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SearchTHIS! Paid Listings Under Fire

Kevin M. Ryan
SearchTHIS! Paid Listings Under Fire Kevin M. Ryan

“Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more, or close the wall up with our English dead." So says King Henry V, sending his soldiers onward to the siege of Harfleur, France in 1415. The soldiers were tired and thinking of abandoning the Army, but his speech worked them up to such an extent that taking the city seemed like a great idea. 

Search engines would once again appear to be under siege as the “Trust or Consequence: How Failure to Disclose Ad Relationships Threatens to Burst the Search Bubble” conference gets underway this week in Berkeley, California. The conference agenda promises new research (based on research from last November) on the trust relationships consumers have with search engines.

Back in 2001, the FTC sent the first letters to search engines requiring the disclosure of paid ads within search results at the behest of another consumer interest group. Since then, we have seen many reports crying foul on paid listing disclosure. These reports seek to rally consumers into a battle-ready frenzy and take the search results pages back.

The battle cry? Search results should be free to become unbiased oracles of information. Despite disclosures of paid ads, labels like “sponsored” don’t seem to be good enough.

I have a question: is any of this necessary?

Are you calling me stupid?

If you devote enough time and energy to getting people worked up and convincing them that they need something, chances are their lives will seem empty without it. I submit that all of the hubbub relating to disclosure of a paid listing’s origin is the work of a trumped up need that is conveniently filled by those publishing these wonderful watchful eye reports. 

Consider the title of the June, 2003 Consumer WebWatch report; “False Oracles: Consumer Reaction to Learning the Truth About How Search Engines Work.” This call to action makes “once more unto the breach” sound like an invitation to a day at the park.

A year or so later, in November of 2004, Consumer WebWatch followed up with a much tamer; “Searching for Disclosure: How Search Engines Alert Consumers to the Presence of Advertising in Search Results.”

Then, last January, the Pew Internet & American Life Project produced a similar research report. “Search Engine Users” included in its subtitle the suggestion that search engine users are "unaware and naïve."

Thesaurus.com entries for the term “naïve” include the following: callow, countrified, green, guileless, gullible, ignorant, impulsive, jejune, patsy, simple-minded, and my personal favorite, sucker.

Of course, it is worth mentioning that the reports provided by Consumer WebWatch are “supported” by The Pew Charitable Trusts as well. Should that read “sponsored” instead?

What findings?

Among the key findings of the June 2003 “False Oracles” report was a startling declaration: “All participants said paid search links on search and navigation sites were often too difficult to recognize or find on may sites, and the disclosure information available was clearly written for the advertiser, not the consumer.”

The report went on to declare that search sites that did not clearly disclose advertiser and listing relationships lost credibility among the whopping 17 people included in the study. The report was, after all, an ethnographic anthropological study.

You said who, what now?

Think of an ethnographer as a researcher who immerses herself in the culture of humans in order to better understand them. Although behaviors may be coded, the ethnographer strives to avoid preconceived notions about subjects though it is considered acceptable to validate some preconceived notions with those interviewed. The biggest advantage of an immersion like this is watching interviewees in their natural habitat.

Armed with that knowledge, imagine a possible scenario for ethnographic search interview:

Ethnographer: Did you know that listing you just clicked on was a paid advertisement?

Subject: No, I didn’t.

Ethnographer: And how does that make you feel?

Subject: Alone, betrayed, scared… can I get back to you after I finish booking my vacation?

The followup studies -- and those touting the betrayals of search sites from both Pew and Consumer WebWatch -- included or were based entirely upon telephone interviews of 2200 adults 18 or over  conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates International. This is often referred to as the “Princeton Study,” yet it is not disclosed clearly that “Princeton” refers only to the town in New Jersey where the company is based, not the Ivy League University.

Without getting into the reliability of telephone interviews, it’s worth pointing out that other data exists.

I love the smell of the IAB in June

Right about the time “False Oracles” was released, the Interactive Advertising Bureau and Nielsen ReelResearch conducted their own research with 1000 interviews completed via an online survey methodology. In short, participants were offered questions with a choice of possible answers.

The question I found most intriguing was this: which of the following is most important when reviewing search results? About 80 percent of those interviewed said relevance was most critical; 19 percent said that the quality of websites and clarity of titles and descriptions were most important. Where does the dastardly paid listing data fall? Only one percent said whether the websites paid to appear was most important.

