Magazine article Information Today

Consumer Watchdog Files Complaint against Eight Search Engines for 'Crass Commercialism'

Magazine article Information Today

Consumer Watchdog Files Complaint against Eight Search Engines for 'Crass Commercialism'

Article excerpt


Commercial Alert, a 3-year-old group founded by consumer activist Ralph Nader, has filed a complaint with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) against eight Web search engines "for placing ads in search engine results without clear disclosure that the ads are ads." Named in the complaint were AltaVista Co.; AOL Time Warner, Inc.; Direct Hit Technologies (owned by Ask Jeeves); iWon, Inc.; LookSmart, Ltd.; Microsoft Corp.; and Terra Lycos S.A. (owner of HotBot and Lycos). "These search engines have chosen crass commercialism over editorial integrity," said Gary Ruskin, executive director of Commercial Alert (http://

The complaint targets two increasingly popular practices used by most of the major search engines and Web directories: paid placement and paid inclusion. Paid placement allows Webmasters to buy a specific position in search results. Paid inclusion merely guarantees that a search engine will crawl and index a page on a timely basis.

Most search engines label paid placement links with relatively clear euphemisms for ads, calling them "featured links" or "partner sites." Commercial Alert calls this practice "concealment," adding that, "This concealment may mislead search engine users to believe that search results are based on relevancy alone, not marketing ploys." Oddly, the complaint alleges that "paid inclusion is advertising within the editorial content of the search results, though it does not necessarily guarantee a certain position within the results."

Representatives from search engines named in the complaint dispute the allegations. "We've always disclosed the nature of the Featured Sites section of our page," said Bill Bliss, general manager of MSN Search at Microsoft. MSN's disclosure states that, "Featured Sites are direct links to Web sites from and MSN sponsors. In some cases, Microsoft accepts payment in exchange for these listings." Bliss added, "If the FTC chooses to pursue this investigation, we will of course cooperate fully."

AltaVista spokeswoman Kristi Kaspar said, "We are confident in our implementation of our text ads and have received positive feedback from our users since the program has been live."

Conspicuously missing from the complaint are other major search engines, including Google and GoTo, both of which offer paid placement. These aren't targeted by the complaint because Google identifies purchased links as "sponsored links" and GoTo's paid links display the cost to the advertiser for each link.

While labeling paid links more explicitly may be a good idea, the overall morally smug tone of the complaint seeks to paint search engine firms as rapacious capitalists that are more concerned with making money than with providing a good user experience. Several inaccuracies and misrepresentations in the complaint reveal bias that belies mere "consumer protection" as a primary motive for the action.

For example, the complaint alleges, "During the last year ... some search engines sacrificed editorial integrity for higher profits." I'm sure that's news to AltaVista, whose parent company CMGI just reported a nearly $1 billion quarterly loss on the heels of the previous quarter's $2.9 billion loss. Ask Jeeves and LookSmart have also reported losses. …

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