Search Advertising Disclosure Articles


This page covers articles from Search Engine Watch and around the web on the topic of how search engines disclose paid listings to searchers.

NOTE: Article links often change, especially the older an article is. In case of a bad link, use the publication’s search facility, which most have, and search for the headline. Also, some very old articles flagged “no longer online” might indeed be online — but the former URL no longer resolves, and it’s not worth the time investment for me to try and personally track down these down versus spending time producing new content.

Jump to articles from:
Sept. 2004 Onward
Jan-Aug. 2004
2003200220012000 & Earlier

Jan-Aug. 2004

Search Tangles
PC World, July 1, 2004,aid,116641,00.asp

A look at the pressures editorial results at search engines face given competition to rank highly, issues with paid inclusion, cloaking and where search may be going.

Going Beyond FTC Paid Inclusion Disclosure Guidelines
SearchDay, June 17, 2004

A look at how Yahoo might go beyond FTC guidelines about paid inclusion as a means of rebuilding faith in the impact of paid inclusion on relevancy and its listings in general. This version for Search Engine Watch members explains how to decipher listing URLs at Yahoo to spot paid inclusion content, how some results for popular queries may be hardcoded, finds paid inclusion showing up in only 2 percent of listings based on a small sample of 700 queries, and looks how sponsor labeling in Yahoo’s directory hasn’t appeared to hurt the sites shown there.

Wanadoo told to mark paid-for searches after complaint
Revolution, June 16, 2004

In the UK, large ISPs have often provided paid listing heavy or all paid listing results to those searching via their portals, without clear disclosure. Unlike in the US, there have been no government regulations pushing them to disclose. Now the UK’s advertising watchdog has ruled in favor of better disclosure in the case of one ISP. Ruling is here, and good longer write-ups here and here.

Articles From 2003

What Shopping Guides Don’t Advertise
BizReport, Nov. 6, 2003

Shopping search engines are a great idea — but if you have concerns over paid content in ordinary search engines, you might be shocked to learn that paid participation is even stronger and less obvious in the shopping space. This review found a lack of disclosure with some and explores the various mechanisms that merchants pay to be involved.

Critics Take Wary View of Shopping Web Link
New York Times, Oct. 27, 2003

In a real coup for shopping search engine, it now has a deal to be featured on the Consumer Reports web site. The magazine is hoping that the arrangement will not hurt the impartiality that it is known for.

Are search engines confusing surfers?, Oct. 13, 2003

More on the growing debate over paid inclusion, emerging because the paid inclusion listings seem to be more noticeable in search results. Search engines are complying with FTC guidelines about disclosure of paid inclusion, but it could be that FTC may tighten those rules in the future.

Web Searches: The Fix Is In
BusinessWeek, Oct. 6, 2003

BusinessWeek did more than 30 interviews and analyzed dozens of searches to conclude that paid inclusion seems to provide ranking boosts to customers. Unfortunately, the Lamps Plus example listed is a bad one. The person wasn’t listed with LookSmart, which is the primary data source MSN search uses. He signs up and suddenly discovers he’s ranking better.

Of course. He wasn’t present before, and by getting in, there was a good chance he’d naturally rank well. The same would be true if he wasn’t listed in Google, then got spidered. He might then suddenly rank better there, as well. In contrast, the only way to know if paid inclusion really gave Lamps Plus an actual ranking boost, rather than just a chance at ranking well, would be to see if they were already listed, then shifted their listings to a paid inclusion program and found a favorable ranking change.

Despite the Lamps Plus example being bad, other examples like “green sleeping bag” being full of paid inclusion listings do underscore the idea that paid inclusion content seems favored and sometimes can be terribly off-target. It also remains true that paid inclusion content can be helpful in some instances and that “pure” search results are hardly pure. It’s just that the search engine itself receives no money directly.

Overall, I think the reason bad paid inclusion results are so annoying is because part of the paid inclusion pitch by search engines offering it is that content is carefully reviewed for quality. Discovering off-target paid inclusion listings causes you to lose faith. In contrast, bad “free” listings can at least be excused since no particular oversight is promised.

