It's Always Something...

You know, there are just some people in the world who aren't happy unless they are complaining about something. In fact, there are people in this world who make a living out of it. All sorts of organizations are out there to find out what is wrong with this thing or that. Even if a problem has not been expressed, somebody's going to get others to see a problem.

We all know eating McDonald's every day is bad for you, but that doesn't prevent a father from suing the chain because the practice made his two daughters obese.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest regularly issues reports that find something wrong with the things we enjoy in our daily lives (the last thing I remember is them declaring war on pizza...).

And lest we forget all the things that people like to complain about when it comes to the Internet. Pop-ups, SPAM, porn... the list is long.

Well, this week the latest complaint comes from Consumer Webwatch Research, a part of the Consumer Union, publishers of Consumer Reports. On June 30th, Consumer Webwatch published a report called "False Oracles: Consumer Reaction to Learning the Truth About How Search Engines Work." The title, with a little tweaking, would be worthy of a lecture delivered at the annual gathering of the Modern Language Association. The report is a result of an ethnographic study which showed that individuals are surprised to learn that search results on some search engines are paid listing and that some of those people had negative, emotional reactions to learning this.



Other finings were that most people had very little understanding of how search engines work, how they retrieve information from the Web or how they rank and prioritize links within a results page. They also rarely went beyond the first page of results to find what it is they may have been looking for. Each of the participants said that it was too hard for them to recognize which listings were paid on the search engines that they used. Those search engines the subjects perceived as being less forthcoming about the disclosure of which listings were paid or not lost credibility among the subjects.

Well, isn't that something.

I recall in the early days of advertisers using search engines as marketing and advertising tools and clients asking if it was possible for them to purchase listings within the search results page. Clients would ask, "Can I buy the number one spot?" I would have to tell them, no, I'm afraid that it doesn't work that way. But maybe some day; I just didn't know.

And there were some legitimate concerns early on that users would feel as though the integrity of the search results would be compromised if marketers were allowed to get involved.

The findings from this most recent Consumer Webwatch report would seem to confirm that suspicion. However, as you may have intimated from the opening of my column, there is something a bit disingenuous about the report.

First of all, the study was conducted by four anthropologists based Kansas City, Mo., Phoenix, Providence, R.I., and Raleigh-Durham recruited 17 savvy Web users to participate in the study. Though I trust that the scientific methodology was solid, I'm always a bit suspicious when a few dozen individuals become the basis for what tens of millions of people think or feel.

Secondly, the behavior of the users while conducting the act of using a search engine was highly unnatural. Participants were told what to search on then guided through a lesson on pay-for-placement search and how it works. This exercise was led by pointing out the "disclosure" pages and "About Search" links posted on each site and then having the participants read through them. I don't know about you, but if I had to do that, I'd be sour about ANYTHING one might ask me about.

And finally, none of this is relevant to the user experience as it happens organically. Saying that users felt differently about search and search results after spending hours being introduced to the notion of paid search and exposing them to disclosure documents is kind of like saying that people feel differently about sausage once they see how it is made. Following the experience, you aren't likely to order up a plate of kielbasa right away. But given some time, you will probably have sausage again. It is unlikely you will get from someone their true feelings about something if you ask them about it in such tight propinquity with the experience itself. Let's not forget, the means of perception invariably alter the perceived.

The unmitigated success of paid search listing for advertisers is a testament to the fact that their existence hasn't altered the natural behaviors of those individuals conducting searches and then using results to move them on their way. Individuals are using search engines more than they have at any time in the past to find the products and services they need, yet the fact that those results are paid for by interested parties don't seem to matter to them that much. If they did, then those properties that proffer paid search listings versus "natural" search listing wouldn't be of as much interest to users, and you'd eventually see use trail off. That evidently isn't the case.

Now, there have certainly been changes in how users search and how search properties preserve and enhance that user experience while still being able to demonstrate value to a marketer. Google is probably the best example of how this evolution has gone and what the future of commercially supported search tools will look like.

When people want to find something to complain about, you can count on the fact that they will. But more often than not, instead of the complaint being the revelation of a universal condition it is the product of idle hands doing the devil's work.

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