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Is it time for SERP's to be policed?



9:14 am on May 6, 2001 (gmt 0)

WebmasterWorld Senior Member nffc is a WebmasterWorld Top Contributor of All Time 10+ Year Member

We all understand that the SE's need revenue with the major source being paid advertisements appearing on the results pages. However the increase in "pay to rank" and the integration of advertisements into the actual results themselves is becoming more wide spread.

Take look at the SEC filings by Ask Jeeve's [sec.gov];

"Currently scheduled to be introduced by the Company in 2001, DirectLinx will permit advertisers to obtain valuable leads with targeted, text-based sponsored placements designed to feel more like an answer than an advertisement."

Then we have Inktomi's "Content Blending Technology" [inktomi.com];

"Inktomi is the first search technology provider to offer new content blending capabilities that combine query results from disparate databases"

In addition the rash of "featured" listings continues to grow.

Is it time for the regulators to get involved to ensure that consumers do not get confused between editorial content and paid advertising?


10:32 am on May 6, 2001 (gmt 0)

WebmasterWorld Senior Member chiyo is a WebmasterWorld Top Contributor of All Time 10+ Year Member

Great question, and regulating the Internet has always been a difficult task, let alone a controversial and thorny one.

Other alternatives may be a watchdog organization that regulalry reports on what SERPS are affected by commercial pay for ranks etc, how and to what extent. Thw watchdog URL of body of course would have to have good exposure itself though, and be credible itself. Say run by a board of guys like well known SE experts.

Even traditionally published directories in many industries maintain their integrity by being completely objective in their listings while either selling their directories or accepting advertising, but the latter only when it is very obvious (eg. bolded entries or ads in a differnt column). These directories dont seem to have had a problem in establishing their credibility among professionals in their own area, and I would hazard a guess that it will not be so different for online search engines.

In their advertising for example, SE's could position themselves as the Internet's biggest "true result" index or something similar. And word of mouth is key.

I notice that Jakob Nielsen's latest review of use-it.com referrals says that Google has got a good reputation wih journalists (I think it was you NFFC that published the link), and it is something we have known for a while. The reason people give is is high relevancy, good for specialist terms and that the results are not influnced by factors other than relevance etc.

I would tend to believe that the free market may well prevail, before any regulation is required either through one of the above 2 methods.. independent watchdog, own promotion or word of mouth/reputation.


12:01 am on Jun 9, 2001 (gmt 0)

WebmasterWorld Senior Member nffc is a WebmasterWorld Top Contributor of All Time 10+ Year Member

Bear in mind I am far from being qualified in such matters but it seems, in the UK at least, that the placement of paid advertising amongst what is perceived to be editorial content may be against the law or at least in contravention of The Advertising Standards Authority guidelines.

"Advertisers should not exploit the credulity, lack of knowledge or inexperience of consumers."



12:14 am on Jun 9, 2001 (gmt 0)

WebmasterWorld Senior Member mivox is a WebmasterWorld Top Contributor of All Time 10+ Year Member

Oh, in the US print media, any advertisement that is designed to blend in with the content of the newspaper or magazine in question must be labeled with the word "advertisement" or "advertising" somewhere. Of course TV commercials are unmistakeably advertising...

You see it a lot in women's magazines, 5-10 pages straight of "articles" about fantastic breakthrough beauty/health/weight loss products, with the teeny phrase "special advertising section" at the top of every page.

If every SE were required to put notations next to their paid links, that would be a very good move, IMO... they could either put them in a special "sponsored/paid links" section on the page, or configure their results pages to display a little $ next to each paid listing.


2:22 am on Jun 9, 2001 (gmt 0)

WebmasterWorld Senior Member 10+ Year Member

That is a very good point Mivox. I was reading through a PC World magazine the other day and thinking "Wow these ad sections are getting good!". Almost half of that magazine contains those "special advertising section"'s. They even go so far as making it look like the editors of the mag wrote them. They fit in so well it really catches your eye.