How did they react to those paid listings? Well, 23 percent said they didn’t like the paid listings as much as the other ones, and two percent actually liked them better. The majority, 60 percent, said it didn’t matter where the results are listed -- they were looking for quality.

How about that super-secret code word, “sponsored,” that sites are using to denote paid listings? When asked what they thought the code word meant, 90 percent chose the “websites have paid to appear in these areas” answer. Only nine percent thought the search paid the sites to be there, and one percent thought they had to pay to see the listings. Shockingly, zero percent thought it was a charity. Oddly enough, most respondents needed only to look at the listing to help answer the question.

An open request to search sites

It’s the middle of 2005 and you have ensured a seat at the advertising table for many of us. You have humored the massed and ensured that people know who is buying what. You regulate for relevance and even let the users decide. Fear- and confusion-mongering have taken their toll on the world, but that doesn’t mean you have to buy into it.

Please ignore the innocuous conclusions found in the scare tactic reports.

People, that is to say, some people, seem to be obsessed with finding a cause. Said concerned citizens have couched their agenda on a platform of acting in the best interests of the masses.

They give their reports patriotic or fear-inducing security names.

They are the reason a coffee cup must have a dozen labels on it warning people that the beverage is hot.

They resemble those who would insist that baby shampoo makers deter users from murdering their children with a “Do Not Throw Baby Out With Bath Water” label, that and a chain saw carries with it the all too critical “Do Not Attempt To Stop Blades with Hands” warning.

Programming people to believe they want bigger labels on paid ads is another example, while realizing that running a business costs money runs a distant second in the consideration race.

The folks questing for a cause don’t ask questions like: would you tolerate those listings if you could get more free email? How about expanded natural language searches? What if part of the money spent on those vaguely labeled sponsored listings brought you more searchable content like, for example, video archives?

Please don’t coddle them -- so many special interest groups are handled with kid gloves today. Please continue to reinvest your revenue in enhancing the online advertising experience for users and advertisers with my compliments. 

Additional resources:

Search This! My plan to end SPAM

Search This! Stupid search marketing tricks

To search or not to search

iMedia Search Editor Kevin Ryan’s current and former client roster reads like a “who’s who” in big brands; Rolex Watch, USA, State Farm Insurance, Farmers Insurance, Minolta Corporation, Samsung Electronics America, Toyota Motor Sales, USA, Panasonic Services, and the Hilton Hotels brands, to name a few. Ryan believes in sound guidance, creative thought, accountable actions and collaborative execution as applied to search, or any form of marketing. His principled approach and staunch commitment to the industry have made him one of the most sought after personalities in online marketing. Ryan volunteers his time with the Interactive Advertising Bureau, Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization, and several regional non-profit organizations.

Mr. Ryan is the principal of Kinetic Results, Inc. a New York based online presence management firm.

Meet Kevin Ryan at AD:TECH Chicago July 11, 2005.

How do you leverage the next generation of media based advertising units using visual search and performance-based business models and technologies? Until now, search advertising has been defined as text listings placed in contrast with keywords. The next generation of search technologies will provide a rich experience for users. It will tantalize the senses with ad vehicles that go well beyond the influence ability that rests with 40 characters of text in a search listing. Popular research indicates that users spend four times as much time with image and video search then they do with text. How can you make a connection with your target audience without sacrificing the integrity of the contextual experience? Can you capitalize on the millions of viewers seeking entertainment while offering valuable content? Yes you can! Learn about the latest techniques for engaging an audience along with best practices in developing and integrating ad campaigns. Take leading edge tools that leverage the stickiest form of connected marketing and advertising activity back to the office from experts in the space.

Social media etiquette

Social media presents an etiquette challenge at work too. In our industry, posting on Facebook, tweeting, blogging, and Tumblring are all acceptable ways of passing time during the workday -- especially if your business card says, "Grand Poobah of Social Media." However, there are limits to what is acceptable social media behavior in the office. Please don't post office gossip; that should remain with the truly old fashioned social media -- word of mouth. Rumors and office scandals are better left on the cutting room floor than on your Tumblr. Yes, they are salacious and interesting, but they shouldn't be shared with your friends on any sort of media platform. Don't be the person who posts those embarrassing moments for the world to see. While it may seem funny at the time, it is just in poor taste.

