Consumer advocates, search-engine marketers and representatives of the engines themselves debated that question during a Consumer Reports WebWatch conference held here on Thursday, and their answers varied widely.
Consumer groups called for more disclosure about paid listings, while others in the search-engine industry turned the spotlight on less-visible practices used to rank high in results. But most agreed that trust is critical to search engines and that those that follow the most credible practices will win over consumers.
"People are using search engines for everything," said Jorgen Wouters, a consultant for Consumer Reports WebWatch. "Consumers have a right to know if theyre receiving unbiased information or if someone is paying for it."
As part of the conference, Consumer Reports WebWatch released its latest search disclosure study in which it found that eight of the 15 most visited search sites have made their disclosures about so-called sponsored links less visible to consumers.
Headings labeling sponsored links, which are advertisements sold in an auction model and paid based on the number of clicks, have largely gone from bold colors to more dull designs since the time of the groups last report in November. Meanwhile, those sites using paid inclusion, where a Web site pays a search engine to be part of its index, continue to provide little disclosure, the report found.
Among the five major search sites—Google Inc., Yahoo Inc., MSN, America Online Inc. and Ask Jeeves Inc.—Yahoo and Ask Jeeves were cited for making their headings fainter and their disclosure statements harder to find.
"If you want to call attention to something on a page you put headline above it, [but] you dont make it smaller and more faint," said Beau Brendler, director of Consumer Reports WebWatch.
Yahoo also received the most criticism about its paid inclusion program, since it is the only engine among the top five to still use the practice, and because one way it charges included sites is based on the number of clicks on their listings.
While consumer advocates focused on paid inclusion programs and how well search engines disclose their ads, many of the search-engine marketers said that other issues are having a bigger influence on the search results.
All search consumers need to realize that search results—both paid listings and the organic results returned through algorithms—are being influenced, said Dana Todd, an executive vice president and search marketer for SiteLab International Inc.
Marketers are willing to pay search-engine optimization and marketing firms to help rank higher in search results. And if search engines offer ways to buy ads or be included in their results, marketers will pay, she said.
"Id happily buy everything out there," said Todd, who is also president of the Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization. "Thats my job … There is going to have to be a balance, and we cant be so naive as to say that there isnt money be exchanged."
Even for engines like Google, which have strict policies against paid inclusion, sites are finding ways to game the results.
Dan Thies, president of search-keyword researcher SEO Research Labs, explained examples where more obscure search terms return what he called "keyword driftnets." Those are sites packed with specific keywords that appear designed to draw people to click on syndicated ads from Googles program for Web publishers, called AdSense.
"I wonder if it isnt time for search engines to start saying that they can be gamed by scammers, and so can you," Thies said.
While other practices may be influencing search engines, Wouters said that too many consumers still remain uninformed about how the more common paid listings work, both for sponsored links and for paid inclusion.
"What we take for granted, a lot of people dont have any idea that its going on," said Wouters, the author of Consumer Reports WebWatchs latest report.