I totally agree that some of these SE's need to follow suit with that method. (Altavista really comes to mind in this topic!!!!!) It's really starting to get bad with SE's placing the top sites in their SERP's with paid ads appearing as "featured sites" or "popular listings". When a common user sees this they think "Hey! This site must have some real quality if it is considered a "featured site"!

But other than the fact that it is purely deceptive, can you really blame them, the SE's? It is a whole different world on the net and they need the money. A world filled with trigger-happy mouse clickers who will not even give a second glance to something with "Advertisement" branded right next to it. Most people hate advertisements and the Net gives them a chance to by-pass it whenever possible. But with magazines people are in a position where they have the time to sit and read through everything. On the net it's just click click click. And the only way you will get people to click through something is to make it blend in with the rest.

But don't get me wrong I believe that they should do this 100% and if they play their cards right they can do it right. They just have to figure out a way to catch the common user's eye. There are always people out there looking for a better deal or bargain. If it is shown to them in the right manner then they will follow.


4:54 am on Jun 9, 2001 (gmt 0)

WebmasterWorld Administrator skibum is a WebmasterWorld Top Contributor of All Time 10+ Year Member

Should advertising be called advertising, absolutely, no question about it.

Advertising then needs to be defined. Goto is advertising, and they are very clear about this on GoTo, as is Sprinks.

If advertising is going to be labeled as such in SERP's, the key point is what constitutes advertising and paid placement. For example if I decide to start skibumsearch.com and for whatever reason I decide to use GoTo as the engine of choice, but take no money from GoTo for that choice or on a per click basis, is it advertising? In the mind of most search savvy people, probably, but how would a legal body see it?

Any regulation would have to make a distinction between the plain and simple advertiser pays publisher directly, and advertiser pays publisher but does not pay syndication partner who displays results which have been paid for at some point.

To be effective, a universal standard would have to be adopted (such as the bid price accompanying search listings) which is universally is a recognized indication that a placement has been paid for. That listing with its advertising label should then **ONLY** be displayed elsewhere in its original form on other sites, meaning that the advertising label should accompany it everywhere.

How about pay for placement (not PPC)? Generally a banner is easily recognized as advertising, at least when it is jumping around. A banner that contaons only text might need a label, should all banners require a label declaring them advertising?

How would we deal with say a text placement at the top of an SERP that is paid for by the month? Displaying the price would be insightful to those viweing it, as well as other advertisers considering a buy, but I think such an arrangement would face serious opposition by both advertisers and content providers. A universal symbol as mivox brings up could be in order.

Then you have LookSmart, arguably a directory,and arguably a place where you can buy your way in as many times as you want. Not quite advertising in the sense that an editor still has the final say on the listing, but it sems the bigger the pockets one has the more favorable, the reviews become. How is that dealt with?

Then "advertorials", which in the world of print in any respectable magazine are labeled as such. On the web the level of disclosure is not even close in many cases. Paid write-ups are so prevalent in some places it can make your head spin. If they were labeled as paid placements, it would probably have a dramatic effect on the ability of those sites to stay afloat.

From my experience, (in a particular market, where a transaction typically ranges from 200k to 600k) a cost per lead on such sites can be as low as 3-5 dollars as compared to GoTo which often comes in around 40 bucks, and banners anywhere from $300.00 to well over $1000.00

Such a plan to regulate advertising disclosure would have to be well thought out to be worthwhile. It would have to address parties invovled even indirectly in a transaction. It would have to be carefully crafted in order to protect the consumer from the dep pocket influence at sites like LookSmart, while not putting crippling restrictions on YAHOO! like directories which charge for review but maintain "reasonable" separation betwen directory listings and paid placments.

There are probably enough members here in the WMW community, that should a watchdog organization form, it wouldn't be too hard to build awareness:)


4:30 am on Jun 12, 2001 (gmt 0)

WebmasterWorld Administrator brett_tabke is a WebmasterWorld Top Contributor of All Time 10+ Year Member Top Contributors Of The Month

Since the advent of the "infomercial", laws pertaining to advertising have all but dropped off the books in the US. With advertisment placement in movies, television shows, and infomercials, the line between what is an advertisment and what isn't has been destroyed.

