July 23, 2001

Search engines and editorial integrity

Is the jig up for honest search results?

This column appeared July 23, 2001, in the Online Journalism Review. Here’s the version on the OJR site.

By J.D. Lasica

Many of us in the new media industry have watched in despair during the past few months as several major search engines have abandoned all pretense at editorial integrity by adopting deceptive, misleading advertising practices at the expense of their users.

Finally, someone has stood up and said, Enough is enough. And now it’s time for the rest of us to join the battle as well.

Commercial Alert, a 3-year-old consumer organization in Portland, Ore., founded by Ralph Nader, filed a formal complaint with the Federal Trade Commission last week, charging that eight of the major search engines were “inserting advertisements in search engine results without clear and conspicuous disclosure that the ads are ads.”

Many search engines have gone to great lengths to fuzz the line between editorial and commercial listings.

To which I say: Bravo! But also: It’s not enough. Better that the search engines clean up their act on their own by bowing to their users’ wishes rather than bend to government coercion. See below for how you can make your voice heard.

Why should this matter to journalists, researchers and other Net denizens? Because search engines have become indispensable to our online existence as we look for ways to sensibly navigate the Web’s 2 billion pages and 14 billion links. Seven of the 10 most visited Web sites are search engines. And a February survey by the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that Internet users’ top two activities are e-mail and online searches.

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March 12, 1999

Ethics debate: It’s time to move on

Electronic commerce is here to stay – deal with it

This column appeared March 12, 1999, in the Online Journalism Review. Here’s the version on the OJR site.

By J.D. Lasica

The following column is based on remarks made by the author at the Online Journalism Conference held March 10, 1999, in Berkeley, co-sponsored by Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley and the Annenberg School for Communication at USC. Lasica appeared on the panel “Reestablishing Credibility.”

Last year I appeared at this conference as a panelist addressing online ethics, so it was a little ironic that at the time I was employed by Microsoft.

Since that time I’ve taken a job as senior editor at BabyCenter, a Webby Award-winning startup in San Francisco that is a very rare creature: a new media company committed to traditional journalism values. Our 10-person editorial team is committed to providing high-quality news and information about pregnancy, babies, and parenting. I can’t begin to tell you how satisfying it is to come into work each day and read the latest batch of gushing e-mails from readers telling us how much they love us. That didn’t happen every day at Microsoft.

There’s a second component of our site, the BabyCenter Store, which sells maternity clothes, strollers, toddler outfits and the like, and every day we wrestle with issues over the intersection of retail and editorial credibility. So far, we’ve found the right balance. We’ve built a high level of trust, and we won’t do anything to jeopardize that trust. One of the top priorities on our agenda is to draft a company policy on privacy and editorial ethics, and on Sunday I took a first crack at it, and I think it says something about our philosophy that this is starting with a journalist rather than a marketing person or a lawyer.

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