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|Consumer watchdog accuses search engines of deception Part 1|
I knew it!
"The group said that the search engines are abandoning objective formulas to determine the order of their listed results, and selling the top spots to the highest bidders without making adequate disclosures to Web surfers"
.....The eight search engines named in Commercial Alert’s complaint are: MSN, owned by Microsoft Corp.; Netscape, owned by AOL Time Warner Inc.; Directhit, owned by Ask Jeeves Inc.; HotBot and Lycos, both owned owned by Terra Lycos; Altavista, owned by CMGI Inc.; LookSmart, owned by LookSmart Ltd.; and iWon...........LookSmart and AltaVista, denied the charges. Microsoft spokesman Matt Pilla said MSN is delivering “compelling search results that people want.......
Now might be a good time to dump any GoTo stock, take the 192% YTD gain and bail. GoTo is straight up about advertising disclosure,, but unfortunately most of their partners aren't.
It's ironic that LookSmart would be one of the first to dispute the allegations, with their PPC and new auctioned top listings, disguised under the "featured listings" heading.
If the average Joe doesn't know when they are looking at paid placements, any regulators probably wouldn't discern the difference, and that would likely put the alleged engines in the dog house.
But do the surfers really care? Most web users from what I can gather are so oblivious to the way that the internet actually works, they are just happy to know any method to search the web, little things like the algorithm that produces the results are just distractions.
Is it illegal to show somebody search results that have been paid for without making a big song-and-dance about it?
Interesting to see how this turns out. Don't worry, I don't own GOTO stock...
A link to the complaint and comments:
Thank you to Gary Ruskin and Commercial Alert for taking this action and raising awareness of the issue with the general public.
Over the last year, I have been astounded at the unrestrained crass actions of the search engines. Just yesterday in a private message on this board:
Goto showing up everywhere and mostly unacknowledged advertising.
Ink charging outrageous prices for simple spidering.
Altavista doing same, but price gouging for the same (imho).
AllTheWeb/Lycos headed for paid spidering.
Excite, NorthernLight - no traffic in the foreseeable future.
Google - the mass dominant search engine on the web - unrestrained and unchallenged mass copyright violations.
What we are seeing is what amounts to a monopoly of 6. They can do basically anything they want now. They maintain the monopoly by discouraging competition. By our (WebmasterWorld) discouraging new search engines (aka : Teoma, Wisenut, ViscaOnline), we have been helping them to maintain that monopoly.
We need all the competition in the search engine business we can find. It will help get the above engines back in line and once again accountable for there actions. I think it is time to back away from roasting the new engines, and instead embrace them. Granted, there is still a line to be drawn. Such as ViscaOnline it is pretty clear that it is probably headed for ppc land - however, WiseNut and Teoma stand to become real players. Lets see what we can do to support their growth in a legitimate manner.
The biggest problem in the last year in SEO has been the number of 'experts' who have been doing the search engines bidding in public. There have always been a few high profile people who've jumped when the se's said jump, but that has grown dramatically in the last year.
This is excellent news... in my opinion Gary Ruskin has done us a big favour.
The crudism of PPC is bad enough, but the deceipt of hiding the nature of the returns is disgusting.
The monopoly argument is also totally valid... it is very very unhealthy, and will get worse unless challenged.
I actually believe that the whole nature of the net is at stake here... is it to be simply a big budget commercial vehicle like every other media channel, or is it to be the free for all resource we know it can be. Smart tags was one threat to the latter eventuality, the SE monopoly is another.
Another one. I would not be to worried about it from our perspective. The implications would be that the search engines would stop trying to make money out of the SERPs, thus leaving that to us. :)
While some may view the regulaion of PPC as a good thing, you may want to look down the road a bit and see the big picture and what the "watchdogs" are really trying to do. The next target will be you. They are really trying to regulate commerce. If you think it is hard to get a decent rank in the engines now, wait until they get done with it. Compliance with regulations always has a cost and that cost will always be passed through to the person gaining the most benefit (you).
Here is how the FTC would like to see it happen:
1.) Before you are indexed by an engine, you must submit your articles of incorporation with the names and addresses of all the officers of the corporation, your tax ID number (for tracking), an affidavit from the State Attorney General stating that you are not involved in any alleged criminal activity. If you sell goods on your site, you will be required to supply financial affidavits stating that you have the wherewithal to fulfill any orders taken on your site.
