Study Shows Search Users Ignorant About Paid Results

If ignorance is bliss, then that would explain why so many Internet users are happy with the online search experience. A new survey by Pew Internet & American Life shows that while users are extremely satisfied with search engines, they are also strikingly unaware of which results are paid listings.

Analysts said search engines will be forced to make some changes when users catch on.

Internet users trust their favorite search engines, but few say they are aware of the financial incentives that affect how search engines perform and how they present their search results.

Distinguishing Paid Search Results

Only 38 percent of users are aware of the distinction between paid or “sponsored” results and unpaid results, according to the survey. And only one in six say they can always tell which results are paid or sponsored and which are not.

“The search industry overall has promulgated this effort where it’s strictly a monetization issue,” Gartner analyst Allen Weiner told the E-Commerce Times. “At this point in time, the search industry cares more about the monetization than they they do about the results that people get.”

The Pew study also reveals that people don’t object to search engines serving up paid results. Study author Deborah Fallows told the E-Commerce Times that users understand that search engines need to generate revenue.

Transparent Results

“Users want to be able to tell the difference between paid and unpaid search,” Fallows, a senior research fellow at Pew, said. “They want search engines to be transparent and straightforward and clear with them. Therein lies the irony: people can’t tell the difference between paid and unpaid search.”

How transparent are search results, then? Fallows said some sites do a better job of distinguishing between paid and unpaid search than others. For companies like Google, which separates out its paid results, Fallows doesn’t see much room for change, but she said other sites that don’t distinguish the paid results could make improvements.

“As users become more savvy and more aware of what’s going on with paid search, they will thereby change their behavior if they are not happy,” Fallows said. “Search engines will pay attention to the issue if they begin to lose users.”

Sea Change Ahead?

Will we see a sea change in search that makes it crystal clear what is paid search and what is natural search? Weiner, for one, said he believes search is at a significant crossroads. He predicted a move away from paid positioning to providing more useful results to consumers.

“All it takes is one search company to make a move and all the others will have to follow suit,” Weiner said. “If search engines want loyalty, then they are going to have to do a better job at providing useful results, as well as the ability to organize and personalize, and balance that with advertising needs.”

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