Study: Paid Listings Still Confuse Web Searchers
PC World, Aug. 22, 2003,aid,112132,00.asp

A study of 17 web searchers found significant confusion about what’s paid and what’s not in search results. Findings from the study were discussed during a session on legal issues at Search Engine Strategies.

I reported on the initial release of this study back in June. Some in the search engine industry, when I’ve mentioned the report to them, have been quick to dismiss it due to the small sample size (and generally hadn’t actually read it). That’s a mistake. The report wasn’t done in order apply statistics to a greater whole. Instead, it was done to intimately understand how individual consumers react to existing paid disclosure information.

The findings are well worth reading — the report is free and available here. I hope to bring a longer summary of key points in a future newsletter. Until then, understand that this isn’t a report condemning paid listings. For example, the report’s second tip for consumers worried about paid listings, on page 41, makes this clear: “Paid search is not evil.” But the report also highlights a serious challenge to search engines in educating the public about paid listings, as this quote about Google’s paid listings from page 31 illustrates: “I like that it is so clear on Google. It actually highlights [paid links” so I can ignore them completely.”

Ask Jeeves UK improves search results
NetImperative, July 31, 2003

Ask Jeeves UK has changed its search results. Unlike the US site, human-powered answers are still being compiled for selected queries. Some ads have been removed, and finally, sponsored links get labeled.

Report Shows Confusion Over Paid Listings
The Search Engine Update, June 3, 2003

An “anthropological” report from Consumer WebWatch of 17 web surfers found confusion about disclosure of paid listings on search engines. Yet since last year, search engines have made great strides in complying with FTC guidelines. Will it be a case of being good isn’t good enough? The story below provides a summary of the report findings that have been released so far and examines some of the issues raised.

Search Engine Disclosure Ratings: May 2003, May 30, 2003

In the article below, details of my latest review of major search engines, to see how well they are meeting FTC recommendations for disclosure of paid content. All but one passes for paid placement while half pass for paid placement.

Ending The Debate Over Cloaking
The Search Engine Report, Feb. 4, 2003

A look at why people have traditionally cloaked, how XML feeds these days provide a form of approved cloaking and why the bigger issue to focus on isn’t whether cloaking is allowed but instead whether paid content gets more liberal rules about acceptability.

Articles From 2002

Search Engine Standards, Please!
SearchDay, October 8, 2002

Search engines should set standards and adhere to them, say webmasters, advertisers and a senior attorney for the Federal Trade Commission. Uniform standards would serve both web site owners and searchers.

AltaVista Sales Pitch Suggested Paid Inclusion Boost
The Search Engine Report, Oct. 1, 2002

An AltaVista sales pitch tells’s Andrew Goodman that paid inclusion will boost his pages. AltaVista then recants and says it was all just a misunderstanding.

Behold the Mighty Pterodactyl: Meta Search Lives!, Sept. 29, 2002

Review of InfoSpace’s various meta search services. Oddly contrasting comments from InfoSpace executives, on the one hand admitting stuffing meta search results with paid listings has degraded search quality while on the other suggesting that the press and advocacy groups have created an “artificial” divide between paid and spidered results. No one is saying that consumers shouldn’t see ads. They are simply saying that ads ought to be easily identified as ads. Moreover, the US Federal Trade Commission has recommended that search services make clear distinctions or face possible action (see FTC Recommends Disclosure To Search Engines. Despite this, all four services run by InfoSpace: MetaCrawler, Dogpile, Excite and WebCrawler, still completely fail to delineate paid content according to the recommendations. This not only serves consumers poorly but waving such a red flag in front of the FTC is probably not in InfoSpace’s interests, either.

Google: Can The Marcia Brady Of Search Stay Sweet?
The Search Engine Report, Sept. 3, 2002

Touches on issues Google is coping with in terms of paid placement policies as well as pressure on its editorial results.

Search works to clean up its act, Aug. 19, 2002

Review of disclosure changes at search engines in the wake of FTC guidelines about paid content.

FAST Complies with FTC Search Engine Advisory
SearchDay, July 24, 2002

Responding to recent FTC recommendations, FAST has added additional information about how it crawls web pages and displays search results, including information about paid placement and paid inclusion content.

