Ethical issues on content distribution to digital consumers via paid placement as opposed to website visibility in search engine results

AUTHOR
Melius Weideman

ABSTRACT

The objective of this research project is to investigate and report on the ethical issues surrounding digital content distribution via search engine results. For the purposes of this project, the traditional definition of digital content distribution is widened to include search engine results.

The literature has shown that search engine users have certain expectations about results appearing on the screen after a search has been executed. First and foremost, results should be relevant to the need expressed in the search query. Secondly, users also expect that these results should appear quickly, and be free from bias. Some studies have shown that these expectations are often not met, and that search engine based resource hunting often leads to user frustration.

The large Internet user base has created an increasing potential for financial gain through marketing. Many authors stated that there is strong commercial motivation for ensuring that web pages appear high up in search engine results. However, the recent commercial failures of dotcoms turning into dotgones are still fresh in the memories of those who have suffered as a result of these failures.

At the same time, recent developments in the search engine world have driven marketers to find alternative funding sources. For example, Yahoo disabled redirection of email from their homepage during 2002. It is believed that this was done to force users to view (and possibly respond to) the advertisements on this homepage. Furthermore, many search engines have been part of mergers and takeovers – Google purchasing the Deja newsgroup archives is only one example. One development resulting from these hard times experienced by search engine companies, which requires ethical scrutiny, is that of paid placement. This refers to a customer paying a fee to the search engine company, to ensure that the website involved is guaranteed listings on customers’ screens. An interesting fact emerging at this point was that paid placements were not offered by Google, often considered to be the leading search engine in the Internet world. Paid inclusion is an alternative which only assures the paying client that his website will be included in the database, but not necessarily that it will appear in the listings.

The literature has also shown that a number of questionable methods exist to increase website ranking. These include spamming, cloaking, doorway pages and link farms. Human users and search engine crawlers have different expectations as to the content they would like to see on a website. They also see the same website in different ways. Confusion appears to reign amongst users regarding the difference between paid an unpaid content. In an empirical experiment, a prominent marketing company found that all the participants considered clearly marked paid content as being spam.

In this research project, the methods used were, firstly, to conduct an exhaustive literature survey on the topic. Some technical issues that surfaced during this process include link analysis, URL submission, paid inclusion and metatag usage. Ethical issues that appear to have a bearing include paid placement, the use of link farms, cloaking, keyword stuffing, and the creation of multitudes of doorway pages. A seminal paper has highlighted some of these issues (Introna & Nissenbaum, 2000).

Secondly, the findings of a preliminary set of experiments have left the impression that all is ethically not well in terms of content delivery to the consumer. It seems that unsolicited propaganda could overshadow true and valuable content in some search engine result pages. It is also possible that some website owners are employing technically superior techniques to achieve high rankings in search engine results. As a result, an exhaustive set of empirical experiments is to be executed to determine the current status quo. An attempt will be made to determine whether or not marketers are forcing biased results onto digital consumers.

Two ethical questions are raised at this point: does the digital consumer using a search engine want relevant answers to his/her questions, or does he/she want to see the websites of technically adept/financially strong website owners? Secondly: the average user is not paying for general search engine queries – does he/she have the right to complain about the quality of the answers? This paper sets out to make a detailed inspection of the situation, and report on it.

In conclusion, it is believed that this proposed research project will add value to the world of the digital information consumer, by exposing potential loopholes in the information society in which we are living. The level of commercial competition for web site ranking will probably increase. In final conclusion, it is believed that payment for casual information searching is a development which will decrease user frustration by increasing information quality of Internet web sites.

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