Despite all the things you shouldn't do, social media still can be incorporated into your professional life. Basically anything good can and should be disseminated through social media. If your company wins a new account, then by all means post it on social media (after it is publically announced of course). When you get a promotion or a fantastic new job, brag all you want on LinkedIn. Social media is perfect for such aggrandizement. Some advice: If you lose a client, do not publically bad mouth them -- even if they were the worst client ever. It's a small industry, and you just never know who you will work with again.

Email etiquette

Email etiquette is a constant challenge. Once they are sent, emails go into a sort of black hole. It is hard to know if emails have been received and read or simply received and ignored. In terms of following up on emails that you send, there is a fine line between doing your job well and being a nuisance. As a recipient, I don't think it is necessary to respond to every email but there are many times when a short acknowledgement such as "Thanks" is a good idea. This indicates the message has indeed been received and read. Of course, this too has its limits. If everyone constantly replied "Thanks for sending," then inboxes would get totally out of hand.

Whether or not to respond is often dependent upon the circumstances and length of the email. The number of email recipients has a lot to do with the need for response. A well-crafted email sent to a few people most likely deserves a response, even if it is just an acknowledgement. On the other hand, an email sent to the entire company or simply a very large group, doesn't necessitate a response. This is especially true for funny emails that people love to pass around. Nobody likes being stuck in a chain of comments regarding that morning's Ziggy cartoon. If you do feel compelled to respond, use "Reply to Sender" rather than "Reply All."

Email is an amazing tool. I admit that I am more than a little addicted to it. However, like all communications, there is a certain protocol involved in proper email usage. For instance, never call someone "Dude," in a work email. That is pretty obvious even to the most socially obtuse. What is less obvious -- when to not send email. It may not always be a good idea to send email at all hours of the night. Many people sleep with their phone on their nightstands. This means that if you send emails at 3:00 a.m., their phone may buzz or make some sort of noise. Consider the time, to whom you are sending the email, and how important the message really is before sending off an email.
Believe it or not, there is a coterie of strange people who care about your email appellation. They scoff at people who list AOL as their personal email address. These are emails snobs. Because they still associate AOL with dial up, they believe that anyone sporting an AOL address just isn't forward thinking. Their disdain is not limited to AOL; they similarly scorn Yahoo and Hotmail. They may say condescending remarks like "Oh, my Mom has an email address there." Snobs think that where you store your email is just as important as what you say in email.

Your personal email address is a tricky thing to change. The longer you have an address at one provider, the more difficult it is to leave. Many millions of people have email accounts at places that are not considered "cool" by email snobs. Some people just are comfortable with those interfaces; others are too lazy to change. Either way, does it really matter where someone's personal email is stored? As long as your personal email isn't "Lovebunny72," I don't think it really does.

New technologies

First adopter techies love to show off their latest gadgets. They live for the bleeding edge devices. They beta test Google Glass, camp out for the latest iPad, and sport the latest Fitbit monitor. Kudos to them for being so forward thinking. On the other hand, my admiration fades when they sneer at people with older devices. Not everyone wants to upgrade their devices every eight months. In fact, most people are happy not to upgrade at all or at least until they absolutely have to do so. This is possibly why half of all U.S. cell phones are still not smartphones. It is poor tech etiquette to judge people based on their personal tech preferences. Smart, forward-thinking people can have old tech and still live happy, contented lives. I still have my clock radio from college.

Google Glass is pretty darn cool. It is just the first of many tech wearables that are entering our lives. However, unrestrained use in the office can make for bad manners. Don't use your Glass to zone out for long periods of time while ignoring everyone around you. Google acknowledged this pitfall and advised users not to be "creepy or rude (aka, a 'Glasshole')" by making other people feel uncomfortable. People wearing Google Glass at work are breaking new ground. Therefore, they should proceed carefully before recording around the office, especially at meetings. Glass wearers should announce that they are recording and ask for people's permission. Of course, they may just end up with boring footage of people checking their smartphones while sitting around a conference table.

Andrew Ettinger works in advertising in New York City.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

"Young people playing with smartphones and ignoring each other" image via Shutterstock.


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