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Still in Search of Disclosure

A Research Report Prepared for Consumer Reports WebWatch by: Jørgen J. Wouters, Consultant

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One year after Consumer Reports WebWatch research demonstrated many of the Web’s most popular search engines fail to provide clear disclosures about how their results are influenced by advertisers, follow-up WebWatch research confirms the industry’s continuing inability to adequately inform consumers about the financial forces at work in online search.

This report builds upon last year’s report, “Searching for Disclosure,”by re-examining the Web’s 15 most-trafficked search engines — which millions of consumers rely upon as gateways for finding information online — almost one full year after they were reviewed by information retrieval experts for the 2004 study. One year is a long time in cyberspace and, unfortunately for consumers, many changes made by search engines have not been for the better.

Once again, Consumer Reports WebWatch used guidelines created by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission as the basis for conducting our follow-up evaluations. 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. Many engines have switched from once vivid disclosure headings and hyperlinks to less visible, muted versions, and some sites have stripped away disclosure links altogether. On the positive side, two of three meta-search engines evaluated — CNET’s Search.com and Web Search — have greatly improved their disclosure practices.

“Still Searching for Disclosure” is WebWatch’s fourth search-engines-related report. In addition to last year’s search engines report, this year’s study builds upon two earlier Consumer Reports WebWatch studies. The first, a 2002 survey of 1,500 U.S. adult Internet users,showed that more than 60 percent of respondents were unaware that search engines accept fees to list some sites more prominently than others in search results. A follow-up study in 2003, “False Oracles: Consumers React to Learning the Truth About How Search Engines Work,” demonstrated a lack of awareness among consumers of the influence of advertising on search results and a negative reaction to the practice.