Five Out of Six Users Confuse Paid, Unpaid Search Results

Jeff Berg
CYBERSPACE — Less than a fifth of all search engine users can tell the difference between unbiased search results and paid ad placement, according to a new study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project.

Among the findings in Pew’s study, about 38 percent of search engine users were aware that there was a difference between “sponsored” results and unpaid search results. Only about 18 percent of users could tell the difference between the two.

“In a sense, many search engine users are a little bit like kids with a fancy new toy,” said Deborah Fallows, a senior research fellow at the Pew Internet & American Life Project and author of the report. “They want to go play with it immediately and have a good time, but most don’t want to read the instructions or much care to know how it works.”

The study found that about 70 percent of users felt that search engines should be able to offer enhanced placement for sponsored results, but 45 percent said they would stop using a search engine if it did not disclose that it was giving preferential treatment to the paid advertisements.

The controversial issue of tracking Internet users’ searching habits and offering up personalized advertisements was also touched upon by the study, with approximately 21 percent of all Internet users saying they would stop using a particular search engine if they learned their searches were being tracked.

There also was a significant difference in opinion between differing age groups, with users under 30 years old being more likely to conduct searches, to consider themselves successful in their search and to rely on search engines. In contrast, older users were more likely to trust their search engines less and have a strict ethical guidelines for paid search engine practices.

The study also found a direct correlation between user age and support of paid search results — the older the user, the less they liked the idea.

Overall, though, the study found that Internet users feel very positive about search engines and the experiences they have using them, with 56 percent of users online on any given day using a search engine.

Roughly 92 percent of users surveyed said they felt confident in their searching abilities and 32 percent said they couldn’t live without using a search engine at least once a day.

“Search engines seem to be working for everyone,” Fallows said. “The large group of naïve searchers is happy because they easily find quick answers to easy questions; the smaller group of sophisticated searchers is happy because they know what to expect of search engines and how to use them smartly.”