Search engines are drawing the line between paid and unpaid search results

By Michael Liedtke, The Associated Press
Friday July 12, 2002

Web users might object
to the way advertisers
dominate the results


SAN FRANCISCO — Virtually all the major search engines separate their results into paid and unpaid categories, though the dividing lines are frequently fuzzy. 

The Federal Trade Commission wants the search engines to make the distinctions much clearer. Although regulators didn’t mention it by name, Google could serve as a role model for complying with the guidelines. 

When The Associated Press typed the query “travel San Francisco” into Google in tests conducted July 10 and July 11, the results were sorted into two easily understood categories. 

Referrals to concierge.com and orbitz.com were identified as “sponsored links” in light green and yellow boxes at the top of the page. On the right, other shaded boxes of “sponsored links” pointed the way to travelworm.com and expedia.com. 

These sections resemble banner ads — content many veteran Web surfers gloss over, if they look at them at all. 

Google’s objective search results, sorted by relevance to the request, are displayed against plain white background and can be seen without having to scroll down the page. So, too, with alltheweb.com and lycos.com, although for these sites, the “sponsored links” aren’t offset by a different color. 

The same search at AltaVista on July 10 produced a list of sites grouped under “products and services” that dominated the results page. No plainly visible disclaimer told users that these products and services really represented advertisers that paid AltaVista or one of its search partners, such as Overture, to be ranked above other sites. 

By July 11, AltaVista had changed the label, describing its ad-driven results as “sponsored matches.” 

While this change might satisfy the FTC, some Web users might still object to the way altavista.com, askjeeves.com and some other search engines allow advertisers to dominate the results. 

In the AP’s test, AltaVista gave top billing to so many sponsored matches, including expedia and hoteldiscount.com, that it wasn’t possible to see any objective results without scrolling further down the page.