The Search Engine Trust Borderline

Long BorderlineI have to admit that search engines from a business perspective is a tricky thing. In one hand it suppose to provide the best objective results as possible for the users and in the other hand it also suppose to generate revenue for the company. In many cases those two elements are being conflicted.

We all knew the acceptable status-quo just until recently- Paid (sponsored) results on the top / side / bottom of the search results page when they are marked and indicated as paid while the organic listings, which suppose to provide algorithmic-based objective results only, are in the middle of the page.

But what happens when the search engine companies wants to create other sources of revenue? Or to serve different results more based on the company’s self-interests? Maybe to change this familiar status-quo structure? Where the line is being crossed (if there’s a line at all)?

The DuckDuckGo Case

The main reason why I’m debating this issue now is because of my DuckDuckGo’s affiliate links story from couple of days ago. Just a quick reminder- I discovered that the alternative search engine is using affiliate links to generate commission revenue from eCommerce sites like Amazon, INSIDE the organic results (and disclosing it).

It made me thinking. While this issue is obviously problematic as DuckDuckGo “changed” the unofficial ethical search rules, does it really consider as a “scandal” (therefore my headline “scandal?…”).

After all, DuckDuckGo is a private company that can do whatever it wants legally (we’ll get to that later) and it isn’t making anybody to use its search engine. In fact, the site’s popularity is constantly rising more or less since its launched.

The thing is that even though it is probably doesn’t violating any law, should we simply accept it? What would have happened (or will happen) if other more popular search engines did (or will do) the same.

Ask Danny

In order to inquire this issue furthermore, I have consulted about this matter with probably one of the most authoritative persons in the search industry, Search Engine Land’s Danny Sullivan. I presented him the DuckDuckGo affiliate links story with my thoughts and here’s what he had to say about it:

Google actually did do it, way back in 1999 or so, when it had a deal with RealNames to show some of its links.

I totally get your point. It puts that trust into jeopardy, especially when there’s not a clear delineation between paid and unpaid results. It’s perhaps even a gray area in the FTC’s guidelines that paid listing have to be separate and distinct from unpaid ones.

But the tricky thing is that the listings aren’t necessarily paid, right? Because supposedly, they only surface if the organic algorithm finds them relevant.

In the end, there is that conflict — but like I said, you get that conflict even if there were ads off to the side. It ultimately comes down to if the user decides to trust. But definitely given me something to think about here.

Great insights by Danny. As it turns out Google did partnered with RealNames back in late 1999, on the days where it served only five million daily search queries (now it is serving nearly 12 billion). By that partnership, Google featured some RealNames links on the results where there was a small “RN” indication near those certain results.

Back then when Google didn’t was so popular as today and the whole search industry was still pretty young and unclear, the partnership didn’t created much noise and buzz as you would have expected in today’s state. This deal has ended on mid 2000 when RealNames affiliate Program has ended.

FTC Guidelines

As Danny stated, it appears that from the FTC (U.S. Federal Trade Commission) point of view, the DuckDuckGo’s case is indeed a gray area. In June 2002, the FTC filed several recommendations for search engine companies about paid results:

any paid ranking search results are distinguished from non-paid results with clear and conspicuous disclosures;
the use of paid inclusion is clearly and conspicuously explained and disclosed;
and no affirmative statement is made that might mislead consumers as to the basis on which a search result is generated.

DuckDuckGo has a clear disclosure about how it makes money (although not so easy to find), so it is covered from that angle. However, the affiliate links inside the organic results aren’t distinguished as paid results. The problem is the definition of “paid results”.

DuckDuckGo doesn’t profit directly when users are visiting certain eCommerce sites (like Amazon) through its search engine. It earns commissions ONLY when the visitors are making purchases on these sites. Consequently, it is unclear if the FTC sees it as “paid results”, thus gray area.

Hypocrisy, Trust and Objectivity

I think that what is bothering me the most in the DuckDuckGo story is its hypocrisy. It seems that the company used almost every opportunity it had to slam and trash other search engines for not thinking about the users and only thinking about profits. Now it looks hypocrite.

We should trust search engines to provide us the best objective results as possible without any income stream considerations. With affiliate links inside the ORGANIC results I don’t think it is possible to fully trust ANY search engine.

But trust isn’t directly attached only to profits. What about promoting the company’s own web properties on the search results? Google is clearly doing it with this whole Search Plus Your World fiasco (I personally opted it out by default). Engineers from Facebook and Twitter even launched a tool to show how not objective the results are.

Bing (which also powers Yahoo’s results) also promoting certain search results based on deals with Facebook and Twitter. Is it driven from purely objective purposes? Probably not.

The big question is if the search engine trust borderline has been crossed. With Google’s Search Plus Your World I think it did. With DuckDuckGo’s affiliate links case I think it is so far behind the borderline, so now it just looks like a tiny dot.