2.) If you are non-profit, you will be required to supply proof.
3.) You will be forced to "warranty" any goods or services sold from your site with a heavy bias towards the purchaser.
This is all designed to "clean up" the internet so that only the big boys can play, I can see where the Amazons and Microsofts of the world will get behind such an initiative, but not me, and hopefully not you.
I don't think PPC, or any other form of CLEARLY MARKED paid placement is a bad thing.
There, I've said it
Please don't hate me :(
Napoleon raised the point that he feels the whole nature of the Net is at stake, at risk of moving away from the free resource model. I'm sorry to say it, but I think that has already happened. The Net is no longer the exclusive playground of the tech-heads, and cant be because its too big for that now.
A couple of years ago ('99 I think) data traffic first exceeded voice traffic on the UK core network. Thats a lot of bandwidth and it is still growing at a significantly faster rate. Even if storage came down to 100Mb/£, there are terabytes, nay petabytes ("peta" IS the next prefix isnt it?), of web pages out there, and that costs too.
Ultimately, it has to be paid for by someone, and PPC, ads etc are one way of getting money into the system
I agree totally that selling high placings, and disguising the fact of payment is dishonest (in effect it is spamming the user), and I agree that a monopoly, or domination by a cartel as in the case of the "Top 6" SEs is about the worst thing that could happen. It reduces the value to the user and stifles innovation and competition
The thing is, not only do most surfers not know how the interent works, they either dont care, or at worst are actively disinterested. They generally see it as a service channel, nothing more, and as long as it provides what they want at a reasonable cost, thats alright then. As they are largely clueless, they stick to brands they know (why do you think Yahoo! makes up such a massive proportion of referrals?), and dont stray too far from the beaten track
There is, IMO, an upside to PPC. How many times have you been frustrated by entering a search term, and been flooded by multiple pages from a few sites, and doorways pointing to the same few pages, none of which are what you want? (Less so now, a lot of SEs have tightened up on this, but you know what I mean)
You dont see that much on GoTo et al, do you?
Also, it encourages those with big marketing budgets to congregate and slug it out with big bucks campaigns. Meanwhile, due to the free/volunteer heritage of the net, those who wish to do things the old way can do so without interference from the corporates
Also bear in mind that things will get better. Most 10-year-olds are more web-savvy now than their parents ever will be. As the new generation grows up, and starts to wield the economic power, maybe they will be more able to see through the more cynical marketing ploys, and vote with thier disposable incomes going back to the roots of the Net, judging SEs on their results, not their marketing presence
Keep The Faith, Brothers and sisters, too :)
Gary Ruskin sounds a bit over the top with this statement,
"These search engines have chosen crass commercialism over editorial integrity,"
AWWWWW....so whats new Gary? And why does commercialism always have to be crass? Is subtle commercialism okay?
If I want solid editorial integrity on water moccasins, I'm sure I can find it easily enough, If I want to buy a pair of moccasins, I may have to wade through some crass commercialism, but I still WANT my moccasins.
john316: "While some may view the regulaion of PPC as a good thing, you may want to look down the road a bit and see the big picture and what the "watchdogs" are really trying to do. The next target will be you. They are really trying to regulate commerce. If you think it is hard to get a decent rank in the engines now, wait until they get done with it. Compliance with regulations always has a cost and that cost will always be passed through to the person gaining the most benefit (you)."
is there some sort of religious objection to regulating commerce?...is there a technical problem here?...or is this a political question?
