SearchTHIS! Paid Listings Under Fire

“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." 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.