I was watching a baseball game last week, Live From Coors Field. Even the names have become advertisements.

NFFC's first post is an advertisement for Ask Jeeve's. Will we have to regulate forum posts too?

Althought I love the spirit, I don't see any way you could regulate search engines without moving to pure censorship.


5:19 pm on Jun 12, 2001 (gmt 0)

10+ Year Member

You have all brought up very valid points and I agree whole-heartedly with all.

I would *LOVE* to see engines beginning to display content in a DMOZ sort of scenario.

For example, if you search for "Mazda Miata" You get some Directory listings, then the sites. But notice how the directory listing links themselves are short and sweet? Make that one font size SMALLER, and would LOVE to see it on any engine. The same scenario can be applied for "sponsor links".

I think it is honestly an issue of usability when you need to scroll 2 or sometimes 3 page lengths in order to find valued results of information that aren't trying to force products down your throat.

Just some thoughts. Mostly on topic. Thanks for hearing me out!


3:22 am on Jun 13, 2001 (gmt 0)

WebmasterWorld Senior Member 10+ Year Member

>>the placement of paid advertising amongst what is perceived to be editorial content may be against the law

I think this is a point that we are overlooking. I know the most of us seasoned web types have decided that SERP's are supposed to be unbiased editorial content, but I don't think the average web user (i.e. non site operator) actually sees it that way. Over the years, I've had several conversations with recreational web users about what I do for a living, and each time, they have all been quite suprised to find out that the sites that show up at the top of SERP's DIDN'T pay the search engine to be there.

Instead, the general assumption is that they function somewhat like the yellow pages. They are services that produce a list of sites that might be relevant to a particular query, and the method of determining what is and is not relevant is just not something that they ever really think about. They simply click on the links. If they find what they're looking for, they'll be back. If not, they go look somewhere else.

When I step back and look at it from that perspective, I just don't think that a SERP is in the same category as a traditional off-line advetorial. A true advetorial is written to convey an official endorsement by the person or organization that wrote it. A page of links returned as a match for a query doesn't do that. It is simply a list of sites that may help you find what your looking for.

IMHO, the real online equivlant of magazine advetorials exist in the affiliate marketing world. Companies like CJ are actively pushing the blending of editorial and paid advertising content. The less it looks like an ad, the better. As a result, the web has become littered with lame sites containing phony product reviews, how to articles, testimonials, etc. that were written for the sole purpose of providing a place to imbed an affiliate link. I find this type of marketing to be far more of a deception and threat to the consumer then a SERP containing some paid listings.

With that said, I certainly don't care for the increase in umarked paid listings. But rather that trying to regulate it, I think a better approach would be to mount a large public awarness campaign that taught web users how to actually use a search engine. Even the ones that run paid listings at the top offer the ability to resort the data or view additional listings farther down first. After all, the spots at the top only have value because no one ever ventures past the first page. If everyone who doesn't care for paid listings simply scrolled down and clicked on the "11-20" link, it would all be a moot point.


12:38 pm on Jun 13, 2001 (gmt 0)

WebmasterWorld Senior Member macguru is a WebmasterWorld Top Contributor of All Time 10+ Year Member

Now some guys and girls here are going to hate me for this.

Simple questions; what are you doing for a job?
In wich budjet your clients uses money for you to make them top?

I believe I am some kind of advertiser. If my clients agree to spend money to a search engine or to some SEO professional to get better positions, I think it is some form of advertising.

I agree that Sympatico's "most popular" are most of the times totally irrelevant to the search term. That is why they had to move it to the bottom of the first page. Users satisfaction was too low. People where leaving the place.

I read somewere that MSN is using GoTo's input. If users find irrelevant results blended in top positions, they will switch SE. If sponsered links are clearly identified from the rest (like Google) users gain confidence in the SE and are less likely to switch.

Microsoft gained a large part of the search market by manipulating MSIE and HotMail users to MSN. How long will this last if they over strech it? Using a search engine is free. If users find better, they will switch.


