Do search engines tell the truth?

Some online search engines are yielding results that are less than you expect. The most prominent findings may surface not because they're the best fit, but because the subjects wrote the biggest checks to the search engine providers, industry participants acknowledge.

So-called paid inclusion and paid placement are reality in some form at most of the big-name search engines, say many speakers at the Search Engine Strategies conference here recently. The event was sponsored by Internet.com.

It's simply a matter of firms seeking revenue other than banners and other forms of online advertising, say representatives of search engine firms. Under paid inclusion, a Web site pays the engine to "crawl" the site's pages and include them in the index the engine uses to generate its search results. With paid placement, the Web site pays to place links to its pages near the top of relevant search results.

Such practices are widely acknowledged but typically not publicized, conference attendees note.

Disclosure asked

Some search engines are up front about their paid relationships with sites; others are less than forthcoming. For example, GoTo provides along with search results the amount the "found" site paid to have its link placed there. Others, such as Lycos and Google, identify the paid-for listings as "sponsored links" or "featured listings." But at other search sites, it's not always clear to searchers which results appear because a site bought its way in, and which results are the genuine relevance findings of a search engine.

"There haven't been a lot of alarm bells yet" for searchers, says Danny Sullivan, editor of SearchEngineWatch.com, who moderated several conference sessions. While searchers may not mind that they can't distinguish paid results from more impartial findings, Sullivan notes, "It would be nice if search engines and directories added icons to designate paid results."

Consumer advocacy group Commercial Alert has filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission on this topic. The organization, a Ralph Nader watchdog group, wants search engines to clearly mark as advertisements any search results returned as a result of payments.

Getting attention

It's not so easy anymore for Web sites to artificially enhance their ranking in the engines' search results. Google, FAST, AltaVista, and other leading search engines have improved their capability to counteract technological tricks that make for higher placement.

Web designers try all sorts of tricks involving embedded words and phrases, trying to improve their sites' placement in search engine results. But the engines likewise try to thwart attempts to boost rankings higher in searches than their content deserves. Google threatens to remove from its index any sites that repeatedly try to improve their search rankings artificially.

Rather than risk being cut out of a search engine's index, many Web sites are turning to programs like Inktomi's Index Connect, which charges fees to crawl a site on a regular basis and include its pages in the engine's index automatically. Index Connect and similar services offered by other search engines do not guarantee where a site's pages will place in the search results for a given word or phrase, however.

Web developers can still do one more thing (short of opening their wallets) to improve their chances of a high ranking with a search engine. It's simple, as suggested by Shari Thurow, Webmaster for marketing of GrantasticDesigns.com, who spoke on designing search engine-friendly sites.

"Help the search engines do their job," Thurow advises. "Give them a good site!"

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Dennis O'Reilly

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