Consumer Group Asks FTC To Investigate Search Ads, July 17, 2001

Is it deceptive advertising to include paid listings in your search results and not clearly label them as ads? A group backed by consumer advocate Ralph Nader believes so, and it’s asking the US Federal Trade Commission to take action against seven major search companies.

FTC Recommends Disclosure To Search Engines, July 2, 2002

The US Federal Trade Commission has made a landmark recommendation to the search engine industry that it should improve disclosure of paid content within search results. The action came in response to a deceptive advertising complaint made last year by watchdog group Commercial Alert. A detailed look behind the cause of the complaint and the FTC’s recommendations.

FTC Recommends Disclosure To Search Engines, July 2, 2002

The US Federal Trade Commission has made a landmark recommendation to the search engine industry that it should improve disclosure of paid content within search results. The action came in response to a deceptive advertising complaint made last year by watchdog group Commercial Alert. A detailed look behind the cause of the complaint and the FTC’s recommendations.

The Mixed Message Of Paid Inclusion
The Search Engine Report, May 6, 2002

Pages pitching webmasters on the advantages of paid inclusion end up hurting search engines that run these programs, because they imply that the search engines have out-of-date, incomplete listings of the web. A look at the mixed messages that are being sent out by the web’s major crawlers.

The Bumpy Road To Maximum Monetization
The Search Engine Report, May 6, 2002

Most search engines come nowhere near monetizing all the links displayed on their search results pages. However, the quest for greater profits is likely to change this, especially if the search engines think it can be done without hurting the relevancy of their product. LookSmart’s switch to cost-per-click pricing for small business listings is the first real test of maximizing monetization this way. Unfortunately, the change and others over the past year have created consumer concerns. Either the search engines need to address those concerns in a clear, single voice, or it is likely that standards will be imposed on them by some governmental agency.

Search Me: Doom ahead for search engines that charge listing fees
SF Gate, Jan. 28, 2002

Search engines need to be like newspapers and have a clear delineation between editorial content and advertising, this column says. It sounds great, and there are indeed real concerns. But unlike media outlets, search engines also have a middle area of how they build listings that isn’t quite editorial nor advertising.

Is Google doing something wrong by failing to index every page on the web, when it is well-known that there are manufactured pages numbering in the millions designed to do nothing more that get free advertising for some companies? Is Yahoo wrong not to review every submission it receives for free and response with a guaranteed yes or no, when the sheer number of spam submissions would simply swamp it?

Putting up paid barriers can help search engines as much as hurt them. There is a real fear of a slippery slope, but it is naive to think that there is some type of “level playing” field out there that would exist without paid participation programs.

Also, the column suggests that charging a listing fee is something that Yahoo has just begun to do. The company has actually offered it since early 1999, in response to demand from webmasters. It was made mandatory for commercial categories in back at the end of 2000.

Articles From 2001

GoTo Speaks Out On FTC Complaint
The Search Engine Report, Sept. 4, 2001

At last month’s Online Advertising Forum, GoTo’s CEO Ted Meisel fired back at the complaint filed with the Federal Trade Commission over paid listings on some search engines. His comments were both right and wrong on many points.

How to net results in search-site seas
USA Today, Aug. 13, 2001

A look at paid placement on search engines, along with tips for searching better.

The Search Engines’ Little Secret
BusinessWeek, Aug. 6, 2001

Commentary on the issue of labeling paid listings at search engines.

Consumer Group Asks FTC To Investigate Search Ads, July 17, 2001

Is it deceptive advertising to include paid listings in your search results and not clearly label them as ads? A group backed by consumer advocate Ralph Nader believes so, and it’s asking the US Federal Trade Commission to take action against seven major search companies.

Amid tech slump, more portals sell search engine results to highest bidder
San Francisco Chronicle, June 18, 2001

Looks at the growth of paid placement and other paid participation programs, with lots of quotes from search engine representatives.

