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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