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Sunday, February 11, 2007

Do Search Engines Serve the Public?

During my research on my school paper I have come to ask myself the question of whether or not search engines, such as Google and Yahoo, provide unbiased information to consumer search queries. While I have not set up a scientific query per se`, I feel that my experiences prove that search engine results are, for the most part, manipulated content. Content that is not necessarily in the best interests of the consumer and the general public as a whole.

In coordination with my research I have included multiple queries on a business called Metropolitan Who's Who. I have watched in amazement the fluctuations of the search engines' results and content. While it is evident that the internet web-based content concerning Metropolitan Who's Who has not changed drastically, the search engine results continue to fluctuate wildly.

There are many consumers who depend on search engines to give them the information that they need to make a decision on the myriad of products and services that are available to them. However, are the search engines to be a trusted source of support for the general public?

Let's face it, search engines need to make money in order to stay in business, and paid advertisers are what keep them in business. So what happens if you have a paying customer that is not happy with the content that the search engine is providing? Do you "adjust" the content on the search results? According to my oberservations, I believe that is exactly what is happening to the the content that is being provided when I type in "Metropolitan Who's Who".

So are search engine companies obligated to provide fair and unbiased content in their results?

It doesn't look like it to me.

If search engines provide customer driven results, then how is the average consumer going to be armed with information they need?

Consumer Reports provides these helpful hints:

* Just because a site is listed in a search engine's top results doesn't mean it's the best site in its category.


* Neat or attractive site design is not nearly as important as information on a company or organization's physical location, phone number, and e-mail address.


* Articles and information found on a site reference reputable sources, or include author names and credentials.


* There should be dates or other indications that information on a site is regularly updated or reviewed.


* A company or organization should state in its policies whether it takes responsibility for the information found on its site, and any inaccuracies in that information.


* Information that comes with "unbiased" claims should not push you toward a company's products or services to the exclusion of all others.

* It's a good idea to double-check any information you find via a search engine at the library or with an expert in the appropriate field.



While this is all well and good, research has proven that most consumers will not look past the third page of search engine results to find the information that they may need. Information that may be critical to them.

Here is an example of an obscure search engine return on a blog that has been deleted:

September 20, 2006
Advise about Metropolitan Who's Who- ...
... Metropolitan Who's Who has an bad rating with the NY Better Buisness Beuro. I believe a class action law suite needs to be brought against this co...Never give this telemarketer Metrppolitan Who's Who your credit card #. My wife was under the impression they were billing for $7 dollars not $700 ...
144 days ago · 161 words · Metropolitan Who's Who by mdbooker Advise about Metropolitan Who's Who- Never give them your credit card #!!! ( Focus Exclude ) 1 blog links



While critics may declare "consumer beware", how many people honestly believe that they are informed consumers when it comes to a couple of page reviews of search engine results?

Should search engines be held responsible for giving consumers a false sense of security?


Consumer Reports understands that today's average consumer relies heavily on search engines. They even give helpful tips on how to use search engines. However, these tips are not helpful at all when you are dealing with manipulated content.


A 2003 Study conducted by Context-Based Research Group reports these major findings in "Consumer Reaction to Learning the Truth About How Search Engines Work":

Major Findings:

Most participants had little understanding of how search engines retrieve information from the Web or how they rank or prioritize links on a results page.


The majority of participants never clicked beyond the first page of search results as they had blind trust in search engines to present only the best or most accurate unbiased results on the first page. As a result, two-in-five links (or 41%) selected by our participants during the assigned search sessions were paid results.


Once enlightened about pay-for-placement, each participant expressed surprise about this search engine marketing practice. Some had negative, emotional reactions.


All participants said paid search links on search and navigation sites were often too difficult to recognize or find on many sites, and the disclosure information available was clearly written for the advertiser, not the consumer. Search engine sites that were perceived to be less transparent about these related disclosures lost credibility amongst this group of online consumers.



While the United States Federal Trade Commission has developed guidelines for search engine companies to follow concerning disclosure for paid search engine results, Consumer Reports Web Watch complains that search engines aren't getting better, but that they are getting worse. Web Watch has completed several reports concerning this problem with the latest report, Still in Search of Discolure, reporting the following:

WebWatch discovered some engines reviewed in 2004 have gotten worse in their efforts to describe their business relationships with advertisers and how those relationships may or may not affect the objectivity of search content and results.



