Chapell & Associates

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Analysis: Paid search results often not worth the click

Computerworld - February 6, 2006
Microsoft Corp. doesn't think much of Secure Computer LLC. It says that the company and its partners have "exploited computer users" and that Secure Computer's antispyware product is of "questionable effectiveness." And yet, more than a week after the lawsuits were filed, Microsoft is still running ads for the company's Spyware Cleaner software on its MSN Web site. Why? Welcome to the murky world of paid search, where the ads that pop up can lead to big money for the search companies -- and big headaches for unsuspecting users.

The Chapell View
For a while, it had seemed that significant controversy regarding search advertising might have quieted down somewhat. Notwithstanding past controversies over pricing models (Chapell & Associates discussed this in September), the search engines appeared to be doing well, rolling out new advertising platforms and having their stock prices soar - especially Google's.

Turns out that many of these problems have not gone away. iMedia's Kevin Ryan has reported that click fraud has "caught the eye of the Securities and Exchange Commission." While it's not clear if this will lead to any action on the SEC's part, it does place click-fraud back into the news cycle.

Now, ComputerWorld reports on a separate problem for search engines - whether or not they should police who can buy paid advertisements on their sites. In a lot of cases, paid search placement is a largely automatic process - advertisers bid on keywords, and placement is determined according to a particular search engine's requirements. The point here is that there may or may not be any one person looking into which companies are buying ads, or whether or not those ads as misleading. Most search engines do have requirements for ads that can be served with their search results, but as stated by a Google spokesman, this means "If we find that ads in our network are leading users directly to Web sites or products that use tactics inconsistent with our Software Principles, we reject these ads." This may be more a matter of weeding out links users have complained about than proactively restricting what can be advertised.

The example used in the Computerworld article is that of a consumer looking for weather information and having clicked on a paid search ad, going to a website that surreptitiously installed un-requested software.

This does sound problematic; more importantly, though, any misleading search ads can lead consumers to avoid clicking on search ads at all - if they can't trust the advertisers, why should they?

For both marketers and search engines, there's an incentive to keep search ads as accurate as possible. While some of this is a matter of individual marketers making sure that their ads are accurate, there's only so much they can do. Even if most large advertisers have this sort of process in place, smaller advertisers may pay little heed to a search engine's requirements. Moreover, we often hear that adware companies need to police their affiliate networks - but shouldn't we then require search engines to do the same? There is a risk here if consumers begin to distrust the accuracy or value of contextual search ads - and one we'd probably all want to avoid.
posted by Isaac on Wednesday, February 08, 2006

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