if the latter then that's entirely up to you...I'm not going near it here
if it's none of the above then surely there is no problem regulating commerce...commerce has always been regulated one way or another
I don't think it's ridiculously hard to get a decent rank...and buying our way to the number one spot could never work for us...we are a global organisation...the site is in 14 languages already...we're not about to start paying for every single keyword
this is actually the first sign of the natural backlash that happens when a section of an industry get entirely focussed on their own concerns and commercial interests and begin to forget what they actually claim to offer the public...it's inevitable
IMO what happens next is a serious shakedown amongst the SEs whilst they get to grips with the idea that they won't succeed by all trying to copy the same model...if they don't concentrate on building an individual USP they will eventually die...and for those like Northern Light that have something unique they need to learn to market themselves effectively
we also need to sharpen our ideas...we have to stop thinking just in terms of overall numbers and more in terms of how this actually works...the less I concentrate on getting a high ranking on Google and MSN the more traffic I get...because I spend more time on regional and specialist SEs and directories (though being no 1 on MSN a lot of the time helps)...and I'm also getting "better" traffic...people who seem to go through the site more thoroughly...and fewer who have found a site they didn't actually want
in most circumstances we aren't aiming to build traffic...we are aiming to increase sales, or disseminate information...so we should be concentrating on what the end user needs
searching is about finding the information you want...if neither we nor the SEs are concentrating on that simple fact then it's time to rip the lot up and start again
The two central issues are:
This is surely what Joe public wants from his search. PPC is NOT the best way to get this - FAR from it. PPC is simple: deepest pocket wins.
Relevancy, however, is one of the core necessities of ensuring the character of the net does not change to become the same as that of other media. It is the reason why so many, including myself, are so strongly opposed to the march of GoTo.
Displaying PPC results and disguising this fact is deceipt, and Gary Ruskin is absolutely right to make an issue of this.
Dishonest SEs disguise this source because they know that point (a) holds true... Joe Public wants relevancy, and if he knows the results are simply the result of an auction he will in general go and search elsewhere.
There will always be apologists for PPC, or those too short sighted to understand what this underlying issues are, but the above facts remain the same.
But there is one thing we are forgetting. If I pay for the placement, I would not drive traffic to something irelevant.
If I serve the user with something less than his expectations, he will probably not turn into a customer. I do not pay for irelevant traffic.
We are not the adult industry, we do actually care what the searcher finds and that it will be up to his expectations.
And as a mather of fact: GoTo is one of the best SEs for shopping. I use it all the time for that purpose.
Sure the SEs must declare sold results and if they would let go of relevancy, they would for sure loose much traffic.
I think this is a good thing - mark the paid inclusions as such and leave the objective results to our manipulations. ;)
There are two issues here:
Cost and Relevance:
Who gets paid for the ranks? If I took you off the payroll and just bought clicks, there is a possibility that I could get it done more efficiently.
Who is to say that your SEO efforts lead to a more relevant result to the searcher? I believe that a PPC engine is more heavily vested in relevant results than you are.
If you don't have a budget for PPC, maybe you should get one. As far as I'm concerned, that is the cost of doing business, and if you are taking the "head in the sand" approach to PPC with your clients or employers, you are doing them a disservice.
My background is print, and I know the cost of printing, postage, list management, and fulfillment. I view PPC as a tremendous bargain and an extraordinarily efficient way to do business.
(edited by: john316 at 2:22 pm (gmt) on July 17, 2001)
As I read the opposing views in this thread, I wonder which of the Top 6 SEs will go to the subscription based revenue model FIRST. Would it not be nice if we could just go back to the way it was in 1997?
If you look at the world purely from the point of view of the Deep Pocket, then yes, everything is fine and PPC is wonderful.
Trouble is, that is an extraordinarily narrow and selfish way to look at the world.
That is why there is a difference of opinion.... those who view from that perspective, and the rest of us who hold other, wider values.
>I don't think PPC, or any other form of
>CLEARLY MARKED paid placement is a bad thing.
I don't think anyone here will argue with you TallTroll. That is the core issue - unmarked advertisements:
- Looksmart listings showing up. These are 100% paid advertisements. Unremarked as ads.
- The majority of Yahoo's listings are paid advertisements. Unremarked as ads.
- You have to look very close on Alta, Lycos, and Excite to realize you are looking at paid ads.
- Many meta search engines using FindWhat, Sprinks, and Goto.com are not remarking at all that those are paid listings.
It really is a tricky subject. The closest analogy would be Movies. Look at the billions that the tobacco companies have paid to get their products in movies. One of the largest grossing films of all time Independence Day had a rumored 10million dollar pay off for the stars to smoke cigars. Or John Travolta who took a reported $1million dollars to smoke in his movies (including a cigar smoking Angel in Micheal). We all seen ads in the movies.
