about search engine paid listings and paid inclusion practices.

This month, the organization released the results of a new study that employed four trained information professionals to evaluate disclosure practices of the 15 most popular search engines, as ranked by Nielsen//Net Ratings. The report was generally favorable, but noted that there are still some problematic areas.

"The bottom line in terms of paid placement is that all fifteen did better and are doing relatively well on paid placement, but none of the search engines were even close to being satisfactory on paid inclusion disclosure," said Beau Brendler, director of Consumer WebWatch.

Among the key findings:

The majority of disclosure headings were difficult to spot. Eight of the 15 search engines tested labeled their paid search listings with headings that were both smaller and duller in color than the search results. Furthermore, with only three exceptions (Yahoo, AOL, Lycos), all search engines tested used tiny and faint fonts, such as light gray, for hyperlinks to disclosure pages.

Many disclosures were incomprehensible. Testers found that many disclosure statements were written to discourage reading. Many disclosures also seemed geared more toward advertisers than consumers and were peppered with jargon and trademarked names for various programs—particularly for paid inclusion—leaving some testers baffled and uncertain about what they had read.

Meta-search engines were "mega-offenders." These services present results from several other engines and strip away all existing disclosures from those engines.

Most search engines exceeded paid placement guidelines. Ironically, Google was singled out for failing to provide an explanation of its paid placement programs apart from labels above Sponsored Links on result pages. Prior to the FTC letter, Google was considered a leader in the area of disclosure.

The report also dinged Google (and several other engines) for failing to adequately disclose that it did not have a paid inclusion program. Some testers complained that even though Google has long touted the purity of its natural search results, it's not easy to find information about Google's paid inclusion policies on its web site.

"We would not say that Google is falling short," said Jorgen J. Wouters, the author of the report. Rather, Consumer WebWatch is encouraging better and more specific disclosure, with less legalese, across the board.

"Frankly all of these engines are exceeding the FTC's recommendations," said Wouters.

In addition to making note of findings on each of the search engines covered, the report makes specific recommendations for improving disclosure practices.

"A lot of what we did recommend essentially echoes what the FTC recommended," said Brendler. These recommendations include "making the disclosures visible, written in English, easy to understand and in language that's not going to confuse [consumers”."

While these are admirable goals, there are a few issues with the report that should be kept in mind. First, the actual ratings of each search engine are subjective evaluations from just four people, albeit people who are trained to evaluate the quality of information. As such, it's not a comprehensive, statistically valid study of search engine disclosure practices.

It's also important to note that while the report was released this month, the actual testing of the engines was done between April 28 and May 4, 2004. Since then, all of the search engines included in the report other than Yahoo have discontinued their paid inclusion programs. Many have also changed either search result pages, disclosure pages or both—in some cases improving disclosure.

Tomorrow I'll take a closer look at the findings for each of the engines covered in the report. See Rating Search Engine Disclosure Practices to read on.

Want to discuss or comment on this story? Join the Rating Search Engine Disclosure discussion in the Search Engine Watch forums.

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