Relevant Results or Paid Ads in Disguise?

Recently, an accusation was filed against certain parties the search engine industry, accusing them of deceptive advertising. Many of us involved in the search engine optimization industry were left feeling vindicated. A major consumer watchdog group, founded by Gary Ruskin and former Presidential candidate Ralph Nader, (Not Al Gore’s closest friend,) filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission against eight major search engines.

The complaint alleges that pay for placement ads are appearing at the top of certain search engine results, without clear disclosure of the fact that they are advertisements as opposed to valid, relevant results.

Such deception, if proven, would be unlawful. The argument goes further, stating that the search engine query results are presented as if they are “information from an objective database selected by an objective algorithm.” and that this is deceptive, because they are neither objective, nor relevant results, but rather “are paid ads in disguise.”

The complaint makes the case that people use the search engines as they would the white or yellow pages, and that if you look up something like “Legal firm” you should receive an objective response with regards to which web site deals with the subject, as opposed to an ad for “Ally McBeal”, which may have been bought to cover any instance of “Legal Firm” being used in a search engine query.

The pay for placement model is fine, if the result is clearly identified as a paid ad. The accusation is many search engines are displaying the ads in a deceptive manner to make the user think they are valid results. Let’s also remember that for all their power, search engines are very simple-minded when it comes to queries. If you were to think of them as a librarian, just imagine walking up to one and barking “Legal firm” at them. You would probably get a puzzled look, and a request for more info. A search engine does not have that luxury, it gives you it’s best guess.

The complaint drew a parallel with the similar cases against infomercials. It is my opinion that there is no comparison between the two. Everyone knows that an infomercial is a paid program; it says so in the TV listings, and throughout the program, often in subtle, but obvious type at the bottom of the screen, throughout the program.

Some would argue that what is important is whether the search results are relevant to users query. A company like GOTO clearly states what is a paid listing and what is not. In part they do so by quoting the price paid for the listing in the results. This honesty has value to all parties. Since most search queries are commercial in nature, and by that I mean most people use the search engines to find a product, the demand for bona fide paid advertising that works is huge.

Due to the size of the internet, and it’s tremendous growth, the overwhelming majority of search engines results you see are not paid placements. But nonetheless, in almost any category, there are companies willing to pay to be in the top 15 listings.

The more refined a query, the less paid ads you will find. Most paid ads are based around 1 or 2 key words. When you throw in extra terms, you are increasing the likelihood of pure, unfettered, objective results.

The essence of the problem is education; No one knows if search engine users really know how to use the tool properly, or whether they understand the difference between text based advertisements, and objective query results. One has to understand that the search engines are suffering from the failure of banner ads as a viable, long term revenue stream, and are searching desperately for ways to stay in business. Text based ads are a revenue stream. When one of the search engines find a better one, they will all migrate there. Ads which are made to appear like relevant results detract from the quality of results throughout a search engine site, and in the long term drive clients away, because they don’t find what they are looking for quickly.

Search engines which forgo this revenue stream in exchange for alternative, less confusing ones will gain more and more market share, as people will more consistently return to them for “honest advice.”

How to fix the problem? From a users perspective, use more information when doing a search; get specific with your requests, and all the search engines will work better for you. If the web site you are looking for is properly optimized, and your query is relevant, it will appear soon after the paid listings. From a web site operator’s perspective, use Metamend to get your relevance higher across the board on all the search engines. If you decide that you want to buy a key term on one or two engines, go ahead. Be prepared to spend a few thousand a month on each term, and don’t just do that and expect overall traffic to increase. Use the paid listings in a very focused way, within your budget. Trying to buy yourself business won’t work, but carefully augmenting it in places may help.