Until very recently, I had considered myself a fairly savvy internet consumer. However, while watching the search engine returns on the query of "Metropolitan Who's Who" continue to bump said company's blog content and paid "press release" links up in the results, I have to say that maybe I am as ignorant about search engines as anyone could possibly be. It certainly doesn't appear to me that these search engine results are following the guidelines as set forth by the FTC concerning disclosure of paid content and paid for search engine result placement.

Some may argue that I may be a bit upset concerning where my blogposts are landing in the search result returns, this is far from the truth. While I consider my blog to be a hobby, I also pride myself in the fact that I provide useful, educational, as well as intellectual content as well. This fact is proven by the traffic on my blog. I don't necessarily boast of a large and regular readership consisting of bloggers, but of a search driven readership that is looking for information. You can see this from my EOY postings of the most popular posts that I have from search engine hits in 2005 and 2006. Whether you are looking for information concerning bladder stones, renal failure, or bogus e-mails, I truly do hope to provide relevant and accurate information to those who are using the search engines to find it. My standings in the search engine returns is not the purpose of today's post. In fact, my concern here today is that information that may be crucial to the consumer in general is being purposefully hidden by search engines such as Google and Yahoo.

Internet users are beginning to become wary of the world-wide web due to the increasing dangers of identity theft and the like. In fact, it is reported that internet users in general are cutting back on their use of the internet as a whole. According to Consumer Reports Web Watch study from Princeton, almost a third of internet users are cutting back on their web use. In the report, Leap of Faith: Using the Internet Despite the Dangers, interesting findings are revealed:

•* 30 percent say they have reduced their overall use of the Internet.

•* A majority of Internet users (53 percent) say they have stopped giving out personal information on the Internet.

•* 25 percent say they have stopped buying things online.

•* 54 percent of those who shop online report they have become more likely to read a site’s privacy policy or user agreement before buying.

•* 29 percent of those who shop online say they have cut back on how often they buy on the Internet.



If this trend of continues with the internet consumer, how important will it be for internet search engines to provide relevant and important content? Since their sole existence is dependent upon internet users, how will they respond to criticisms concerning their supposedly algorarithmic search returns?

Will the internet, as we know it today, change from a thriving marketplace into a world-wide web of users instead? Will the internet evolve into a user interface medium, consisting mostly of newsgroups, chat rooms, forums, blogs, and a YouTube type of environment?

How will the dot com companies adjust? Or rather, will they adjust?

I find it hard to imagine the internet turning into such a place, but I wonder... With the influx of internet criminals and the increase in internet based crimes, ranging from identity theft to cyber-stalking as well as child abuse, how will these companies respond?

While I continue to monitor the search results on "Metropolitan Who's Who" on various search engines I have to succumb to the realization that paid advertisers are probably what generate most of today's search engine results, not algorithms. Surely my perception is not flawed as I have watched the Better Business Bureau's report on Metropolitan Who's Who, move around from the fairly obscure pages of four through six to complete non-existence as of today. And believe me when I say that I went through every page of results that were returned by Yahoo and Google. Additionally, you should see the returns on Ask.com which is also heavily subsidized by the aforementioned company. With that said, do you not believe that the BBB report is a viable source of information that should be given a fairly high ranking in search engine results?

If you, dear reader, have finally made it to this place in my post, you have certainly come to the realization that I have spent a fairly large amount of my time researching this dilemma. You may be wondering why I have committed myself to such an undertaking. While I have several reasons that I could give, I have to say (publicly) that it is in my nature to "buck" any system, business, or entity that I feel may not be working in the best interests of the public in general. Mostly because I am a living and breathing component of said "general public"; and so are my family and friends. I also get very angry when I feel that I am being "dupped", "scammed", or "cheated" in any way. Are Yahoo and Google treating me this way? Am I asking too much of a public internet company to be fair and honest in their practices? Or is this what the internet is yet to become? An uncontrolled beast that cannot, and will not, follow the rules of generally accepted moral conduct. An entity that is obsessed with making money much in the same manner as Enron, et.al.? A company that will support anyone that is a paid advertiser no matter what?

