Group slams search engines for sneaking in ads

Claiming that Internet search engines are increasingly slipping ads into what are supposed to be objective query results, watchdog group Commercial Alert lodged a complaint with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Monday, asking the FTC to investigate eight popular search engines.

The group, founded by consumer activist Ralph Nader and dedicated to reining in commercialism, is rallying against what is known in the industry as "paid inclusion." Paid inclusion allows advertisers to pay to have their ads appear as part of the search algorithm's objective results, which are normally based on relevance, and gives top placement to those who are willing to pay.

Commercial Alert asserts that the search engines are allowing paid inclusion ads without properly warning consumers, which the group claims is deceptive and confusing.

The group filed the complaint against search engines belonging to Alta Vista Co., AOL Time Warner Inc., Ask Jeeves Inc.'s Direct Hit Technologies, iWon Inc., LookSmart Ltd., Microsoft Corp. and Terra Lycos SA..

In the group's formal complaint to the FTC, Commercial Alert Executive Director Gary Ruskin stated that, "These search engines have chosen crass commercialism over editorial integrity," and added that "advertising is creeping into every nook and cranny of our lives and culture."

The practice has only increased since the dot-com crash, which left many companies scrambling to beef up revenue, according to Commercial Alert.

The group is calling for the FTC to investigate the search engines for deceptive advertising practices, comparing the case of paid inclusion with infomercials parading as independent programming.

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