Some movies have even made fun of it - like the scene in Waynes World where they literally have a commercial in the middle with Garth showing products. All those really were paid advertisements. Soft drinks, beer, car manufacturers (007's bmw) and even department stores (Kmart) have put paid placement advertisements in movies.
How are search engines showing paid results without notice, any different?
What about self advertising? The Google cache pages are nothing more than self branding advertisements for Google.
As I said, it's a sticky subject. I'm just glad someone is bringing the topic up in the main stream where it belongs. Awareness is the first step.
I think most people feel search engines are most like a electronic version of an encyclopedia. Most of them don't realize that they are slowly turning into The Yellow Pages (paid advertising in US phone books).
Having run tests with PPC and normal SEO placements. A good ranking for a keyword done by SEO will out perform a listing that is marked "Featured Site" or "Advertiser". Though I use both in unison to drive targeted traffic to sites. As the younger generation becomes an economic factor their experience and knowledge of how the internet works will keep SE's in moderation with concern for the PPC and relevancy.
My biggest concern is that someone will decide to "regulate" the serps before the above situation can happen. Does anyone question how long it will between indexes if you get governments involved? Try to get a simple home improvement permit at your local city hall and wonder no more. How are we going to sell SEO services when the client will have to wait a year for a re-update of Google after filing the important papers in triple? Regulation will kill the small company because they need to see results at a faster rate (Microsoft can wait a year for results, and can probably cut down that time with wining and dining of officials).
I think by educating our clients and providing PROFESSIONAL services we can keep the SE's delivering relevant results. As more of our customers learn that it's not the number of visitors but the quality of visitors they will stop asking for rankings that do not deliver sales.
Heinki, agree that GoTo for example has a built-in relevancy check as your describe. But when I search GoTo listings all I say is pleas to spend money. If i want info on the GDP of New Zealand, in fact any objective non- commericial information, I wont get it at goTo. That said its a great engine for finding something I need to purchase - a bit like browsing a brochure. The problem is though that these sites are now coming at top of many mainstream search engines. The real objective answers to my research question is often buried. Now those who dont know that these SERPS are auction-paid driven, will probably assume that objective, useful information is not available.
Agree, SE's have to find a way to stay afloat. That's why i am asupporter of the micropayments idea. Secondly, if google positions themselves even more as the most objective engine, to the extent they can dominate the field, they have several options for revenue generation from small annual subscriptions to use their service, to subscriptions for advanced search features with extra goodies, to more "box ads" they have now.
Google is way out in front in positioning themselves uniquely just doing something that is the key attribute of a Search Engine - relevancy. And that's why its traffic is increasing daily and others are mainly on the downslide of the big 6.
Im not too worried about Google's up and coming domination. My feeling is that others will come up with challenges to the market leader, in many different ways...
buying clicks is irrelevant in terms of the bottom line...that's the fundamental point I was trying to make...it's easy to monitor clickthrough...but it doesn't tell you if any information got through...it doesn't mean that sales will go up
I'm paid on a basis that we are getting more and better feedback from users...as it happens raw numbers of site visits are up too...that isn't how I'm judged, nor should it be...am I cost efficient?...how do you tell?...we don't have direct sales that can be measured and the indirect information we can gather is limited by essential confidentiality requirements...but...we get busier and we get to the people we need to progressively earlier
my background is political and arts marketing...two extremely cutthroat fields...and fields where there can be a very narrow margin between success and failure...furthermore, both are fields where reaching the wrong person may actually be harmful...so that may skew my attitude
I don't have to worry about PPC at work...I'm currently working in the charity field...but I worry about it as a user of the web...I worry about it because getting decently relevant search results is getting harder on a number of SEs
I'm even more worried because SEs are concentrating on all the wrong things...they are becoming more homogenous...as if they assume everyone uses one SE alone...I've always used a number of them...and I'm sure if they attempted to market themselves as being the SE for popular sites, the SE for academic sites, the SE for international sites etc, then more would be likely to stay in business
but the current situation is that policy seems to be decided by the finance people...never a good idea in any business
Came across an obscure (well at least to me!) search engine spidering our sites... domanova.co.uk Seems experimental with very plain interface (youll'd know what i mean when you get there!) even though results were great. What was interesting, and thought it related well in an entertaining and fresh way to this thread was their FAQ.
It includes the following...
