Web companies pay out to the highest bidder, making information gathering a daunting task.
By PAUL GILSTER
RALEIGH NEWS AND OBSERVER
If you're on the Web, chances are you're looking for something. Using search engines is second only to e-mail as the activity most commonly engaged in by Web surfers.
And no wonder, given the vast number of pages now available, and the increasing use of the Net as an information source. Libraries need catalogs, and the Web, though hardly a library, isn't much use without an index.
But some of the Web's biggest sites are compromising their services by skewing their search results to benefit advertisers. So says Commercial Alert, a Portland, Ore.-based organization founded by consumer advocate Ralph Nader. The group has complained to the Federal Trade Commission that some of the Web's biggest engines are engaged in deceptive advertising.
Dishonest Abe: At issue is a practice known as "pay for placement," which lets companies buy their position in a list of search results. Consider GoTo.com, an engine whose rankings change according to how much companies pay for their listings. A recent article in the San Francisco Chronicle notes that eBay paid GoTo 16 cents per click to be at the top of its list of results for searches on Abraham Lincoln.
GoTo.com, in fact, was the originator of the "pay for placement" concept. I remember thinking, when I first heard about GoTo.com in 1998, that it would never fly. Who would want to search for information on the Civil War and get a list full of sites that sell bronze replicas of the Lincoln Memorial or guided tours of Lincoln's Springfield home?
But GoTo has indeed found a market, as a provider of services to other search engines. AltaVista uses it; so do Microsoft's MSN and Lycos. In fact, seven of the top 10 Web portals and search sites include GoTo's paid listings, adding them in one way or another to the same page that holds their standard set of results. This is one reason why, in a market reeling from the tech stock collapse, GoTo's stock has tripled since January.
In a time of sagging Web revenues, it's tempting for a search engine to accept payment from companies that want to make their Web sites more visible. Getting their company's page into a list of top 10 search hits -- or, even better, into a prominent box at the top of the results page -- is worth some money, considering the way that many searches work. People often use only the top results.
Don't misconstrue this as an attack on the search companies that accept payment for placement. Their business models are their own.
Beware: But searchers need to be aware that payment can be a criterion for determining where a particular Web site appears in a list of results. And search companies are going to have to be more clear about which of their results are paid for and which are not.
You can see the difference if you look at the home GoTo site (http://www.goto.com). Prominently shown there is a text box that talks about GoTo's "premium listings," describing them as "featured on popular sites like America Online, Lycos, AltaVista and many others." Another click gets you into the details. GoTo is upfront and makes no bones about what it's doing, which is fine by me.
But then, look at Lycos (http://www.lycos.com). When I searched there using the key words "French bread," the site came up with two sets of results. One was a list of what it described as "popular sites." These links were shown below the more prominently displayed "Featured Listings," a set of Web links for companies that are apparently commercial vendors of bakery products.
"Featured Listings" means "paid ads." Try the same search on Netscape and you get a section the company calls "Partner Search Results." The fact that the results are prominently displayed under this heading is the result of cash, not some "partnering" with another information provider. Absent a common terminology, we have to figure out what we're getting by deciphering the language of each site.
Be upfront: I think that any search engine using paid placement should state so on its home page, because such placement is another variable in how sites are found, and potentially a significant variable. By clarifying these matters, the search companies can show us those areas in which the Internet is valid as an information source, and those in which it is not.
A good library is a better information tool than the Net. Its card catalogs are created and maintained by librarians and it's not in the hands of companies trying to sell products. Though there's nothing intrinsically wrong with Web companies accepting money for placement, consumers need to know the quality of the information they get may be diluted.