YORK - Only 1 in 6 users of Internet search engines can tell the
difference between unbiased search results and paid advertisements, a
new survey finds.
Pew Internet and American Life Project reported Sunday that adults
online in the United States are generally naive when it comes to how
search engines work.
The major search
engines all return a mix of regular results, based solely on relevance
to the search terms entered, and sponsored links, for which a Web site
had paid money to get displayed more prominently.
Inc. marks such ads as "sponsored links," Yahoo Inc. terms them
"sponsor results" and Microsoft Corp.'s MSN uses "sponsored
sites." Such ads are placed to the right and on top of the
regular search results, in some cases highlighted in a different color.
only 38 percent of Web searchers even know of the distinction, and of
those, not even half — 47 percent — say they can always tell which are
paid. That comes out to only 18 percent of all Web searchers
knowing when a link is paid.
percent of Web searchers say they would stop using search engines if
they thought they weren't being clear about such payments, yet 92
percent of Web searchers say they are confident about their searching
Deborah Fallows, a senior
research fellow at Pew and the study's author, said the findings were
surprising given that the same people are likely to know the difference
between television programs and infomercials.
still in the infancy of the Internet," Fallows said. "People are
still kind of so pleased that they can go there, ask for something and
get an answer that it's kind of not on their radar screen to look in a
very scrutinizing way to see what's in the background there."
said the results reflect blind trust on the part of the Web searcher
rather than "anything nefarious on the part of the search engine."
the Consumer Reports WebWatch studied the top 15 search engines and
found many of them could do better in disclosing sponsorships,
particularly when they practice "paid inclusion." That is when
sites pay to make sure they are included in a search engine's index,
though without guarantees that their links will be displayed more
The telephone-based Pew study
was conducted May 14-June 17 and involved 2,200 adults, including 1,399
Internet users. Results based on Internet users have a margin of
sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
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