Q: Can we advertise on Domanova?
A: Domanova is a search engine, not an advertising engine.
I don't know if it's mentioned elsewhere, but CNN Headline News is running a spot on this today. That should raise consumer awareness a few notches.
You would think that they could sell subscriptions so people could look into their databases to find out what people *really* search on. That is where the real gold is.
Yes, I am saying a subscription based goto tool -- provided it is inexpensive enough for the average Joe to be able to purchase.
I believe that SE's should make a profit; the internet would be a confusing place without them. It just seems that search engines have a 'gold mine' in the back they are completely ignoring, and are instead going to PPC to fix their financial woes.
minor point: domination by one company is a monopoly, domination by a handful of companies is an oligopoly
OK, no comments for now, just a few questions:
(no flames, please... these are serious questions looking for serious answers)
* What are the fundamental differences between PPC paid directly to a SE for a search listing or indirectly to a SEO for a re-directed doorway page?
* Is it possible to completely remove commercial influence from commercial searches?
Wow, this thread is really kicking off, isn't it?
>>I don't think PPC, or any other form of
>>CLEARLY MARKED paid placement is a bad thing.
>I don't think anyone here will argue with you TallTroll. That is the core issue - unmarked advertisements:
With respect, I think there are people here who view paid placement as inherently a bad thing. I must admit to a large amount of sympathy with this view, because I too remember a time when everything was free
I want to stress again that I strongly disapprove of any misrepresentation, and I find it particularly upsetting to have the same SEs who set themselves up as "Guardians of the Relevant Internet" subsequently putting paid, but unmarked (or poorly marked, which given the average users tech-awareness is about the same thing) listings at the top of, or prominently displayed on their SERPs, at the expense of other sites which are being displaced for no better reason that they dont have the same marketing budget.
However, I also think from a purely pragmatic point of view, that SEs have a need to make money, even a profit. I cant pretend I like some of the ways they choose to do it, and will do what I can to "send the message". Some of the other members of the WebmasterWorld community are in a far stronger position to apply economic pressure than I suspect I ever will be, but it must be an individual choice as to whether one approves (or even cares) about what goes on out there.
I do feel that PPC and indeed any pay-for-traffic scheme has its place on-line, so long as it is transparent to the user that someone has paid to put that information in front of them. If you see an ad in a magazine, you know it was paid for, even if that isn't specifically stated in the ad. Thats because we all know about print media, and know how to interpret what we see. The same isnt true of the Internet yet.
I do think that where somone is paying for your click or whatever, you should have all the information, and hence be able to make a properly informed choice.
If you had to pay for EVERY person who visited your site, you would make very sure they found what they were after, wouldn't you? After all, it may one day turn out that the pay models deliver the highest relevance results (theres nothing like a hit in the wallet to concentrate the mind)
Ultimately, I see the Internet as a tool for people to find information, goods and services that they want, without so many restrictions, be they geographic, company size, and increasingly even by language (Babel Fish etc). Somewhere along the line, someone has to pay for that tool though. Why not the advertisers?
Even with everything said here, I still believe the Web provides smaller companies with a more level playing field than they have previously enjoyed. On-line, as everywhere else, money talks. You may not like it, I certainly dont like it, but its true. If you dont provide obvious, tranparent places for the Big Boys to spend their money, and reap the rewards, they will do it where no-one can see, and that would be a disaster.
As said before GoTo etc provides them with a place where they can flex their ecomonic muscles. If you dont like it, dont use it, but dont think you can stop it. The Internet will for ever be at least a partly commercial place now. There was a thread about whether WebmasterWorld itself ought to charge, or place ads to cover costs. I have no issues with either option, so long as I am provided with the right information to make my choices.
OK, </soapbox> whats this thread about?
>>search engines are abandoning objective formulas to determine the order of their listed results, and selling the top spots to the highest bidders without making adequate disclosures to Web surfers
Too right they are. I think its a bad thing, but I also think there's very little to be done about (but if you have some ideas, please say. I'm listening, I promise you). Thing is, its a fact of life that the Internet is a huge source of potential wealth, and any sane company wants a slice. The trick, I think, is to make it possible to tell which are the "commercial" bits, and which aren't to everyone who uses the Net, so they can make an informed choice. And if the whole world decides they want a commercial Net, who are we to argue? We are here to serve them ultimately, not uphold ideals
BTW, we complained loudly and publicly about this lack of disclosure issue over a year ago, before it was an issue anywhere else.