So a few more questions beg to be answered:

Do search engine companies screen their businesses before they agree to post advertising for them?

Will search engine companies accept advertising dollars from illegal and irreputable entities without discretion?


It appears to me that these possibities are most likely true.


later...


If you are wanting to find out whether a business has been reported to the Better Busines Bureau, you can search for them here. However, be aware that there are many companies that have poor business practices and do not get reported to the BBB.

You can also find good information at Consumer Reports.Org. However, all of their information is not free and is only available via a paid subscription.

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13 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

see http://enginepuller.com

February 11, 2007 10:25 PM  
Blogger Shelly said...

I thought everyone was already aware that search results are manipulated.

I routinely plow through 10-15 pages of search results or more when doing research on anything that matters to me.

Good article, though.

If you have a site counter that gives user stats, you can watch as the various crawlers visit your site. They are usually the ones that come without a regular isp. It's interesting to note how often different crawlers visit your site. The googlebot appears to visit mine more often than any of the other crawlers.

February 12, 2007 4:04 AM  
Blogger It's me, T.J. said...

Anonymous...

Thanks!


Hey Shelly...

I knew that "some" of the content was manipulated to a degree, but I was under the ~assumption~ that paid results were to be clearly marked as advertising as directed by the FTC. I wasn't expecting to see manipulated content in the so-called "white pages", per se`.

Glad you liked the article.

Thanks!

later...

February 12, 2007 6:19 AM  
Blogger Jan said...

You know, as soon as you mentioned it, I thought, "Well, yes, of course it is manipulated," but I must confess I had never thought about it before. I'm generally a skeptic, so it is something I normally would think about, so I'm feeling a bit "taken" now. Thanks for writing about it. It is am important message.

February 12, 2007 8:26 AM  
Blogger It's me, T.J. said...

Hey Jan...

"Taken" is a good word for it.

I think that if the search engine companies want to fill the first three pages of search results with paid advertisers, those pages should be marked as such.

later...

February 12, 2007 10:41 AM  
Blogger Smalltown RN said...

WOW you certainly have done your homework...Like Jan said I have never given it much thought before....I just know that there are times I am so frustrated when I search for something and I get things that vaguely resemble what i am looking for...It gets very frustrating at times....

February 12, 2007 2:16 PM  
Blogger It's me, T.J. said...

I agree.

February 12, 2007 3:17 PM  
Anonymous squirrel said...

Great informative post! This is the exact reason I will go through at least 50 pages of a search if something is really important to me.

February 12, 2007 5:45 PM  
Blogger It's me, T.J. said...

Hey Squirrel...

Thanks for the compliment.

50 pages! Wow!

You see, I feel that the internet is to be a convenience, not a burden. If it ceases to be convenient, safe, fun, and economical, then I feel that there is not a legitimate reason for it to exist.

I can foresee the internet turning into a black market, "bad neighborhood" kind of environment. A place where you wouldn't want to visit, much less "buy a house" and move into the neighborhood.

If internet companies don't take the initiative in these things, the government(s) will. And we all know that we really don't want the government controlling any more things than they already do.

later...

February 12, 2007 6:38 PM  
Blogger Pattie said...

TJ,
Did this post take you days to write? *LOL* I am impressed with your research.
I must confess, I was totally ignorant about search engines being manipulated. Thanks for the insight and the education.

February 13, 2007 11:12 AM  
Blogger It's me, T.J. said...

Hey Pattie...

*laugh* It didn't take me ~days~ to write this.

And sure. You're welcome.

later...

February 13, 2007 3:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi TJ

I caught an article about this on the radio a few months ago - until that time I had not given it any thought and just took the results at face value. The programme pointed out many problems but what remained in my mind was that companies pay to come top of the search results.

Sue

February 14, 2007 11:34 PM  
Blogger It's me, T.J. said...

Hey Sue...

Guess what?

There's a lot more to it than that as well!

I'll see what I can do about writing that up as well.

later...

February 16, 2007 12:05 PM  

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