Pew Study: Most Users Cannot Distinguish Paid From Natural Searches

Just one in six search engine users can confidently discern between unbiased natural search results and paid search ads, according to a new report released this week by The Pew Internet & American Life Project. The study, titled "Search Engine Users," found that while most Web users said they trusted, relied on, and were happy with search results, only 18 percent felt they knew whether links were paid or not.

More than a third (38 percent) of users said they were unaware that search listings are a mix of regular search results, based on relevance to search terms entered and sponsored links, in which a Web site pays for a prominent position. What's more, just half of those users said they were sure which leads were artificially prioritized.

Michael Gartenberg, analyst at JupiterResearch, doesn't think the major search engine should--or would --see the Pew report as a real concern. "The big engines long have taken the appropriate measures to ensure transparence."

Google marks its paid advertisements as "sponsored links," while Yahoo! calls them "sponsor results," and Microsoft's MSN uses the term "sponsored sites." Paid search ads are placed to the right and on top of the regular search results, and in some cases are highlighted.



In a potentially alarming finding, 45 percent of users said they would no longer search if they suspected that search engines were masking their relationships with advertisers, but 70 percent said they were comfortable with the general concept of paid or sponsored search.

And, while mildly cautionary, Pew's findings appear to reflect users' easygoing ingress into a medium both complex and queasily infinite. "We were struck by how confident, yet unsophisticated the majority of search engine users were," said Deborah Fallows, PhD, the Pew senior research fellow who led and authored the study.

Fallows stressed that she found no evidence of a conscious effort by search marketers to mislead or deceive users, and added that users did bear some responsibility for their own welfare, as they do in the real world.

Nine out of ten Internet searchers said they were confident about their search abilities, and 87 percent said their searches were successful most of the time. The report does imply, however, that users are so pleased with the search experience only because the majority tend toward superficial, routine searches.

"Because of the casual and clear-cut nature of most searches--for Britney Spears, the daily news, an iPod--users aren't even giving search engines a chance to disappoint them," explained Fallows.

Fallows also found that users are still inclined to trust information, regardless of its source, if it's on the Internet.

"MSN clearly distinguishes between paid and non-paid links," said an MSN spokesperson. "Paid links in MSN Search are identified by a shaded background, are grouped together, and are clearly marked as 'sponsored.' MSN Search made these changes in July 2004 as a result of customer feedback."

Neither Yahoo! nor Google returned requests for comment regarding the Pew report.

The results were based on a telephone study of 2,200 adults--including 1,399 Internet users--conducted from May 14 to June 17.

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