Meta Search Or Meta Ads?
The Search Engine Report, June 4, 2001

A review of meta search services by Search Engine Watch shows that some are providing results where more than half of their listings are paid links. A guide to what’s paid, what’s not and how to get the most from your meta search service.

Can Portals Resist The Dark Side?
The Search Engine Report, June 4, 2001

The battle now raging over profits in the search space may not be as dramatic as the Star Wars epic, but there’s definitely an element of the Dark Side as two more search engines — iWon and — have shifted over to using paid placement listings. Will other search engines follow this trend, which was begun by earlier this year?

Paid Placement Is Catching On in Web Searches
New York Times, June 4, 2001

Excellent profile of GoTo and its reach into other search engines. Note the part where GoTo’s own founder turns to another search engine — Google — for some of his searches. Paid listings (at GoTo and elsewhere) are great for products and services much of the time, but they are not the only thing that even GoTo’s founder wants. Consequently, “search” sites offering only paid placement listings clearly aren’t doing their job.

Elsewhere, a Lycos vice president suggests that better labeling of sponsored listings as “sponsored” will cause users to avoid them. Nonsense. People read ads, watch commercials and use the Yellow Pages when appropriate — all of which are sponsored content. They’ll do — and are doing — the same with sponsored links. The search engines just need to be brave enough to call these links what they are on their actual web sites, rather than just in their press releases aimed at investors.

Finally, also note that both LookSmart and Inktomi — leaders in the far trickier area of paid inclusion — are looking at ways that paid inclusion content could be boosted to the top of partner results. That pretty much goes against their usual arguments that paid inclusion is nothing to fear because the search algorithms wouldn’t be tampered with.

The Virtuous Search Engine
Interactive Week, June 4, 2001,4164,2767661,00.html

Another look at the continuing developments in paid placement and paid participation programs at various search engines.

Time For The Search Dividend?
The Search Engine Report, April 2, 2001

We may be seeing the beginning of a “search dividend” coming to searchers, now that several of the major search engines are maturing their new business models and can concentrate on actual search improvements.

Search results becoming more commercial
San Jose Mercury News, Feb. 15, 2001

Review of trend for paid listings at search engines, with comments from different services.

The End For Search Engines?
The Search Engine Report, Feb. 6, 2001

The closure of Go only underscores the dramatic changes that have been taking place among the major search engines over the past few months. Money is tight; new revenue is being sought anywhere, and no one seems guaranteed a future. Will your favorite search engine be around tomorrow? A look back can provide us some perspective on how the future may unfold. We’ve had doom and gloom before, in 1997, and survived.

Articles From 2000 & Earlier

Monetizing The Search
The Search Engine Report, Sept. 4, 2000

Covers the trend for search engines to seek ways of earning money by turning to site owners and web marketers. Touches on “pay for submission” systems at LookSmart, Inktomi and Yahoo, “pay for display” at RealNames and “pay for clickthrough” at LookSmart.

The Search Engines Search For Answers

Yahoo Internet Life, Feb. 1998

A comprehensive look at the various issues surrounding the desires of advertisers and the need for search engines to maintain impartial listings. Quotes and examples of retailer partnerships, positioning issues, and more.

Real Name Tops At AltaVista
The Search Engine Report, June 3, 1998

The RealNames system offers an indirect way for some advertisers to make it to the top of AltaVista’s search results.

GoTo Sells Positions
The Search Engine Report, March 3, 1998 debuts the first major pay-for-placement system seen since Open Text abandoned its experiment in mid-1996.

Lycos Adds Predetermined Listings
The Search Engine Report, Dec. 4, 1997

Lycos began prelisting its own content with search results, which wasn’t necessarily bad. But the preferred listing it gave to advertising partner Microsoft for its Carpoint site was harder to defend.

Can You Trust Your Search Engine?
PC World, August 1997

PC World had someone anonymously approach the major search engines about paying for placement and found none of them would take the bait.

Slanted Search Results for Sale?
Netguide NewsCam Weekly, Sept. 1996

Engine sells results, draws fire, June 21, 1996,4,1635,00.html

Open Text was the first major search engine to try a paid listings program, and it quickly came under fire. The program was later withdrawn.

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