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A complaint has been filed with the Federal Trade Commission in the US against the Web's biggest search engines by a consumer watchdog group, Commercial Alert

MSN, Netscape, HotBot, Lycos, Altavista, LookSmart, Directhit (owned by Ask Jeeves) and iWon have all been accused of "deceptive advertising". Commercial Alert claims that the failure of search engines to make clear that many of the top-listed search results thrown out come from paying customers is equivalent to posting "ads in disguise".

It's no secret - at least not to those within the industry - that search engines will give preferential treatment to sites that pay them money. It's similar to Yellow Pages and such like. However, Commercial Alert claims that most surfers are unaware of this and are therefore being misled.

"Search engines have become central in the quest for learning and knowledge in our society. The ability to skew the results in favour of hucksters without telling consumers is a serious problem," said Gary Ruskin, the group's executive director.

He's got a point (even though we're not entirely sure what he means by 'hucksters'). Okay, he may be getting a little carried away with the righteous indignation, but it is fair to assume that most people would expect search engines to work objectively.

We do work objectively, the search engines that have responded to journalists' questions have said. Any results from fee-paying customers are clearly labelled "featured" or "partner" sites. And often, the fee-paying sites are listed separately (although always above the real search results).

So this is a case of how clearly labelled a paid-for site ought to be. It's an argument worth having, especially since more paid-for results appear to pop up every few months. And going to the FTC straight off should sort the issue out as fast as possible.

We'd be for a contained box of search results for paid-for sites. A different colour and a clear label on the box saying something like, well, "partner sites", why not? Then stick the real results further down. ®

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