11:33 pm on Jun 13, 2001 (gmt 0)

WebmasterWorld Administrator skibum is a WebmasterWorld Top Contributor of All Time 10+ Year Member

As for PPC, it seems like the policy could simply be that, the price (or other universally recognized notation) must appear next to the listing regardless of whether it is syndicate elsewhere. The listing and the ad notation must always appear together.

Does anyone know what rules apply for print publications? For instance, a publication like Newsweek seems to either be or feel obligated to label article looking ads "paid advertising sections" or something similar.

If someone want to publish a free newsletter, are they required to adhere to any rules about disclosing advertising material that may blend in to the content of the newsletter?

Is there a line drawn in the legal realm between different classifications of publications and what they must do when declaring advertisements?

Mikkel Svendsen

7:01 am on Jun 14, 2001 (gmt 0)

10+ Year Member

NFFC, I am not sure about the UK but in Denmark (and I believe it goes for the other Scandinavian countries too) you must label advertising online as well as off-line. The problem, however, is that the officials that regulate the law don't know much about the Internet and would never be able to spot the ads unless they where told :)


9:19 pm on Jun 14, 2001 (gmt 0)

10+ Year Member

The only person who should regulate SERP's is the search engine responsible for maintaining those pages.

If anyone who is running an online business would like I will regulate your pages for a nominal fee. Why would you want this, well, you wouldn't, because I'm going to destroy your online business, make your life difficult, and that's if you are already running an honest business. I'd even make it a point of basing my regulations off the most likely things governments would come up with (in other words I would merely ask you to accomplish the impossible, things like age verification).

From what I have seen all of the paid placement sites have either clearly marked paid listings or have made it clear one way or another that they have paid listings. Anyone who cares to find out can easily find this information, and it doesn't require any technical knowledge at all, it just requires reading the information on their web sites.

I propose instead, that consumers be regulated and be required to read the information presented on websites for their own good, and whenever they are caught not reading an important disclaimer or license agreement, they should be publicly flogged.


1:03 pm on Jun 15, 2001 (gmt 0)

WebmasterWorld Senior Member nffc is a WebmasterWorld Top Contributor of All Time 10+ Year Member

>NFFC's first post is an advertisement for Ask Jeeve's. Will we have to regulate forum posts too?

Got to disagree with you on that one Boss. That is a commentary even if someone had paid me to write it. It would become advertising at the point that the Publisher [i.e. you] accepts payment to publish it. There is a grey area where payment would make it more likely to be published but traditional advertising works on the basis of if you don't pay you don't get.

Mikkel Svendsen

9:15 am on Jun 16, 2001 (gmt 0)

10+ Year Member

> The only person who should regulate SERP's is the search engine responsible for maintaining those pages.

Well, you afree to think that but the fact is that it is already regulated by law in Denmark and most other European countries in some way or another.

> From what I have seen all of the paid placement sites have either clearly marked paid listings or have made it clear one way or another that they have paid listings.

That's not what I've seen. Are you sure you saw it all - or just the ads you _know_ is ads? I know of at least a couple of cases were portals or SE's have tried to hide ads so users did not think of it as such.


5:43 pm on Jun 18, 2001 (gmt 0)

10+ Year Member

I didn't say the only person who regulates serps are engines, I just said engines are the only ones who should. My guess is that engines in the UK aren't any better for the hassles they now have to deal with.

For the most part I was right, but I can think of a few examples now where the front page of an engine contains paid information links that most people probably wouldn't realize were paid. Still I don't think it's a problem, at least it's not a problem specific to search engines. How many people here are running affiliate programs right now on their main page that to someone new to the web might not realize are affiliate programs?

If you dream something up for someone else, be prepared to deal with it yourself, you probably will have to.

Age verification for example, which I hinted at before affects everyone running a website that asks for email or any other kind of contact information, accomplishes nothing useful, but has changed the way people do business on the web at least a little.


8:48 pm on Jun 30, 2001 (gmt 0)

WebmasterWorld Senior Member nffc is a WebmasterWorld Top Contributor of All Time 10+ Year Member

Advertisers, publishers and owners of other media should ensure that advertisements are designed and presented in such a way that it is clear that they are advertisements.

ASA Code 23.1 [asa.org.uk]