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How Paid Search Listings Impact What You Find on the Internet - 2004-04-12

Searching through the World Wide Web's three billion pages for a single nugget of information can be challenging, especially now that advertisers compete for placement on some popular search sites. How can you be sure that you are really getting an unbiased look at what's out there? Do the search engines that most people use help you find what you are looking for, or do they lead you to the things they want you to find?

High tech expert Peter Meyers talked to VOA's Rosanne Skirble that a service called "paid listings" or "key word advertising" was born when advertisers realized that sponsored weblinks could attract more customers.

Meyers: Keyword advertising is a system in which companies are given the right to list an ad based on an entered search term. So for instance all search sites today - Google and all of its competitors, Yahoo, AOL, Microsoft, anyone who runs a search site sells key words. They can be anything from phrases like 'airline tickets' to 'piano tuner' to 'olives.' Those words are sold off to advertisers so when someone enters that phrase or word those companies have the right to present a listing. In most cases in key word advertising sales what happens is an auction is opened up and a company like Google or Yahoo will say, 'Whoever the five highest bidders are, are the companies that we will let [to] list their results on the websites.' So, it is not just one it is typically several [companies on the website]. At a certain point they do not want to list too many because it becomes confusing, but that leads to another part of the whole world of key word advertising, where layout is crucial. There is a wide spectrum of ways that search sites present their key word listings, their paid listings. In some cases they are intermingled with search results that haven't been paid for by companies, and then in some other instances they are segregated. They are put off on a separate part of the page and clearly listed as paid or 'a message from our sponsor.'

Skirble: How would you know which is [sponsored] which [not sponsored]? How would you know the difference when you are doing an online search?

Meyers: That is something that is fairly complicated at many sites for the average web surfer. Unfortunately most of the search companies don't make a very great effort to distinguish between what is paid and what is not paid because the thinking is that if is a search has not been paid for it, it might represent a kind of truer result. But there are sites that offer a notable exception. Google has consistently done a good job of labeling its results [which have] been paid for as sponsored links. And so it is very easy to see what is paid for and what's not.

Skirble: Is this field at all regulated?

Meyers: Not really. There have been some efforts made - most notably in 2002 - by the Federal Trade Commission to clearly label their results, but they stopped short of actually mandating it, and they presented it as a strong recommendation.

Skirble: So, what can consumers do when they search? Can you give us some advice?

Meyers: The biggest piece of advice is to headers that are listed, the labels that are attached to the search results. In many cases, even sites that don't do as good of a job as Google of laying out their results, in many cases there is something called sponsored links or advertiser links. And on some sites you just have to look very closely. Another trick is that at many search sites the sponsored links take up the top half of the page, so often times you just need to scroll down to the bottom of the page to see what many people refer to as the true results. Skirble: What do [advertisers] pay to have a sponsored link? And what do they get back from it?

Meyers: These auctions have been a really interesting world to follow because of the different amounts being charged for the different phrases vary widely. On the very low end companies are paying no more than a penny [one cent] to list 'black olives' or some kind of obscure listing, but a really popular term like 'airline tickets' are selling for around five dollars a link. And, if you think of the amount of people who go to a site like Google or AOL can add up. The charges are not incurred until somebody clicks on the links. So it is not that every time the sponsored link shows up these companies are getting charged, but if a user clicks on the link then the company that paid for the word gets charged.

Skirble: Thanks for joining us Peter.

Meyers: You're welcome

Skirble: Peter Meyers has been a regular voice on VOA's Our World over the past year. Today we thank him for his contribution and bid him goodbye and good luck in his freelance career. You might want to check out his byline in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal where he is a periodic contributor.