Searching for Disclosure: How Search Engines Alert Consumers to the Presence of Advertising in Search Results

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A Research Report Prepared for Consumer Reports WebWatch by: Jørgen J. Wouters, Consultant

Originally written for Consumer Reports WebWatch

Download Report (PDF format):

Part I (879 KB)
Part II (937 KB)
Part III (977 KB)

Abstract

Many of the World Wide Web’s most popular search engines still do not provide clear disclosures about how their results can be influenced by advertisers, a practice called “paid placement,” and even fewer explain how companies pay to increase the likelihood their Web sites will appear in searches, a practice called “paid inclusion,” Consumer Reports WebWatch research shows.

This report, “Searching for Disclosure,” culminates more than six months of testing and analysis of the Web’s top 15 most-trafficked search engines, which millions of consumers rely on as guides to finding information. Consumer Reports WebWatch used guidelines created by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission as a research tool and engaged professional librarians as testers. The report builds upon two earlier Consumer Reports WebWatch studies. The first, a 2002 survey of 1,500 U.S. adult Internet users, showed that more than 60 percent of respondents were unaware that search engines accept fees to list some sites more prominently than others in search results. A follow-up study in 2003 demonstrated a lack of awareness among consumers of the influence of advertising on search results and a negative reaction to the practice.

“Searching for Disclosure,” WebWatch’s third search-engines-related report, shows many of the Web’s top search engines have made improvements in disclosure and transparency – describing their business relationships with advertisers and how those relationships may or may not affect the objectivity of search content and results – since the FTC two years ago warned several major search engines about problems with the practice. While this report was being researched, two of the Web’s top five search engines announced they would terminate paid inclusion.

Compliance with FTC recommendations for disclosure varied widely, however, leaving ample room for improvement throughout the industry. Even the report’s testers, information professionals by trade, found disclosure and transparency practices among many search engines confusing and confounding. That increases the likelihood consumers may have a difficult time distinguishing objective search results from paid advertising.