Web Informant #292, 3 July 2002:
Separating ads from edit on search sites


Searching for stuff on the web is hard enough these days. But there is some hope, coming from all places our own US Federal Trade Commission. The government agency has asked several search portal operators to do a better job delineating sponsored content (meaning advertising) from their listed results whenever you type in a keyword on their sites. And if they listen and act on this request, we will all be better off.

All I can say is it's about time that these portals cleaned up their collective act. Sure, they all have to make a buck, and these days being a dot com and getting tons of page views isn't enough to feed the kids, let alone squirrel away a few million dollars in accounting "errors." But I find it unfortunate that these search portals are making money on the backs of confused surfers. It is too hard to distinguish when a paid-for link is placed at the top of the page, and those links that just show up because of the search engine's ranking technique.

As a magazine editor, I know the difference between advertising and editorial when it comes to a printed page. We have rules, you know, and you pay the price for messing with these rules: your readers stop believing in you. But when it comes to the web, the rules are usually too vague to be enforceable.

As an example, the American Society of Business Publication Editors (asbpe.org) says in its published "Code of Preferred Editorial Practices" that:

"Editors should not create any content for special advertising sections or the advertisements therein.

On all online pages, editors should assure that a clear distinction is made between advertising and editorial content. This may involve typefaces, layout/design and juxtaposition of the editorial materials and the advertisement."

Seems fairly plain to me. So why can't the search portals figure this stuff out and abide by it?

The trouble is, the line between ads and edit (what we in the publishing biz call the separation of church and state) has been getting pretty blurry as of late. I went to several different search sites and tried to search for something to see what they are currently doing. It isn't a pretty sight, or site for that matter.

Google is perhaps the best: they put a tint box behind the link, and also the words "sponsored link" nearby. It is fairly easy to see where on the page the sponsors leave off and the actual content begins. The FTC is fairly happy with Google, and it has become my default starting place on the web for a variety of other reasons. But it is nice to know that you have one place to go that is friendly and abides by the separation of ads from edit.

Looksmart.com has the most confusing: they have "featured listings" (the ads), "directory categories", and then "reviewed web sites" -- the last item is the actual content. MSN isn't a picnic either: they have "featured listings" (the ads), "sponsored sites" (more ads), and then the actual listings. But they start numbering the hits at the top in the featured listings, making it harder to tell what is what.

In between these sites, there is a lot of blur. Altavista.com has "products and services info" at the top of the page (these are the ads) but in the same type font and layout that they present their search results underneath. It is easy to confuse the two, unless you are a frequent user of the site and have learned how to distinguish between them. AOL's search page comes up with "recommended sites" and "matching sites" -- also in similar typography that is confusing to tell the difference.

And to top things off, I found some really bad news. Even if you understand the difference between ads and edit, all of these sites have been doing something even more noxious as of late: pop-under and pop-over ads. Every search launched at least one and sometimes several of these nuisances, to the point that I was spending more time clicking on closing down browser windows than being able to read my search results.

It doesn't have to be this way. Separate the church from the state, please, on your own web sites. And maybe the FTC will do something about pop-under/pop-over ads while they are at it, and save a bit of bandwidth so the folks at Worldcom/Uunet have a bit of breathing room to operate their networks.

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David Strom
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