A new report on the credibility of search engines called “Searching for Disclosure: How Search Engines Alert Consumers to the Presence of Advertising in Search Results” (PDF, 2.8MB) and released by ConsumerWebWatch examines how search engines explain business relationships with advertisers to their users. The study evaluated the compliance of 15 major search engines with the FTC’s guidelines on disclosing paid sponsorship of search results. The sites evaluated in the study were: 1stBlaze, AltaVista, AOL Search, Ask Jeeves, CNET’s Search.com, Google, InfoSpace Web Search, Lycos Network Search, MSN Search, My Search, My Way Search, Netscape Search, Overture, Web Search and Yahoo! Search.

Among the key findings of this survey are:

  • Paid inclusion was not satisfactorily disclosed or explained by any of the search engines tested. The credibility of this practice is of such concern to the industry itself that, after Consumer Reports WebWatch testing had been completed, two of the top five search engines announced plans to terminate paid inclusion programs.
  • Meta-engines, which present results from several search engines simultaneously, repeatedly failed to adequately disclose the presence of paid placement and paid inclusion within search results.
  • Disclosures are generally hard to find, accessible by headings and hyperlinks that often blend in with the page, making them easy for consumers to overlook.
  • Information disclosed by the sites on business practices with advertisers — and how these practices may affect search results — was often confusing and jargon-laden.
  • Some engines, like Google – one of the few majors not named in the original FTC complaint – took pains to visually segregate paid results from non-paid results. Consumers may want to avoid others, like 1st Blaze, because of inadequate or absent disclosures that undermine the integrity of search results.