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“Trust or Consequence: How Failure to Disclose Adv Relationships Threatens to Burst the Search Bubble”: Transcript of General Assembly and Welcome

Beau Brendler, Director, Consumer Reports WebWatch

Note: This is an edited transcript of the proceedings. 

Beau Brendler: My name is Beau Brendler, and I’m the director of Consumer Reports WebWatch. That’s our url there. A lot of the things that we’re going to talk about today and the reports and so on you will see there should you want to track back.

This is part of a series. I was thinking when we did this in Dallas a few months ago, with the stage we had, there was a proscenium arch and curtains and things and it was dark when the video was on. And so as I was coming up, it was completely pitch black and I had to thread my way through this thing and I tripped over this enormous fixture and I don’t think anybody heard, because I think it was soundproofed. So here it’s kind of open and I think that’ll help us talk to each other.

So, when we were in Dallas, we were talking about travel, and there are actually a lot of similarities between travel sites and regular search sites. The title of this conference here is, “How Failure to Disclose Ad Relationships Threaten to Burst the Search Bubble.” We wanted to be provocative in that subtitle, and I know that there are many of you here who perhaps don’t necessarily agree with that, and that’s good, because we want to bring that out during the day.

This conference wouldn’t be possible without the great work of a lot of folks, who you’ll have a chance to meet today. Tracy Ziemer, who’s our writer/researcher/editor and site producer of WebWatch, she’s back there. Ariane Orenstein, who handles all kinds of things from logistics to support. Also Jhan Snyder, who’s back there; she’s responsible for everything related to the success of these conferences. Jan Zlotnick, up here on slides, is communications. And Susan Lindner, who you probably ran into in the hallway, helps us get our message out. And how could we forget Jørgen [Wouters], who you’ll hear from a lot today.

And those of you who don’t know too much about us, Consumer Reports WebWatch is part of the Consumer Reports family. I’m sure many of you are familiar with Consumer Reports. We’re funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. The Knight Foundation tends to fund a lot of programs that have a journalistic orientation and, in part because of that, we’re a public education project that functions like a news organization. So when you read press releases from us or when you read reports, please consider that we are doing those in the tradition of objective, Consumer Reports-style journalism.

Our mission is to investigate, inform and improve, be a leader of investigative consumer reporting online. And help Web publishers better reach consumers through objective research. So we do want to educate consumers in our mission, but we also want to do it in such a way that we are talking with people who publish Web sites and who make their living from creating Web sites and make sure that the way that we proceed is realistic.

Some lessons we’ve learned. WebWatch was actually started in 2001; we launched in 2002. Along the way, we’ve done, well, more than a dozen research reports. Some of the things we’ve learned from the research that we’ve done along the way – and these things come from national polls and other types of research – is consumers trust e-commerce sites less than government and large corporations. Consumers understand and want disclosure. They say they want it, they tell us it’s important to them and that it is a factor in trust. Hide things at your own risk. And consumers reward sites they trust with continued patronage.

Those are things that are not meant to be preachy, but it’s meant to let you know that these are the kinds of things we’re finding in detailed research over the years.

How are we communicating these lessons? Well, the conference is part of that today. Consumer Reports WebWatch, which you will hear more about as the day goes on – actually, there are some people here that represent sites who have actually taken that pledge and hopefully we’ll hear from them a bit later – so we recognize the sites that take that pledge. One of the ways that we’ve done that is, I don’t know how many of you saw or remember this ad. It did run in the [San Francisco] Chronicle here. We took out a national ad, a newspaper ad campaign, that listed the names of the sites that took the Consumer Reports WebWatch pledge for more credible Web sites. We are proud to recognize the sites that do that.

And in the course of publishing a list like this, we have worked with Web publishers. It’s not a matter of a Web publisher coming to us, and we look at their site and say, “Well, you know, your site’s just never going to make it, it’s a terrible site.” No, we don’t do that. We work with people, we talk to them, we have discussions with them, and we think about ways that they can improve. Or, in some cases, sites do things such as not put up a privacy policy when they need to. So we remind them or we say, “You know, think about a privacy policy.” So we work with Web publishers as well.

So we will talk more today about the pledge as the day goes on. This is a sample of an ad that we were considering running at one point, but we thought that it was better really to focus on the positive. We were going to run an ad that in essence put down the name of sites that took our pledge and then, on the dark side, put down the names – I guess that’s sort of apropos, the Sith side – we would put names of sites who we contacted who told us to, in essence, get lost. And there actually have been a few of those. We will also talk about that as the day goes on.

So, today’s agenda. You’ll hear from Jørgen on the report that we’re releasing today, which is an update of some research we published in November on disclosure of paid placement and paid inclusion among the top 15 most-trafficked search engines.

And then you’ll hear from Peter Goldschmidt, who has been working with us on a project that we’re launching today – you’ll be able to see the beta site – rating the Web’s top health sites. And when we say “top,” we mean most trafficked. So we looked at the 20 most-trafficked health information sites.

Then we have a keynote, Joel Gurin, from Consumer’s Union. He’s the Executive Vice President of CU, and that’s going to be really good. Then we’ll take a break for lunch; we have some recommendations for restaurants in your folder. Then, after lunch, we’re going to get together for what I think are going to be two really interesting and very interactive panels: One with Jared Spool that will talk about search related issues; and then one with Chuck Bell of Consumers Union, in which we’ll talk about health Web site issues.

Today’s discussions are open mike. There is a gentleman taping today’s proceedings, so we’re going to make transcripts available. And we have mikes. So the proceedings from today will be transcripted, to make a verb out of a noun, and posted on our Web site. They’re open mike, as we said, so you can ask questions at any time, you can interrupt us, you can raise your hand. We want to be very interactive rather than talk at you from podiums, so I’ll step away from that one. And we want to try to talk in real language. So, no B.S.

So, getting back to taking the pledge. I just want this to be kind of a theme for people to think about during the day. We’re here to do more than talk – we’re here to effect change. The pledge is proof of that change. That list of sites – from sites that sell lobsters by overnight mail, to CNN.com, to The New York Times, WebMD, many other sites whom you know. We help make the Web better for consumers and Web publishers. And we name names.

So again, some ideas that we have had for ads in the past that we may riff on and run on the future related to this. Part of being in this arena of sites that take the pledge is that, within the Consumer Reports family of publications and Web sites, there are more than 5 million people who are consumers and they use Web sites. They like to talk and spread the word, good and bad. Five million influential voices buzzing about who is trustworthy and who is not trustworthy.

So it’s easy. In your folder, you will find a pledge sheet. If you have not taken a Consumer Reports WebWatch pledge, we will collect them from you today, and we will get back to you right away about how to move forward.

Speaker: And if you’re consumers, and know of a site that would like us to hook into, they can fill that out that way.

Beau Brendler: Right. With that, I want to turn the stage over to Jørgen, who’s going to talk about the search engine report, available today.