"The only trouble comes if they promise or imply that they are impartial and then do not fully disclose to the public when the rules change."
the ethics of a search RETURN PAGE [webmasterworld.com]
I was driving home yesterday when I heard the guy on the radio talking about this. I just about crashed my car I was so surprised, then I just got a big smile.
Stay tuned, while I disparage my own profession, and make enemies... :o
...NOT telling people that they are paid listings is wrong. In print, a paid ad, no matter how cleverly disguised as a press release or testimonial MUST be labeled an ad. That is fair.
As far as PPC versus SEO manipulation, and SE's attempts at finding a way to monetize their service, versus going out of business, I am ambivalent about PPC.
I want to know the difference between paying a PPC SE for ranking in THEIR engine, and among their partners, versus paying an SEO to manipulate the results. Despite being able to do this, and being paid to do so, I see no "ethical" difference, other than "we" the SEO's are manipulating and using the free resources of SE's to profit.
Apparently, Mr. Ruskin does not have a clue about how search engines work. "Editorial integrity?" Sure. As long as the FTC does not rule that sites that are "optimized" by professionals are required to indicate that this has been done. ;)
The average user has absolutely NO idea of how the serps are created, nor do they care.
"Gee, they are number one under purple widgets. They MUST be the best." Nope - sorry Virginia, they are not on top because everybody thinks they are the best, they are on top because a professional knows how to put them there.
Whomever has the easiest interface, and the best, most relevant results <In EACH individual's case> gains or loses a user on that basis.
I have no problem with SE's being forced to indicate paid listings, and I doubt that people seeking to buy goods will find it offensive. It may cost some of my clients some traffic, but truth in advertising is just that. Truth. The free lunch is just about gone. The gold rush is almost over.
<crystal ball>After the major SE's gain the most loyal following, I expect ALL will start paid submission, and favored placement for their "own" shopping partners and sites. If you own the business (SE), you have a right to benefit from it. Granted, in the beginning, they ALL benefitted from our respective content.
Empowered by this development, there will be many that return to the idea that ALL SE's should be free, like before - before SE's realized they cannot sustain mega servers, bandwidth, employees, etc. without revenue.</crystal ball>
Banners have lost their cachet folks. Do you think TV would continue if Advertisers no longer bought commercials?
Label paid listings as such, as is fair in the real world. And, those users who "may" prefer "pure" listings as if some benevolent being has determined what rank the site serps should be in, can make their choice.
My sense is that many of "us" SEO's are more concerned with the idea that our "black arts" are devalued by the SE's attempts at survival through paid inclusion, and PPC. This is business, it isn't personal.
Sure, I'd like all SE's to stop PPC, paid submssions and the like. How will they survive?
>What are the fundamental differences between PPC paid directly to a SE for a search listing or indirectly to a SEO for a re-directed doorway page? <
Answer: The only difference is what one pays.
Apparently most folks don't get the point that most SE result pages are indeed PPC, the hogwash that a non-PPC engine delivers more relevant results is a joke, most of the time they just return the most "optimized" pages. When was the last time you ran a search on Excite (hehe)? Maybe SEO's should also be held accountable for disclosure. I can see it now.
"This site was optimized by Joe Blow SEO for the following keywords<insert keywords here> at a cost of $2,500.00. " :)
On search engines that display a set number of parnter listings: MSN and AV for example.
People are going to get tired of seeing the near same results and that's what happens with PPC. It also happens with a few directory sites out there. When a search engine does not refresh on a regular basis you see the traffic dwindle with each day. Why? Because many of the people searching your targeted keywords are the same people searching over and over again. If you've had a number one placement on a popular keyword you know this.
When people start becoming more weary to the same pool of sites popping up under various terms then they will move on. Whether they will move down the results or to another search site is up to them.
Sooner or later MSN and AV will see the dwindling Goto.com revenue and re-vamp their sites like they have done 50,000 times in the past.
It'll be like going to the library and only finding books written by wealty mainstream authors. The net is losing it's uniqueness. It will be like all money controlled information access.
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