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Consumers don't trust paid-for search

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Consumers lose faith in search results when they are informed that some of the results are paid for. Says who? Says Consumer WebWatch, an arm of America's Consumer Union.

It bases its findings upon an ethnographic (i.e. deep observation) study of 17 (i.e. very few) people, none of whom were aware before the research kicked off that most search engines these days incorporate paid-for listings.

Two in five link selected by the participants were paid-for results, which can be seen as an outstanding success for the likes of Overture, Google and eSpotting. Alternatively, it can be seen as the "betrayal" felt by the ethnographees when they were told that some of their results were paid for. Prior to this, they had "trusted search engines to present only the best or most accurate, unbiased results". What!

The study's findings and conclusions are collated into a report called: "False Oracles: Consumer Reaction to Learning the Truth about How Search Engines Work".

So you can see where Consumer WebWatch is coming from.

The ethnographic study was conducted from March 1 to 29, 2003, assessed 15 search engine Web sites, including: About.com, AlltheWeb.com, AltaVista.com, Ask.com, AOL Search (AOL.com), Go.com, Google.com, InfoSpace.com, iWon.com, Kanoodle.com, LookSmart.com, Lycos.com, MSN Search (MSN.com), Overture.com and Yahoo.com.

Consumer WebWatch notes an earlier study conducted on its behalf by Princeton Survey Research Associates that "60 percent of Internet-savvy Americans are unaware that some search engine results are paid". This calls into question the survey's definition of "Internet savvy".

Paid for search is, of course, the great growth area of Internet advertising, with Gartner recently revising estimates upwards to 31 per cent of online spend in 2003. Overture, the daddy of this market, reckons it will pull in a billion dollars revenues this year. ESpotting, tiny by comparison, but with a good footprint, is regard highly enough to get sold for $163m, less than three years after opening for business. Google adwords are appearing all over the place, albeit in ad rather than search slots, El Reg included.

So punters are flocking in their millions to click on contextualised search results. But are they really duped or do they feel 'betrayed'? It's certainly not been a burning issue with Reg readers. You cynical lot, you. ®

Related links, articles

Study: Paid Links Not Clear to Consumers
Response from Search Engine panel at Consumer WebWatch's First National Summit on Web Credibility
FindWhat.com buys Espotting for $163m

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