Search engine results, advertising and trust

 by Martin Belam, 8 July 2003

The Register sarcastically reported a study from Consumer Web Watch in the USA which claims that:

"Consumers have little understanding of how search engines retrieve Web pages or how they rank or prioritize links on a results page"

That isn't a shock to me - it is clear enough from looking at the search logs at the BBC that a large proportion of internet users do not understand the way that search engines interact with either the content they have indexed, the content that is available, or the content that they would rather have you see.

The Consumer Web Watch report is available at and was done by the context-based research group. It uses very emotive language, but suggests that despite last years move by the FTC in the USA, consumers are still not aware of the amount of paid for content in search results, and react very negatively when it is demonstrated to them. This is a massive issue for the industry as it seems quite clear to me that search engines have to make money to survive as a business, and that ways have to be found via those search engines to sustain their business models.

And I think it is a big issue for the UK as well. FTC rules clearly don't apply to subsidiaries of US companies operating in the UK, so for example is free to display its advertising disclosures differently from However, we also know from looking at the comparable reach of .com or variations of search engines in this country, that many people use American flavoured (or should that be flavored?) search engines by default. If the FTC moves for more prominent disclosure of the paid nature of search results it will have an impact on the UK market because a significant proportion of the audience use the .com versions.

The Register's issue was that Consumer Web Watch used a small sample of users and that nobody has complained to The Register directly about feeling 'betrayed' by search engines. I would argue that the number of people who read 'The Register' is a small proportion of the entire internet universe, and that the people (like myself) who do, are likely to be at the more internet-savvy end of the spectrum.

If you look at television, advertising is an interrupt model - i.e. the programme you are watching is interrupted to show you advertising. That isn't the case with search results. If the labelling isn't clear, then the advertising is inserted into your behaviour without you noticing. Of course, with television or cinema you also have product placement - but seeing a can of cool-soda-pop on the screen is not the same as searching for "fizzy drinks" and getting cool-soda-pop back as the first result with some marginal notification that this is sponsored / paid for / advertising.

It very much made me think of the organic listings session at Search Engine Strategies 2003 in London. One of the main issues was whether there was a future for 'free' or 'organic' listings in search engine results, and some people felt there wasn't. But I was very struck by the person who asked - and I apologise for not knowing them or quoting them exactly - whether we would see a decline in the click-through rates on Overture / E-Spotting / Inktomi PFI results as people became more aware of them, in the same way that people using banner advertising had seen an exponential decline in click-through rates.

I put my hand up to speak, and sadly didn't get called upon, but what I wanted to add was that I was observing that behaviour in our user testing last year. Even relatively inexperienced users were beginning to be suspicious of what they perceived to be the 'advertising' directed at them via search. And previously we moved our 'recommended links' from being a feature that sat above the results set to one that was embedded within the results for exactly that reason.

Consumer Web Watch also have a fascinating transcript available of a conference / summit they held called Building trust on the web from April 2003, with contributions from HP, Overture and Google.

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